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"For a happier, more stable and civilized future, each of us must develop a sincere, warm-hearted feeling of brotherhood and sisterhood."

Even the Dalai Lama Has a Point Man

May 23, 2010

By LIZETTE ALVAREZ, New York Times, May 19, 2010

IMAGINE a boarding-school-educated young man, fluent in several
languages and gifted with a camera, telling his beloved grandmother that
he was becoming a Tibetan Buddhist monk.

Never an easy tête-à-tête. Now imagine the young man?s grandmother is
Diana Vreeland, the iconic fashion editor who embraced artifice and
luxury in equal measure until her death in 1989.

?I remember shaving my head for the first time,? said Nicholas Vreeland,
who, as director of the Tibet Center in New York, has spent much of the
last year making arrangements for the Dalai Lama?s four-day visit to
Radio City Music Hall, which begins May 20.

?This was long before people shaved their heads,? he went on. ?I was
living with her in her apartment at the time and she was in New Mexico.
I called her and told her. And she said, ?Oh, Nicky. How could you have
done that to me?? And I said, ?I didn?t do it to you. I did it to me.? ?

This was 1979, when Mr. Vreeland was first exploring Buddhism. He left
for Mexico for a month, without seeing Mrs. Vreeland, and on the way
back to her breathtakingly red Park Avenue apartment, he prepared an
ultimatum of sorts for ?Nonina,? as he called her. Stepping through the
door with his buzz cut, Mr. Vreeland braced for the worst. But his
grandmother looked at him and said, ?It?s not so bad.?

?Years later, towards the end of her life, I told her how amazed I had
been about the way she handled that, and she said, ?I tried,? ? Mr.
Vreeland, 56, recalled in an interview last week. He was seated in his
garnet-colored monk?s robes on the floor of his West Village studio with
a mug of tea and a plate of what he calls ?high octane? chocolate. ?She
was totally supportive of me, and the me she was supportive of was not
always the me she wanted. She wanted me to be a successful, rich,
ambitious person leading a grand, glitzy life.?

Mr. Vreeland?s life is certainly not grand or glitzy, but for those
devoted to Buddhism and the Dalai Lama it is enviable. He lives half the
year here, and half in a monastery in Karnataka, India. He has helped
organize four of the Dalai Lama?s previous visits to New York, starting
in 1991, working with the Tibet Center and Healing the Divide, a
nonprofit organization founded by Richard Gere.

But it is the Dalai Lama?s series of talks at Radio City Music Hall that
fall into Mr. Vreeland?s in-box, requiring so much dexterity that he was
thrown into the clutches of an iPhone and e-mail over the years.

In 1991, the Dalai Lama arrived in New York City with only a handful of
assistants. Today he travels with a swirl of security officers, and Mr.
Vreeland has had to iron out logistics large and small.

No detail is too frivolous. Mr. Vreeland stopped in at ABC Carpet and
Home recently to choose an armchair for the Dalai Lama to sit in on the
stage of Radio City; he likes to sit cross-legged. ?I went through the
whole collection of sofas and chairs to choose the appropriate chair for
His Holiness,? Mr. Vreeland said, adding that the chair will be on loan.

At Radio City Music Hall, the Dalai Lama will speak for the first three
days about two Buddhist texts that teach the concept of emptiness and
the way to enlightenment. For this, he will sit on his Tibetan throne.
On the fourth day, he will hold a public talk about how to lead a life
of happiness. (That?s when the chair will be put to use.)

The crowd undoubtedly will veer from robe-sporting Buddhists to
Fendi-carrying, Louboutin-wearing devotees, the two groups holding two
things in common: a passion for Buddhism and their trim waistlines.

Mr. Vreeland has bridged both those worlds. The path of a would-be
Tibetan Buddhist monk does not typically meander through Diana
Vreeland?s apartment, Irving Penn?s photo studio and the dorms of the
Groton School in Massachusetts. But in the case of Mr. Vreeland, the son
of a diplomat who has also lived in Geneva, Berlin, Paris and Morocco,
the trajectory was natural.

Mr. Vreeland first befriended a camera, an old Leica, to fend off
loneliness in boarding school. Summer vacations he worked ? courtesy of
his grandmother ? as a lowly assistant to Mr. Penn. He later worked for
Richard Avedon. The camera and his travels led him to Buddhism ? Mr.
Avedon?s son first brought him to the Tibet Center ? then on to the
Dalai Lama, whom he has photographed over the years, and the Rato
Dratsang monastery, where he lived full time until recently. Mr.
Vreeland also edited ?An Open Heart,? a best-selling book based on some
of the Dalai Lama?s lectures.

But it took the theft of his cameras to draw him even closer to
Buddhism. One evening in 1980, Mr. Vreeland returned to his Alphabet
City apartment and found most of his equipment gone ? an unwanted
divestment of material possessions. The insurance money, though, allowed
him to study Buddhism full time.

?So my whole Buddhist career was helped along by photography,? Mr.
Vreeland said.

More recently, the sale of his photographs of India have helped finance
the Rato monastery?s expansion. (Mr. Vreeland?s photographs can be
purchased online at ratodratsangfoundation.org.)

These two sides of Mr. Vreeland?s life are laid out in his Village
apartment. Buddhist texts wrapped in bright orange cloth press against
photography books by Henri Cartier-Bresson and Mr. Penn. Richard
Avedon?s maroon couch rests near Mr. Vreeland?s prayer beads and his
offering bowls.

THE first time he met the Dalai Lama, Mr. Vreeland was 25, and it was
through the lens of a camera requiring a one-minute exposure. The Dalai
Lama sat on a swivel chair. He kept swiveling before the minute was up.
Soon, ?His Holiness burst into laughter, relieving all the tension,? Mr.
Vreeland said. ?I asked him to stand, and it was a much better photograph.?

Mr. Vreeland was struck by the Dalai Lama?s lack of pretense. ?I didn?t
expect His Holiness to have that down-to-earth quality,? he said. ?I
understand that more and more: holiness and practicality are not
separate. When something is down to earth, it means something is relevant.?

Post-9/11 tensions have provided Mr. Vreeland ample opportunity to
practice humility and compassion. In his robes, he is a stand-out in a
crowd. He was once in South Orange, N.J., taking photographs of trees,
and soon three police cars swooped in. Mr. Vreeland said he allayed
their suspicions, but a few days later he was taken off a New Jersey
Transit train and questioned again by officers from the same town.

?Those kinds of experiences are sort of good,? he said. ?People who
cause you difficulties, you should think of them as very, very valuable
teachers because they provide us with the opportunity to develop patience.?

Of the many cities he has known, New York holds a special place. ?It has
a blatancy that is really refreshing,? he said. ?The great cities of
Europe are beautiful but they lack that vitality, the totally raw,
contemporary relevance that New York has.?

This is the very reason the city met its match in his grandmother. Her
boldness, her capacity for reinvention, even her infatuation with the
unsubtle color red, perfectly evoked the city?s sensibilities. Not so
unlike her grandson who sits boldly, with striking elegance, on the
floor of his apartment in a simple dark red robe, embracing change at
every opportunity.
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