When I selected “Monk With a Camera” documentary as my weeknight Netflix session based on my interest in Buddhism, little did I know that I would learn the fascinating story about Diana Vreeland’s dandy grandson turned Tibetan Buddhist monk Nicholas Vreeland.
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A son of a diplomat, Mr. Vreeland grew up in Switzerland, Germany, France, Italy and Morocco before returning to the U.S. at the age of 13. Surrounded by creative genius early on (not only his legendary fashion editor grandmother, but also her social circle–such as the iconic Cecil Beaton who took casual Vreeland family photos), Vreeland chose a career in photography and worked with Irving Penn and Richard Avedon.
Back then, he was knowns as a “a very committed dandy.” “I was always taught to have a handkerchief in the pocket of my jacket,” says Vreeland in Monk With a Camera. “My father taught me that; I’m sure his father taught him. Whether or not anyone saw it didn’t matter.”
In 1984, Vreeland left New York to join the Rato Monastery in the Tibetan Settlement of Mundgod in southern India, where he is now the abbot. His Holiness the Dalai Lama appointed Vreeland, making him the first Westerner to hold such a position in over 2,800 years.
“When I announced I was going to become a monk, my father asked, ‘Why do you need to become a monk? Why can’t you just study Buddhism and devote yourself to help the world by means of photography or writing?’” Vreeland recalls. “But a monk renounces worldly life to devote himself or herself to a spiritual life that can remain focused on the pursuit of wisdom.”
“Being of benefit to others does not require that you be a monk.”
How did he get into it?
After reading an article about meditation on a road trip through South America, Vreeland began to practice; by the time he returned to the States he was looking for a teacher. “Was I unhappy? No more unhappy than anyone else,” he recalls in the film. “I had a belief that there was something beyond material satisfaction.”
For the next 14 years, Vreeland stayed largely within the walls of the monastery, studying Buddhism and getting to know his fellow monks.
The one thing that Vreeland never gave up when it comes to pleasures of the material world is a great camera and his love for photography. But it’s not just for the purpose of personal pleasure: in 2008, a traveling display of his photographs managed to pay for the construction of a monastery.
“Being of benefit to others does not require that you be a monk,” he says. “[And] becoming a monk or a nun should never be a cop-out. It should never be removing yourself from the ultimate spiritual goal that is to be of benefit to others.”