Even as a young child, Cynthea Bogel ’80 was captivated with all things Asian—a harbinger of the life she leads now. Bogel, who specializes in Buddhist visual culture and Japanese art and architecture, is on the faculty of Kyushu University in Fukuoka, Japan, where she teaches Buddhist visual culture of East and South Asia and Japanese art history, and she is responsible for graduate seminars in the international master of arts program in Japanese humanities. 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 Geographic when 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, where I studied Japanese. There were lots of South Asians and Indians, who were immigrating to Sydney, and I got my first taste of Asian culture there.
At Carleton College, I continued to study 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 think I am a very spiritual person, but I am not a practicing Buddhist. 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