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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

Even the Dalai Lama Has a Point Man

May 24, 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

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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