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December 8, 1999
This Monk Can't Renounce India
Linda Linguvic in New York
Nicholas Vreeland's eyes shine when he speaks about his love of India.
"It's especially beautiful after a monsoon," he says, "when it's lush and green."
Having lived in India for 14 years, helping run the Rato Dratsang monastery in Karnataka, the 45-year-old monk returned to New York in August to arrange the Dalai Lama's historic visit to America.
Vreeland, who was appointed director of the Tibet Center in New York a few months ago, has repeatedly said in interviews that the leap back into the modern world seems more difficult than dealing with the rudiments of a monastery.
But dealing with the rudiments of a high-profile visit came naturally to Vreeland whose calm nature even amidst chaos immediately grabs the attention of visitors. A writer for The New York Times managed to get an interview with Vreeland the day the Dalai Lama was giving a discourse at the Beacon Theater in New York. Vreeland had just about an hour for the interview.
"But it seemed he had the whole week," noted the writer, Randy Kennedy. The monk never looked at his watch; he seemed more concerned for the flustered writer.
"Listen, are you going to be okay?" he asked the writer.
The Dalai Lama's visit was a major success; it attracted more than 250 journalists and photographers from all over the world, and thousands of Americans who were eager to hear the visitor's prescription for happiness and fulfillment in the new millennium. The sermon the Dalai Lama gave at Central Park drew 50,000 people.
"Nicky insisted that everything be professional and state-of-the-art," says his long-time friend Anthony Spina, a lay Buddhist employed as telecommunications analyst for the State of New York.
Perhaps it was Vreeland's background that especially prepared him for this assignment. As the son of an American ambassador and grandson of the famous Vogue magazine fashion editor, Diana Vreeland, young Nicholas was exposed to the diplomatic and high-pressure life early in his life. He was born in Geneva, has lived in Germany, Morocco, Italy, Paris and New York and is fluent in English, Italian, French, Spanish and Tibetan.
Raised as an Episcopalian, Vreeland began embracing Buddhism during his travels in south Asia in 1973. He was going to the NYU film school and working at Richard Avendon's studio then. A friend brought him to the Tibet Center and he started attending classes.
During the 1973 trip, he has said he could not get the 'feel' of the places he visited till he read about the brilliant landscape images taken by foreign and Indian photographers who said the best way to explore India was in slow exposure.
Vreeland returned to India six years later with a wooden view camera, which slows the process of taking pictures. He began to enjoy and understand the landscape and the people.
He was also looking for a spiritual tradition that he could understand and adopt. In 1977, in New York, he met Khyongla Rato Rinpoche, a Tibetan Lama from the Rato Dratsang monastery.
"The teachings of Buddhism focus on the relationship between cause and effect. It teaches you that 'you are the cause of your present state'. It made sense to me and I looked to him for spiritual guidance," Vreeland said in an interview.
In 1979 he made a trip to India and received permission to photograph the Dalai Lama and other lamas. At that time he photographed Kyabje Ling Rinpoche, the elderly teacher of the Dalai Lama.
Vreeland became the Dalai Lama's official photographer when he visited America for the first time in 1979.
Moving close to the Dalai Lama and other monks led Vreeland to contemplate a religious life for himself. It led him to seek an audience with the Tibetan leader when he visited New York in 1984 and ask the question: 'Am I ready to become a monk?'
By next year, he had not only become a monk but had begun living at the Rato Dratsang monastery.
Becoming a Buddhist "was a slow, positive process", he says, "as I gradually recognized my diminishing attachment and preoccupation with worldly affairs".
But he could not really keep away from worldly affairs.
His social and language skills were needed to establish the monastery as a legal entity. Most of the Tibetans spoke no English, and Vreeland had to play the role of translator. He also had to work out a way to provide food and shelter for the more than 60 monks who escaped from Tibet.
Although he was away from the material world of his youth during the 14 years he spent at the monastery, there was little he missed. Once a visitor brought him cheese.
"I'm from Switzerland," Vreeland says. "I love cheese." But he was so involved with the monastery, he forgot he even had the cheese until months later. By then, it had rotted.
There was one item that he did want, however. After his first monsoon in the monastery, he did order a pair of L L Bean rubber moccasins.
In 1993 Vreeland made his first and only trip to Tibet. He traveled with Richard Gere and one other Buddhist monk at the invitation of the Chinese government. It saddened them to see that the traditional Tibet had been so altered by enforced modernization. There are new roads and buildings as well as a submergence of Tibetan culture. Today, six million Tibetans live in Tibet along with seven million Chinese. It is clear that Tibet will never be the same.
After years of study at the monastery, Nicholas Vreeland was awarded the Geshe Degree, one of only three Westerners to ever achieve this honor which is similar to a Doctorate of Divinity. "We're very proud of Nicky," says his brother, Alexander, an executive vice-president at Giorgio Armani who traveled to India with their 72-year old father, a former US ambassador, for the ceremony and found the monastery a wonderful and humble place.
Vreeland wears his maroon robe with a quiet dignity. His head is shaved and his wide round eyes and his long, sharp nose dominate his face. His regal bearing makes him look taller than he is; his bare arms are strong, his movements fluid. He is humble. And yet his humility projects a quality of absolute self- confidence.
Now, in New York, Nicholas Vreeland is putting his lifetime of skills and faith into the Tibet Center. This place, after all, is where it all began for "Nicky, the student" more than 20 years ago. Located at 107 E 31st Street in New York City, it was founded in 1975 by the Khyongla Rato Rinpoche.
The form of Buddhism espoused by Rinpoche supports the quest for a spiritual path, whether it is Buddhist or not. That is why the lectures at the Tibet Center are so eclectic. This season Jewish, Christian, Hindu, Islamic, Shaman and Buddhist teachers have given discourses at the Tibet Center.
Each one of these masters was instructed to discuss his or her path objectively and to take nothing for granted, not even the existence of God. It certainly made for some lively discussions.
Soon, Nicholas Vreeland's stay in New York will come to a close. He yearns for India and hopes to return to it. "India doesn't accommodate you," he says. "You have to learn to accommodate to it." He's been successful in doing that and misses it all -- the people, the food, the atmosphere.
Perhaps his wish will come true and he'll soon return. Or, perhaps, his path will take him elsewhere, where his serene and dynamic personality will create a better world. There's no way to know that now, though. Only time will tell.
For more information about the Tibet Center, visit their web site at http://www.thetibetcenter.org/tc_index.html
Arthur J Pais contributed to this article
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