Michel Martin: if you wanted to predict just who the Dalai Lama might select to lead one of the faith’s most important monasteries, you probably wouldn’t think about a boarding school educated, globe-trotting New York photographer whose grandmother was one of the most celebrated fashionistas of her time, but that’s just who the Dalai Lama did select, saying his, quote, “special duty is to bridge Tibetan tradition and the Western world,” unquote.
Nicholas Vreeland is the new abbot of the Rato Monastery in India and he joins us from there now. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.
NICHOLAS VREELAND: Thank you. It’s an honor to be here.
MARTIN: Now, in my introduction I made it sound as if you’re some sort of fish out of water, but when I think about it, probably not. You were born in Switzerland, lived in Germany and Morocco and New York. Your father was a diplomat. Your mother was a poet, and fashionistas will certainly know that your late grandmother was the longtime editor of Vogue magazine.
So I wanted to ask if, in a way, all this was preparation for your life now.
VREELAND: Well, I don’t know that it was preparation. I suppose that living in a lot of countries prepared me for living in a Tibetan refugee settlement where the monastery that I belong to was reestablished, but I’ve been here now – I’ve been a member of this monastery for over 27 years, and so it’s sort of home.
MARTIN: How did you first learn about Buddhism? And if you can describe it, what do you think it was that appealed to you?
VREELAND: I was in a French school in Germany and I began reading Tintin books when I was about six or seven, so Tintin and Tibet was my first introduction to Tibetan culture, to Tibetan Buddhism. Then I went to – I should say I came to India in 1972 to visit my godfather, who was the political officer in a little then country, now part of India, called Sikkim. It was a Tibetan culture that Sikkim had with Tibetan Buddhism as their religion. That was my introduction.
MARTIN: What is it that you think appealed to you, if you can even describe it?
VREELAND: It puts the responsibility for where you are on your shoulders. We, by our past actions, determine where we are today. How wealthy I am, how healthy I am, the opportunities that I have – all of those things are determined by my own past virtuous or non-virtuous actions.
MARTIN: Can you remember when you decided to become a monk? And I am assuming that that’s kind of a complex process and decision, but to the degree that you can, can you tell us why you think you chose this path?
VREELAND: I was working as the picture editor for the Vanity Fair that was being reestablished. We were working on the dummy issue and I was studying with my teacher, a Tibetan Lama in New York, and my mother had been discovered to have cancer, and all these different influences made me realize that to devote my life to a spiritual path was the most valuable thing I could do.
MARTIN: If you’re just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We’re have a Faith Matters conversation with the venerable abbot Nicholas Vreeland. He is abbot of one of the most important monasteries in Tibetan Buddhism, the Rato Monastery in Southern India, and he’s telling us about his journey to that place.
And you know I want to ask you your family reacted when you told them that you were becoming a monk. I can imagine that Diana Vreeland, who was so committed to style and fashion, was not as enthusiastic as one might think about your shaving your head and committing to a life of saffron and red robes.
VREELAND: No. She wasn’t very enthusiastic, but she understood it. She had seen me become more serious about my study of Buddhism, my practice of Buddhism. We were very close. The years before I came here to become a monk, I spent a few of those years actually living with her. My parents were both very supportive and understanding and have remained supportive, as has my brother.
MARTIN: Now, could you tell us about how you reacted when his holiness, the Dalai Lama, selected you to become the abbot of this important place in Tibetan Buddhism? How do you – how did you react to that?
VREELAND: Well, it was really a surprise. I must say that I’m sitting in the abbot’s chambers in the monastery here in the south of India. I helped design and rebuild the campus of the monastery recently and never would I have imagined that I would be inhabiting these quarters. I mean, it’s just – I might have designed it rather differently had I thought that I would end up here. It came as a big surprise.
MARTIN: Could you tell us about the ceremony when you were officially enthroned?
VREELAND: Initial ceremony was the investiture, which took place in California, actually. His holiness, the Dalai Lama, proclaimed me the abbot and I made three prostrations and made an offering to him and he then offered me a scarf and said congratulations to the new abbot of Rato Monastery and then advised me on just what he wished me to do.
I then came to India to assume my position. It was a sort of formal procedure. Early in the morning, at 5:00, I was led from my room in the monastery to the abbot’s chambers and I was told to sit on the throne and then the administrators made three prostrations before me and made symbolic offerings. And then, after prayers were said in my room, I was led to the temple and there in the temple were all the monks of Rato seated and they all bowed when I came in and I made my three prostrations to the throne of his holiness, the Dalai Lama, and assumed my position on the throne of the abbot.
And then each of the monks in the monastery came and offered me a symbolic white scarf, which is a sort of Tibetan way of showing one’s respect. And that was it. I was the abbot.
MARTIN: And there it is. As we mentioned earlier, the Dalai Lama, his holiness, said that he felt that your mission is to unite the two or to be a bridge between the traditions and the Western world, so I hope that we will speak again, that maybe we could be part of that, you know, bridge.
But before we let you go, I wanted to mention that you’ve been the director of the Tibet Center in New York for some time now, and so I envision that you’d be going back and forth. What else do you think it means to be that bridge? Do you have any sense of how else you envision that role?
VREELAND: What I can bring as a Westerner, as someone born, raised and educated in the West, to this very, very traditional, ancient world – Tibet was a country that was totally closed off to the rest of the world until 1959 and the monastic traditions helped maintain a curriculum which was extraordinary – which is extraordinary, and I wouldn’t want to, in any way, tamper with that.
However, it is necessary that we bring modern day procedures to this society, so that’s one part of my responsibility. The other is helping to bring my knowledge and experience of this world, this Tibetan world, to the West as a Westerner.
But ultimately all I can really do is be myself wherever I am, and my self is a Tibetan Buddhist monk. My self is an American. And so wherever I go, just being myself as best I can is the way in which I might be actually bridging these two worlds.
MARTIN: The venerable Nicholas Vreeland is the abbot of the Rato Monastery. It’s in Southern India. He’s also the director of the Tibet Center in New York, but we were able to reach him in India.