Monk With a Camera, a documentary about Buddhist monk (and grandson of Diana) Nicholas Vreeland, opens November 21 at Lincoln Center. In the spring, Vreeland vacated the small one-bedroom apartment in the West Village that he lived in for the past 15 years while he was also raising money to help expand the Rato Monastery in Southern India, where he has lived on and off since 1985. In 2012, the Dalai Lama appointed him abbot of the monastery; he’s the only Westerner to hold that position. It seemed a perfect time to ask if I could take a first (and last) look at Vreeland’s New York home.
Nicholas Vreeland, seated here on the futon in his former West Village apartment, where he studied, wrote, and served tea to guests and scholars. A Tibetan thangka painting hangs above him. The son of diplomat Frederick Vreeland and grandson of Vogue’s legendary editor Diana Vreeland, Nicky — as he is known to his friends — once lived the life of a jet-setting globe-trotter, apprenticing with both Avedon and Penn while studying photography. But when his cameras were stolen from his apartment in the East Village in 1980, he used the insurance money to support his study of Tibetan Buddhism.
For the past 37 years, Nicky has been studying with his Tibetan teacher, Khyongla Rato Rinpoche. He has learned to read and write in Tibetan and starts each day with his prayers. Pictured here is a prayer book, along with a tiny wrapped Buddha given to him by the Dalai Lama when he was ordained as a Buddhist monk in 1985. The new documentary about his life, Monk With a Camera, from Asphalt Stars Productions, tells the story of Nicky’s journey toward Buddhism as he pulled away from the world of fashion and haute society in which he grew up.
“This room,” Nicky explains, “has heat and air conditioning and is luxurious compared to my 10-by-12 room in the Rato Monastery.” When he arrived at Rato in 1985, there were 12 monks; today there are more than 100 in residence, thanks to the expansion that Nicky was able to build through donations and the proceeds from the sales of his photographs taken in India and while traveling with the Dalai Lama. Here, a Tibetan thangka painting of the Buddha and a framed portrait of the Dalai Lama taken by Nicky. A painting by Beatrice Caracciolo rests on the floor to the left of the fireplace.
Nicky says he used the bookshelves to create an altar with images of the Buddha in traditional brocade robes, in order “to help maintain the thought that there are Buddhas in all directions inspiring us along our spiritual journey through life.” The silver bowls on the bottom shelf were filled with saffron-colored water, and the apple was set out as an offering to the Buddhas above.
John Avedon, a Tibetan Buddhist scholar and author of In Exile From the Land of Snows (the first full account of the Dalai Lama and Tibet since the Chinese conquest), introduced Nicky to his teacher, Rinpoche, in 1977. John gave Nicky his father Richard’s daybed, pictured here, after the photographer’s death. Nicky draped maroon monk’s robes over the cushions and placed it in front of his books and a Tibetan thangka. The painting at the right was given to Vreeland’s mother by his father when he proposed to her. “It is,” he jokes, “a mark of that which then caused me to be conceived.”
Nicky’s bulletin board includes a photograph of the younger brother of the Dalai Lama as a child in front of the Potala Palace, taken by Heinrich Harrer. Also on display is the book An Open Heart, edited by Nicky, based on the Dalai Lama’s 1999 lecture in Central Park to more than 200,000 people. Nicky also took the cover photograph of the Dalai Lama.
The film’s poster features a photograph of Nicky by photographer Adam Bartos. “It feels odd to have a film about me as I pursue a life of inner reflection,” Nicky says, “but I hope it can be of help to others.”