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"He will never be the abbot. His nose is too big."

His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, about Nicholas Vreeland


Nicholas Vreeland – Abbot of the Rato Dratsang Monastery in Southwest India

A regular day in Rato Dratsang starts shortly after five o’clock in the morning. The community of the old Tibetan monastery which is more than 600 years old starts the day with meditation, prayer and breakfast. More than 100 monks from Tibet, India, Bhutan and Nepal live in the simple buildings in accordance with the teachings of Buddha. The fact that their monastic life is still possible today is, in part, due to Abbot Nicholas Vreeland, the first Western head of a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in India.

His story starts in the early 1980s when the diplomat’s son left his expensive tailor-made shoes on the street and decided to wear simple sandals. The BIRKENSTOCK team visited him and met an extraordinary person.

Nicholas Vreeland

The world of the rich and famous

Born in Switzerland as the son of American diplomat Frederick Vreeland, Nicholas Vreeland lived in Bonn, Berlin, Morocco, Paris and New York. From the outset, Nicholas regarded the world as his home, as his open-minded family always saw itself as part of the culture in which it lived.

Ironed bank notes

His mother Betty was a close friend of Jackie Kennedy, his father Frederick wrote US President John F. Kennedy’s legendary exclamation “Ich bin ein Berliner”. He had a very close relationship with his grandmother Diana Vreeland, influential editor-in-chief of the American Vogue magazine and one of the most iconic personalities in the world of fashion. She worked with renowned photographers such as Irving Penn and counted Coco Chanel and Andy Warhol among her friends. Diana Vreeland was also known for her legendary quality standards: one of her employees ironed her bank notes and even polished the soles of her shoes.

The young Nicholas enjoyed life to the fullest: fast cars, stylish clothes, expensive tailor-made shoes, holiday trips and parties. “I had a good time, pursuing women - the things that one does in one’s early twenties.”

This included his passion for photography. And something special about his passion for photography is that he learned from some of the best photographers of that time – Irving Penn and Richard Avedon.

Nicholas Vreeland

The meaning of life

Soon, however, Nicholas knew that this life did not satisfy or fulfill him. He needed a spiritual goal. In his early twenties, he heard about the scholar Khyongla Rato Rinpoche in the Tibet Center in New York. His simple teachings of selflessness made a lasting impression on Nicholas: “I’ve devoted my life to that search – just because what I was hearing was so very clear and logical. Becoming a monk seemed like the right next step.”

Nicholas Vreeland
Nicholas Vreeland

Are there rabbits with horns?

Joining the monastery at the age of 31 in 1985 meant leaving behind everything worldly. He changed his name, his clothes, his attitude. He learned Tibetan and dedicated his time to studying logic, a specialty of the Rato Monastery. This includes the daily debating in the courtyard – a central philosophical method. Nicholas mentions Buddha’s advice: “Do not accept anything I say, because I said it. Challenge it, test what I say with logic!”

In this context, he shows us an entertaining example in the monastery’s courtyard: two young monks debating whether rabbit horns exist. Their central point of discussion: can something exist simply because it has a name?

Nicholas Vreeland

Rescue of his monastery

Nicholas found his calling in the Rato Monastery. The only remaining connection to his former life is photography. Initially, when he joined the monastery, he put his camera aside. Only little by little did he resume taking photos.

When his monastery was facing major difficulties in 2011, Martine Franck, widow of the legendary Magnum photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson and good friend of his, encouraged him to put together a selection of portraits. She organized international exhibitions which generated considerable sales proceeds of more than 450,000 dollars – the survival of Rato Dratsang was secured.

The Dalai Lama’s instructions

Already years before, his fellow monks had nominated him as abbot, but he was rejected by the Dalai Lama, who, among other things, justified his decision by joking that Vreeland’s nose was too long. Finally, after the third nomination, his Holiness agreed – and expressed the wish that “I introduce my Western ideas into the community and that I bring everything which I learn here to the Western world. And he said, ‘You must be a bridge’,” explains Nicholas.

The perfect monk’s shoe

His connection to the West also becomes evident in his choice of footwear: to this day, he is a committed wearer of Birkenstocks. He found them while he was preparing for entering the monastery and was looking for the best sandals. “I bought a pair of Birkenstocks and they became my monk shoes”, says Nicholas.

“Birkenstocks would not necessarily have been the style of shoe that my grandmother would have approved of. However, she would have approved of the fact that I care for them and polish them.”

Nicholas Vreeland


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