The Art of Buddhism: Interview with Cynthea J. Bogel

bogel_new_2501-234x300Alumnae Association of Smith College
Interview by Cheryl Dellecese
18 April 2014

Even as a young child, Cynthea J. Bogel ’80 was captivated with all things Asian—a harbinger of the life she leads now. Bogel is Professor of the History of Japanese Art and Buddhist Visual Cultures in Asia and Graduate Faculty of the Humanities at Kyushu University in Fukuoka, Japan, and specializes in Buddhist visual culture and Japanese art and architecture. On a recent visit to Smith, Bogel talked about her journey, which began with an unexplained fascination and led to a passionate career.

I have always been interested in Asia. My mom said that I used to look at the pictures of East Asia in National Geographicwhen I was a kid. It was somehow of interest to me for no reason; no one in the family ever talked about Asia. There’s something karmic, if that’s possible.

The First Step
When I was in high school, I applied for the AFS exchange in the southern hemisphere and went to Sydney, Australia.  There were lots of South Asians and Indians, who were immigrating to Sydney, and I got my first taste of Asian culture there.

Destiny Unfolds
At Carleton College, I studied Japanese and, as a sophomore, traveled to Japan as part of the Associated Kyoto Program, where I met Ruth Ozeki ’80 [now a filmmaker, author and Buddhist priest]. I was going to temples in Kyoto and Nara in my spare time. Many of the temples are almost like museums, and I was very interested in the structural engineering, the ancient Buddhist icons, the people worshiping. There is such precious material there. It was living Buddhism, and I felt that that was what I wanted to research. That was my passion.

A Clear Path to Smith
I talked with the program adviser, Smith Professor Taitetsu Unno [currently Jill Ker Conway Professor Emeritus of Religion and East Asian Studies], and he said,  “You seem really destined for this,” and that I needed to come to Smith to study East Asian Buddhist art history with Marylin Rhie, whose concentration is in Buddhist art and East Asian studies. It was too late for me to apply to Smith for the next year, so I stayed in Japan another year with Ruth. We both studied more Japanese, and I dragged her to all these places to see ancient Buddhist art. In 1978, I came to Smith.

As a Religion
I am not a practicing Buddhist, per se, but I have studied historical Buddhism for a long time and have deep respect for the tradition—and certainly it informs my daily life. I was raised Catholic, a highly ritualized form of Christianity, and my main work is focused on Shingon/Esoteric Buddhism, which is a highly ritualized form of Buddhism. I have a very anthropological approach to Buddhism, which I learned in Japan. 

Buddhism in Contemporary Art
Artists are very interested in oneness with their surroundings. This kind of mindfulness is what artists bring to their work anyway. They are really trying to connect the outside world to their own thoughts.

Cheryl Dellecese is associate director, print and new media, in the Office of College Relations



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