Ira Israel chats with Nicholas Vreeland about the new biographical movie, along with reincarnation, Buddhist philosophy, mindfulness in America, and photography.
“Monk With A Camera” chronicles Nicholas Vreeland’s astonishing journey from privileged playboy to revered monk to acclaimed artist and philanthropist.
Nicholas Vreeland’s grandmother was the legendary Vogue editor, Diana Vreeland, who procured Nicky a plum apprenticeship with photographer Irving Penn when Nicky was 15. Having a father as a diplomat meant that Nicky lived in a rarified world of elite schools and upmarket experiences such as casually riding horses with the king of Morocco.
Which will make it all the more shocking to most viewers that Nicky would renounce such a glamorous life to spend fourteen years in a monastery in India studying Buddhism.
As a gentleman, Nicky Vreeland is regal yet affable; as a monk he is temperate yet often gregarious; and as an artist he is authentic and compassionate
My first question to Nicky was, “If there is no self, then what reincarnates?” This elicited a vivacious parsing of the difference between what Westerners understand as the self or soul and what Buddhists believe is merely continued consciousness.
There was talk in the film about Nicky renouncing Western culture for “a spiritual life.” I was under the impression that the Buddha espoused atheism and that his 8 fold path is a prescription to alleviate the suffering that our minds inadvertently create through clinging and aversion. I was unclear about what is “spiritual” about this; the 8 fold path seems to be primarily psychological. So I asked Nicky, “Can one be spiritual without being a renunciate? Can one be a renunciate without being spiritual?”
Much to my surprise, Nicky responded that renouncing the trappings of material life is considered to be spiritual and that it was not necessary to have a god to be spiritual.
Next I expressed my interest over the apparent paradox that as an artist Nicky’s medium is photography – to capture or freeze instances – while the Buddha taught that every phenomenon is ephemeral and that one should avoid the mind’s “clinging” to anything, even pleasure or beauty (maybe even especially pleasure or beauty). So isn’t it ironic that a monk who spends years practicing non-attachment and deconstructing everything to experience “sunyata,” the essential emptiness of all phenomena, also spends time capturing or freezing beautiful moments? If the root of all suffering is desire and we must struggle against our minds’ desire to crave pleasurable experiences and avert painful experiences, then how can a monk create beautiful things that people might become attached to?
This led to a talk regarding mandalas which I mistook as ceremonies to demonstrate impermanence. Nicky gently corrected me and told me that mandalas were palaces built to house sundry deities.
We segued into a discussion about mindfulness in America and our agreement that Buddhism is not necessarily a religion but rather a way of life that is available to all people. Thus, Jon Kabat-Zinn’s use of the Buddhist tool of mindfulness and the various types of mindfulness meditation is fully supported by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the rest of the Buddhist community.
Whereas many religions proselytize and try to convert people to become members of their religion, Buddhism does not require anything more than taking refuge in our inherent natures to become awakened, taking refuge in the essential order of the universe, and taking refuge in a compassionate community.
I found Nicky Vreeland and the film “Monk With A Camera” to be wildly inspirational and life-affirming. If you are looking for a beautiful, transformational story, then don’t miss it!
Photo: Nicholas Vreeland