Of monastic moments


spiritual Vreeland (right) with Rato Khyongla Rinpoche. Image courtesy: Nicholas Vreeland/Tasveer

Son of American diplomat Frederick Vreeland (b.1927) and grandson of fashion icon Diana Vreeland (1903– 1989), he studied at the New York University Film School and worked for legendary photographers Irving Penn (1917 – 2009) and Richard Avedon (1923 – 2004). Today, Vreeland is a Buddhist monk and an accomplished photographer having had exhibits in Europe, United States and Asia.

Interestingly, it was Avedon’s son John and daughter-in-law Elizabeth who introduced Vreeland to the Tibet Centre in New York. One thing led to another and Vreeland became a full-time monk in 1985. “I was in my early 20s when I began studying Buddhism with my teacher, Khyongla Rato Rinpoche, a Tibetan lama living in New York,” recalls Vreeland. “After about four years of study, it became clear to me that to devote myself totally to my spiritual practice would be the most valuable way of making use of this life. Given that recognition, it wasn’t very difficult to decide to actually commit myself to that spiritual practice.”

Vreeland, who gained the Ser Tri Geshe Degree (Doctorate of Divinity) in 1998 — one of the few Westerners to achieve the distinction — pursues his twin interests — Buddhism and photography — with equal vigour. “My whole Buddhist career was helped by photography,” revealed Vreeland in an interview with The New York Times.

Vreeland first visited India in 1973 (when he was 18) and returned in 1979, spending time in Dharamsala. When he got the opportunity to meet and photograph the Dalai Lama, he was overwhelmed by the latter’s down-to-earth demeanor. The Dalai Lama advised him to seriously pursue Buddhism and that changed the course of his life. “Becoming a Buddhist monk is a slow, positive process,” says Vreeland who is fluent in many languages including Tibetan, Italian, French, Spanish, English, German, and Hindi.

In August of 1999, the Dalai Lama visited New York city at the invitation of the Tibet Center and the Gere Foundation, and delivered a series of lectures on the nature and practice of compassion. These sessions attracted thousands of listeners. In 2001, Vreeland edited An Open Heart: Practicing Compassion in Everyday Life, capturing the spirit and essence of the Dalai Lama’s lectures; the book became a New York best seller. Vreeland’s portrait of the Dalai Lama fluttered as a billboard in New York when the latter visited the US in 2003.

Vreeland, who shuttles between New York and the Rato Dratsang Monastery in Karnataka, believes that life is highly transient, and it doesn’t take much to recognise that a preoccupation with worldly matters doesn’t lead to any kind of permanent happiness. For him, the best thing is to try being more thoughtful of others. “Smile at someone, be pleasant, helpful, generous, actually do something the way someone else would like it done,” he says. Vreeland does not hide his craving for cheese, chocolate and ice cream, but is not sure whether to consider himself a spiritual photographer. “I would say that I love taking photographs, and that I bring to my pictures something of who I am. I feel myself to be a pretty normal person; and what I bring is a pretty normal sensitivity.”

‘Photos for Rato’ presents a collection of photographs shot over 26 years by Vreeland. The images provide an insider’s view of the monastic life with pictures of monks playing, praying, teaching, memorising spiritual verses, cooking, eating and cleaning the wheels of Dharma. Besides, there are two striking photographs snapped in typical Avedon style — one of the Dalai Lama and the other, of Tenzin Drakpa, a very young monk.

The show is on at Sua House, Kasturba Road, Bangalore, till October 12. The entire sale proceeds of the exhibition will be donated to the Rato Dratsang Monastery.

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