Buddhist Studies: New Avenues

by Tori Pinto, M.A. '11

Growing up Buddhist, I wanted to pursue a career that would allow me to better understand my own religious heritage, as well as contribute academically to the growing body of research on contemporary Japanese religion.  Until recently, Buddhism was studied almost entirely from texts, with almost no attention paid to how these texts were (or weren't) used in the real world.  We are moving into an exciting time for Buddhist Studies as more attention is being given to ritual, popular religion, folk and oral tradition, as well as visual and material culture. 

My interest in Buddhist visual and material culture spurred from the popularity and prevalence of Japanese religious imagery being appropriated by the West.  Likewise, in 2008, the Shinnyo-en Buddhist Order produced an international exhibit of hundreds of Buddha images sculpted by Shinnyo-en founder, Shinjo Ito.  This exhibit traveled from New York City to Chicago, Los Angeles, Milan, and further, attracting tens of thousands of visitors.  My intent is to study this exhibit as a case study of the interaction of Japanese Buddhist visual culture with the West.

One of the primary reasons I chose USC for my PhD is because of its thriving art culture combined with a vibrant Japanese/Japanese-American community.  Los Angeles is the ideal place to study Japanese religious visual culture as it is exchanged, appropriated, and reinterpreted for different contexts.  Ultimately I would like to bring a deeper awareness and understanding of Buddhism to American universities, moving beyond the sweeping generalizations and surface readings that we sometimes encounter with imported religions.

[Tori graduates with honors with a M.A. in Buddhist Studies in May 2011. Her thesis is Shinnyo-en: An Early History].