MUNDGOD, INDIA — Nicholas Vreeland, an American baby boomer who has led an ascetic life in south India for 13 years, is a reluctant entrepreneur.
Most days, the lanky, soft-spoken monk can be found poring over Tibetan Buddhist scriptures or meditating in his small room at Rato Monastery, on the edge of this isolated settlement of 13,000 Tibetan refugees. But to ensure the monastery's future, Mr. Vreeland's path to enlightenment must pass through trendy boutiques in Paris and New York.
Over the past two years, he has built a business out of making home furnishings inspired by the flowing robes and everyday items of Tibetan monks.
"I'm not a businessman, I'm a monk,'' insists Vreeland, sitting cross-legged talking with a visitor to the monastery. But "if you are spiritually evolved, you can turn anything into your spiritual practice.''
Vreeland is well qualified to unite the worlds of style and spirituality: He is the grandson of the late fashion legend Diana Vreeland, editor of Vogue in the 1960s, and he's still friends with several designers. Three years ago, a friend at Ralph Lauren helped him dream up the idea of selling monk-made wear - and housewares. And, through his family's fashion-world ties, Vreeland met designer Jason Cheriyan and his wife, Reena, a garment exporter, who are executing the concept.
Vreeland, who will soon receive a geshe, the highest scholarly degree that a monk can obtain, does not deny that the rising profile of Tibet might help sell Rato Monastery's collection, the first of its kind. But he says he is not just exploiting the popularity of Tibet's Dalai Lama and Buddhism in the West.
"I didn't want to make things that would be trendy or find their way into yoga magazines," Vreeland explains. "I thought they should be elegant in and of themselves."
Indeed, the products target a well-to-do clientele. Retail prices range from about $70 for a cotton monk bag to $2,200 for a silk patchwork bedspread.
The monks weave and dye the fabric by hand. They make silk patchwork bedspreads and tablecloths derived from the patched wrap worn by a fully ordained monk. (All silk items are ahimsa silk, made from the thread of worms that have died naturally, in accordance with the Buddhist faith). The monks also stitch cushion covers and placemats modeled on the monk prayer mat. The mat's distinctive double-triangle corners represent the ears of the lion, lord of the jungle, referring to a monk's aspiration in prayer to become lord over his emotions.
Funding is a struggle as more exiles arrive
As Rato Monastery items began appearing in stores such as Felissimo in New York and Fred Segal of Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles, they caught the attention of fashion magazines. But what the glossies missed is the hardship at the monastery. "Sadly, the upmarket aspect of our products does not reflect the situation here," says Vreeland during a stroll of the monastery grounds.
Feeding, clothing, and looking after the health of Rato's 70 monks has become a struggle. The number of monks - mainly exiles from Chinese-controlled Tibet - has increased almost sixfold since Vreeland arrived in 1985, and it is likely to keep swelling.
According to the Tibetan government-in-exile in India, nearly 3,000 refugees poured into India from Tibet last year, nearly double the 1996 figure. Buddhist monks and nuns, forced by Chinese authorities to disavow the Dalai Lama as part of a crackdown launched in 1996, represent the largest group.
Monks learn how to dye and weave
About 5,000 monks live in the monasteries of Mundgod, a collection of villages perched on a plateau in Karnataka state. To be sure, it is a challenge for most monasteries to make ends meet. But Rato's situation is especially precarious because it has no farmland.
The monastery's $20,000 annual budget comes mainly from donations by Americans, including Buddhists such as actor Richard Gere. Expecting more refugees, Rato is building new rooms, thanks to the gift of a Westerner.
"We have no idea how many monks will come,'' explains Gen-la Tashi Lhhakpa, an elderly monk, who is responsible for administrative affairs. "That is why we began this business. We have to be able to feed ourselves."
For now, the fabricmaking business is hundreds of miles from Rato in a village without running water and only sporadic electricity. In Satnoor, four robed Rato monks work wooden handlooms, weaving fabric alongside sari-clad Indian women, a rare coed activity for the holy men.
Later this summer, having completed 15 months of training, the men will return to Rato with a diploma in handloom weaving. The newly trained monks will teach 12 others the art of dying, warping, and weaving silk. Still another group, "tailor monks," will sew the fabric into placemats, pillow covers, and other items. The goal is to gradually transfer the bulk of production from Satnoor to Rato.
Mr. Cheriyan, the designer who manages the Rato line, predicts it will be another three years before the venture is self-sustaining. The start-up has suffered some setbacks. For one, managing it from afar has been tricky, though Cheriyan says he now has an energetic and committed agent in New York. Likewise, the monastery has to deal with India's bureaucracy and overcome a bias against Indian products among high-priced, exclusive stores that generally question their quality.
But the monks' prospects are looking up. Vreeland recently received a $3,000 trial order from ABC Carpets, a large home-design store in Manhattan. The Rato products will soon expand into incense burners, small boxes, and decorative items made of black gunmetal. Orders for such items already have arrived from stores in the United States, Germany, and Britain. And Vreeland will soon move closer to the market: He has been asked him to help set up a Tibetan Buddhist center in New York.
The new calling will take him away from Rato for much of the year and divert his attention from the fashion venture he spawned, although gradually he has withdrawn from the day-to-day affairs of the business.
"I am trying very hard to devote myself to spiritual practice," Vreeland says. "This is my dilemma because, in a sense, doing this [business] is a spiritual responsibility. You can't turn your back on it saying, 'I have to go meditate.' "