Agent of Change: Nicholas Vreeland

Nicholas Vreeland, whose photographs will appear this month in an exhibition at the Ann Norton Sculpture Gardens, talks candidly about monastic life, artistic expression and his famously privileged upbringing.


Photography by Nicholas Vreeland

   The waiter at the Waverly Diner has just finished pouring coffee when a man with a shaven head wearing floor-length oxblood robes walks in and sits down at a table by the window. Though the man’s presence is in stark contrast to all other patrons having breakfast, no one gives him a second glance. This is New York, after all.

Dagyab, Tibet The custom of hanging prayer flags that flutter in the wind may predate Buddhism in Tibet.

Prayer Flags, Dagyab, Tibet
The custom of hanging prayer flags that flutter in the wind may predate Buddhism in Tibet.    

   The difference between this man and the Waverly breakfast crowd isn’t only in the way he’s dressed. He radiates the self-possession of someone who has a deep understanding of the world he inhabits, yet is detached from it.

   When asked if he always wears the robes of the Tibetan Buddhist monk, he replies: “Always. It reminds me of who I am. It reminds you of who I am. That’s important.”

Nicholas Vreeland with a tea merchant in New Delhi, India

Nicholas Vreeland with a tea merchant in New Delhi, India

   Who he is is a rather complicated matter. Sixty years ago, he was born Nicholas Vreeland in Geneva, Switzerland, the son of American diplomat Frederick “Frecky” and Elizabeth Vreeland. He traveled the world with his aristocrat parents, living in places like Morocco and Germany, before attending the Groton School, a boarding school in Massachusetts whose alumni include Franklin D. Roosevelt and J.P. Morgan Jr.

Nicholas Vreeland: Return to the Roof of the World

Nicholas Vreeland’s black-and-white photography documenting a two-month horseback journey to Tibet with his teacher, Khyongla Rato Rinpoche, will be the subject of an exhibition from April 8 to May 31 at the Ann Norton Sculpture Gardens in West Palm Beach. Vreeland will attend the opening reception April 8. Monk With a Camera will be shown as part of the exhibition. (561-832-5238,

   In his youth, Vreeland—Nicky to his friends—was known as a “dandy” for his penchant for dressing in designer clothes and expensive shoes—an influence, no doubt, of his paternal grandmother, former Vogue editor Diana Vreeland. It was she who also helped him pursue his passion for photography, which was evident during his prep-school years.

Inner Sanctum, Reting Monastery, Tibet - Nichlas Vreeland

Inner Sanctum, Reting Monastery, Tibet
A young monk pulls aside the iron curtain to welcome Vreeland and his teacher, Khyongla Rato Rinpoche, to the inner sanctum of Reting’s temple, where ancient images are kept.

   “She introduced me to [photographers] Richard Avedon and Irving Penn,” Vreeland recalls. “Penn kindly invited me to work for him on the summer I turned 15. It was a wonderful mentorship that continued to the end of his life. I follow his instructions even today.”

   One would logically assume Vreeland, like other members of his family, was on a fast track for a life of privilege and influence. But a funny thing happened on the way to the country club. In the early 1970s, he visited his godfather, a young Indian diplomat, in Sikkim and spent a month traveling around Nepal and Bhutan. He was so fascinated by the experience that a few years later, he began studying with Khyongla Rato Rinpoche, a reincarnate lama, at The Tibet Center in New York City.

   “I was a photographer but not very successful, so I had lots of time,” Vreeland says. “Rinpoche began dictating to me a book about the stages on the path to enlightenment.”

   That immersion into Tibetan Buddhism changed Vreeland’s life forever. For the first time, he found meaning in the noise, a satisfying simplicity beyond anything he’d known in his well-heeled upbringing. It was the first step along a spiritual path he follows to this day.

Riding Toward Wato, Dagyab, Tibet - Nicholas Vreeland

Riding Toward Wato, Dagyab, Tibet
Khyongla Rinpoche is led to his monastery, Wato, by a group of dignitaries from the town of Gonsar. They rode for a day to greet the spiritual master.

   “To be sitting here,” says Vreeland, who became a Tibetan Buddhist monk in 1985 and later was named director of The Tibet Center, “to maintain my friendships with my old friends while participating in a monastic community … I find it extraordinary.”

   “Participating in a monastic community” is perhaps an understatement. Today, Vreeland serves as abbot of Rato Dratsang, the monastery in Karnataka, India where he began studying 30 years ago. He was appointed in 2012 by the Dalai Lama himself, who gave him a special directive: to bridge the gap between Tibetan tradition and the Western world. It was the first time a Western man had taken the helm of a traditional Tibetan Buddhist monastery.

The Dalai Lama, Rato Monastery, India - Nicholas Vreeland

The Dalai Lama, Rato Monastery, India
His Holiness posed for Vreeland against a wall outside of Rato Monastery, where Vreeland serves as abbot. Though now iconic, it wasn’t an easy image to capture, particularly because the photographer was using a large format camera. “After [sitting for] a few frames, His Holiness asked whether I had my picture,” Vreeland says. “I asked if I could take a few more. He said, ‘We must content ourselves with what we have,’ and left.”

   The Dalai Lama may have issued a tall order, but its execution came naturally to his appointee. “I bring my American training and ideas to the role,” says Vreeland, who also has a website and a Facebook page. “That in itself is a bridge. When I introduce concepts of administration, accounting and legal procedures that to me are self-evident, I am bringing modern concepts to Rato to make it a properly run institution.”

Leaving Wato, Dagyab, Tibet - Nicholas Vreeland

Leaving Wato, Dagyab, Tibet
A procession of horsemen leads Khyongla Rato Rinpoche down the mountain following his return to his monastery.

   The Dalai Lama is enthusiastic about such progress. “His Holiness is insisting science be taught in the monasteries,” Vreeland says. “We have to learn about how things truly exist, not simply follow our texts. The Buddha was teaching people how to remove suffering and work on themselves, but he did it within the context of science at the time. We have to adapt to today’s knowledge.”

   Though he holds a venerable post, Vreeland—known in the monastic community as Khen Rinpoche—is the first to admit he is imperfect. His passion for photography, which he has indulged since age 13, remains an attachment, a notion contrary to Buddhist doctrine. “If someone came along and smashed a camera of mine on the floor, I would be upset,” he says. “If someone bumped his own camera, I would be far less upset. I think that’s a sign [of attachment].”

   No one said the path would be easy. “You have to work at recognizing that being content with what you have is the secret to happiness,” he says. “What’s more important [than shedding attachment] is to diminish our selfish tendencies and become more concerned with others, more ethical in our behavior.”

   So does the abbot still take pictures? Indeed he does. “It has kept me happy and has been of benefit,” he says.

Pyramid Mountain, Outside Lhasa, Tibet

Pyramid Mountain, Outside Lhasa, Tibet
On the drive from Lhasa to Reting Monastery, Vreeland felt compelled to photograph this “extraordinarily shaped mountain.”

   He speaks specifically of a fundraising initiative in 2011, when he raised money to construct a new campus at Rato. He rounded up some of his best photos, enlisted his considerable network in the West (a Vreeland in monk’s robes is still a Vreeland) and made $400,000 worth of sales.

   The event, and much else from Vreeland’s life, including his investiture and enthronement, is detailed in the 2014 documentary Monk With a Camera: The Life and Journey of Nicholas Vreeland. The film explores the obvious conflict of straddling radically opposite worlds: West and East, privilege and asceticism, possession and detachment, artistic validation and spiritual devotion.

Juniper Smoke, Wato Monastery, Dagyab - Nicholas Vreeland

Juniper Smoke, Wato Monastery, Dagyab
Senior monks at Wato await their lama, who is returning after 50 years. Juniper is burned for the occasion.

   Vreeland, with his authentically peaceful demeanor, takes it all in stride. “If the story of a Western Buddhist who becomes a monk and who leads a life that’s this odd combination of monastic vocation and artistic interests can inspire people, how wonderful.”

pilgrim - Lhasa, Tibet

Pilgrim, Lhasa, Tibet
This nomad has traveled from afar to Tibet’s most holy temple, the Jokang, to receive the blessings of Jowo Rinpoche, the revered statue of Buddha.

Buddhist Texts, Gyuto Monastery, Lhasa, Tibet

Buddhist Texts, Gyuto Monastery, Lhasa, Tibet
Prayers, a rosary and spectacles create a spiritual still life at the seat of Gyuto’s administrator.

Circumambulation, Labrang Tashi Kyil, Amdo, Tibet

Circumambulation, Labrang Tashi Kyil, Amdo, Tibet
Two elder monks circumambulate the main temple of Tashi Kyil monastery, one of the world’s great centers of Buddhist learning.


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