Nicky Vreeland…the Monk with a Camera is now in Front of the Camera
A new documentary showcases glimpses into the life of a fashionable Westerner who chose the path less traveled.
Interview by Felicia Tomasko
For those who knew Nicholas Vreeland before he shaved his head, he might have been an unlikely Buddhist monk, much less someone who would become Abbot of a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in India. Grandson of the ever-fashionable Diana Vreeland, editor-in-chief of Vogue Magazine and the son of fashionable diplomats, the young photographer who studied with the noted Irving Penn traveled the world and discovered meditation and the Buddhist path along the way. Monk with A Camera is the feature-length documentary that tells an inspirational story of a journey, a dedication to practice, and the meeting of tradition and the modern world. The film opens in LA December 12. Read LA YOGA’s film review here: Monk With a Camera Film Review
LA YOGA: Your life story has a connection between East and West as well as between tradition and modern practices. What are your thoughts on being an agent of change, as you are called in the film, Monk with A Camera?
Nicky Vreeland: Well, it sounds so grand that I can’t even get my mind around it – I think that we lead our lives as well as we can and the whole idea of an American becoming a Tibetan Buddhist and living in a Tibetan Buddhist community in India and then coming back to the West – all of that contributes to change, to the evolution of our society, and of our communal consciousness. I don’t think that it does so in enormous ways, but in tiny little incremental ways. So yes I suppose that in that sense my path has brought some element of change, not one that is noticeable. It may be identifiable because of my long nose and fair skin in that particular community, but it’s not that I’ve done anything special; I’ve just led my life.
LA YOGA: You speak in the film Monk with A Camera about the idea of bettering yourself for the sake of bettering the world and I feel you bring a sense of excellence to everything you do including how you sought out teachers, so you have commitment to practice in its many forms. What have you found to be the importance of the teachers in your life and what do you feel is the importance of teachers for others who are seekers on the path in any way?
NV: In my life teachers have been extremely important and I have been incredibly fortunate to have found great, qualified teachers – from the riding teacher whom I mentioned in the film, to the wonderful Spanish guitarist who came to live in Morocco when I was a little boy and taught me the guitar – to Irving Penn who assumed the role of teacher in my life and maintained that position in my life through the end of his life, and then of course my teacher, whom I met in 1977 and who remains the most important person in my life, guiding me through my initial studies to become a monk and guiding me today. And of course His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the teachers whom I studied with in the monastery. It is said in the texts that it is essential that we be very careful about entering into the student-teacher relationship – that we scrutinize the teacher to make sure that he or she has the qualifications for assuming the role of teacher in our lives. That is the responsibility of the student. Of course, the teacher must also scrutinize the student. I think that people often leap into that relationship much as they leap into other kinds of relationships – without properly scrutinizing – and that leads to problems because we say that once you’ve established the teacher-student relationship it remains forever. To then say that person is not my teacher anymore is like saying that person is not my mother anymore – your mother remains your mother whether you like it or not. So given the holiness, given the profundity of that relationship, it is essential that both parties be qualified and be clearly conscious of what they’re getting into. Because it is as a result of the quality of that commitment – the quality, the clarity of that commitment – that one can learn from a teacher. And it shouldn’t be something that’s done quickly. It’s said that one should be willing to spend twelve years before entering into a formal teacher-student relationship. And those twelve years are not wasted time, they are years where one comes to recognize the qualities of a person, where one – faith is an important element, has faith in this person – and well, faith should not be blind! On the contrary, faith should be something that arises as a result of our seeing the truth of something. As we scrutinize the truth of or the true validity of, the qualifications of a teacher should appear if the person were truly qualified. I’ll tell you, in my role as monk and abbot now for example at the Tibet Center [there are] those who wish to think of me as their teacher and I say no, no, no! Think of me as a friend, think of me as a trainer along the way, but think of his holiness the Dalai Lama as your teacher, maintain that attitude towards people who are truly qualified to be your teacher, then you won’t have problems. These are people who really practice what they preach, these are people who are 100 percent, or as the accountant of our monastery said, 120 percent committed to immersed in their practices – that’s the kind of person you take to be your teacher. I’m a flawed devotee who’s doing his best but hardly qualified to be a teacher.
LA YOGA: I think this film also shows that you are someone who can be an inspiration. By agreeing to participate in this film, what do you hope to inspire in people?
NV: [laughter] Well I refused to participate in this film! I had no intention of participating in this film! I said no to the filmmakers! And they eventually backed off and they were coming to New York and they said can we at least meet? And I said of course! And when I told my teacher that I was going to meet these people who had asked if they could make a film on me, which I’d of course refused, he said why did you refuse? You should do it! And it was at that point that I did it. And it’s based on that, that I am – it was he who said to come back and promote the film, so I’ve come back to America to promote it. But for myself it’s totally contrary to one’s sort of spiritual pursuit to permit a film to be made about oneself. That being said, the reason he told me to do it was it has the potential to benefit others, and I can see that. Having seen the film and having seen the real respect with which they made the film – respect for my life but also for my teacher and for his Holiness the Dalai Lama, I realized that the film really does have a potential to help, to inspire. And I think that it shows if you do pursue a path which is maybe different from the normal paths of life, that there is benefit, that there is something that can derive from that that has value.
LA YOGA: The way you’re speaking about it now is similar to the way you spokeabout photography in the film.
NV: But you know it’s very tricky – you can’t let it sort of tickle your ego which it so easily can and you can’t let it pull you towards indulging in the pursuit of recognition which it so easily can. There are all sorts of traps that one has to navigate in indulging in something like photography. It’s much easier not to, you know, that just sort of simplifies life, which is why traditionally as a monk you sort of remove all those things. But photography is a vehicle: it has the potential to communicate and can communicate whatever you wish to communicate –something beneficial to something negative. That’s left to the person engaging in it. I do think if we’re talking about creativity now, I don’t try to infuse any kind of virtue in my picture-taking; I think that would be pretentious and self-conscious and would probably not lead to not very good photography. I just do it like sketching orjotting little notes which might come together as a little poetic verse; that’s the intent. But I don’t consciously try to bring an attitude to my taking a picture, on the contrary I find that to lose myself in the process, to simply take the picture – that’s when I get closer to taking good pictures.
LA YOGA: That speaks to what you were just saying: it’s a tricky line to walk and it is that same line of being in the world and not in the world – attachment and non-attachment. How do you practice that on a daily basis?
NV: Attachment is something that you don’t just deal with on a daily basis, you deal with on a moment by moment basis. We have to remain vigilant throughout the day; and that’s practice! It will take many many many lifetimes before we master that and are truly unattached [Laughter].
LA YOGA: The moment by moment practice is an important distinction. And you were encouraged by your teacher to continue to photograph, and then your photographs helped support the monastery.
NV: He never discouraged me from taking photographs …
LA YOGA: I understand!
NV: One of the things a teacher does is help his student make his own decisions; and so to not discourage and not encourage is leaving it to the student. I think it is important that we not be zombies. I think a lot of people desperately try to follow directions or instructions, rather than leading their lives. We are responsible for our actions, for our own lives, and our teachers help us develop our discernment, our ability to judge wisely, in order that we lead our own lives properly.
LA YOGA: The teacher isn’t just someone who tells you what to do but is that guide to that internal compass.
NV: Yes, exactly.
LA YOGA: Do you see photography as a spiritual practice?
NV: No, I wouldn’t say that it is. I think that photography is a particular sort of means of communication, a method of expression that I have truly a profound love for – a passion for – since I was 13, and continue to have, and I don’t understand it. I try not to have it overwhelm me and I try and use it in a constructive way. it has the potential to lead me astray and it has the potential to serve. It is neutral; it’s what do with it that determines whether it has any kind of, in quotes, “spiritual quality.”
LA YOGA: Why did the filmmakers approach you about making the film? What brought them to you?
NV: They were interested in the journey of a westerner to the East who immerses himself in sort of traditional eastern spiritual life. They came across my story; there was an article in an Indian newspaper, I think it was the Calcutta Tribune, at a time I was having a photographic show in New Delhi to raise money to rebuild the monastery and they thought “Here’s one.” [laughter]
LA YOGA: And so here you are in the West, reluctantly promoting the film. When do you hope to go back to the monastery?
NV: The film opens in Los Angeles on the 12th of December and I will be on a plane back to the monastery on the 13th of December. [laughter]
LA YOGA: What keeps you on the path?
NV: You know, the validity of this path is one that reveals itself more and more over years. My faith in the path, as I understand it more, as I understand its validity more, as I understand its depth and its vastness more – my faith in the path only increases. The things that become weaker are my self-discipline; that’s something you have to work on constantly. And as we get older, we get weaker physically and to muster the energy to devote oneself to one’s practice can get more difficult. But in terms of actual attitude toward this path, it only intensifies.
For more information, visit Monk with A Camera website: monkwithacameradoc.com