What is the Point of “Monk With a Camera” Telling Vreeland’s Story?

One could see Monk With a Camera (2014) as nothing but an ego-mentary about a guy who claims he’s living a life of servitude and duty but appears to be doing the opposite. He’s a celebrity. He spends far more of the film’s time outside of monastic settings and in cities and towns. We see him throw coins in street beggars’ cups and buy a hobo a sandwich, but that doesn’t make someone a monk. He’s in a film, after all, talking about all the cool stuff he’s done.

In fact, the New York Times said “While the movie leaves little doubt that Mr. Vreeland’s work is heartfelt, it also gives off an air of designer tourism, inviting us to gawp at the disjunction between the subject and his surroundings… This superficial movie plays like a fashion shoot with robes.”

But other reviews have approached the film through the lens the filmmakers seem to have intended - as the Village Voice puts it, Monk With a Camera is “an attempt to examine the paradox between fame and humility.”

That is the most apparent purpose behind telling this story.

“Nicky’s photography is meditation; while living at a monastery in India, he creates spare studies of his room, his desk — and the sale of those simple photos allows the monastery an unusual, financial transcendence. Because of Nicky’s powerful connections, the monks can build otherwise unaffordable living quarters. Is photography an appropriate pursuit for a monk? Can a white man with so opulent a background honor a true Buddhist ethos in the West? Monk With a Camera hints at answers, but imposes nothing. Like a good photograph, or a wise abbot, it only presents the evidence and allows us to arrive at truth.”

The documentary notes that Vreeland’s rising path through Buddhism is entirely his own. His journey is a far cry from anyone else’s footsteps. For a Buddhist monk, there’s a controversial nature behind Vreeland’s actions and the man himself, but Buddhism has embraced Vreeland. He’s used an unconventional path and methods to inspire real change, and Buddhism is ready to open itself up to new possibilities.

After all, when the Dalai Lama appointed Vreeland abbot of Rato Dratsang, he said his “special duty (is) to bridge Tibetan tradition and (the) Western world.”

Like any other institution, nothing is perfect. The film, at the very least, expresses that Tibetan Buddhism is no exception. It’s an association of humans, and they have faults and inconsistencies. Sometimes those faults end up promoting goodness.

That said, one can see how it’s possible to side with The New York times on the film, particularly from a skeptical point of view. Tradition is tradition, rules are rules, and one could easily interpret Buddhism’s bear hug for Vreeland and his wealth of resources as little more than a celebrity endorsement capable of spreading and imposing the religion on more people in more cultures.