December 9, 2011 — Surfer. Roadie. Buddhist. Harvard University graduate. Dominic Di Zinno, a student in the University of Virginia's Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, is all of the above.
Di Zinno, a history of religion doctoral candidate specializing in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism, wasn't much interested in learning earlier in his life; in fact, he was expelled from his high school. It was not until he found Buddhism at age 23 that he found a topic that inspired him.
"One day I went to buy a surfing magazine and there was a book about how to live well and die well, and I stopped in my tracks," he said.
In explaining his passion for Buddhism, Di Zinno turned to economic principles. He cited the law of diminishing return, which, simplified, means that the more of something you have, the less of it you want it. "I find that to be generally the case with everything I've studied - except for Buddhism," he said.
Di Zinno did not learn only through books, though. On the advice of his Tibetan teacher, in 1994 he left to study at a monastery in Northern India, and spent the next six years in Nepal and Northern India studying both Buddhism and the Tibetan language. At times, he returned to the U.S. to work, typically in the Los Angeles video or music industry, in order to make enough money to return East. He refers to this time in his life as "serendipitous."
Di Zinno recognized how different his disciplined monastic life was to his early academic career. "It seems ironic when I look back on it because I was so turned off by school," he said. By 24, in the monastery, he was living in a system where he studied almost constantly.
Before and after he found Buddhism, Di Zinno worked in the Los Angeles film industry. During his late teens and early 20s, he toured with rock bands such as Metallica and Aerosmith as a guitar technician. This allowed him to travel to the United Kingdom, Scandinavia and throughout North America at a young age. Later, while back in the U.S. in between his times at the monastery, Di Zinno worked in the art department of films as an on-set dresser, helping make music videos for artists such as Britney Spears, Ice-Cube, *N Sync and the Foo Fighters.
As with the rest of his life adventures, Di Zinno did not enter college traditionally, nor did he choose a traditional co-ed school upon his return to the U.S. at age 33. He attended formerly all-female Sarah Lawrence College - still 75 percent female - on a full scholarship, which he received after meeting one of its professors in a local dumpling shop near Nepal's Kopan monastery. This professor told Di Zinno he could make a living studying Buddhism if he continued his education.
At Sarah Lawrence, Di Zinno was confronted by a non-patriarchal environment for one of the first times in his life. "As a guy from a mostly guy family who has lived and worked in mostly guy environments my whole life, the environment at Sarah Lawrence College brought to my attention the fact that feminine voices, paradigms and sensibilities are often pushed to the margins of discourse," he said. "That was shown to me in an environment where the loudest voice didn't always take the day, unlike the world where that type of naked force works."
After graduation, Di Zinno earned a master's in Sanskrit at Harvard - he also speaks English, Spanish and Tibetan, and can read French - and is now pursuing his Ph.D. at U.Va.
His adviser, religious studies professor David Germano, said Di Zinno's circuitous academic path has served him well. "From a young age, he immersed himself into monastic life," he said. "I think that strongly affects his sensibilities and understandings. Instead of learning things as doctrines, literature or something that's abstracted from the lived contrast of what it's all about, he's gotten it from the monastic reality."
Di Zinno brings this perspective and all of his experiences to the discussion sections he leads, including those for religious studies professor Karen Lang's "Introduction to Buddhism" last spring.
Di Zinno focuses on getting his students to understand new ideas in their lives, not just memorize facts. "I am not terribly interested in teaching Buddhist facts," he said. "I'm becoming much more interested in getting my students to gnaw on new colors."
Second-year College student Catherine Breimann, who has taken two Buddhism discussions with Di Zinno, said, "Dominic challenges people to think outside of their safe, constructed boxes. He takes the discussion to interesting places, places that we, in this society and generation, would probably never go unless forced.
"Even if you don't end up believing anything about Buddhism, he will absolutely make you more tolerant of other belief systems and he gives you a new way of looking at things with which you're unfamiliar."
Next year, Di Zinno hopes to conduct research in Asia and is currently seeking funding. For his dissertation, Di Zinno plans to edit, translate and write a historically contextual overview on an 11th-century Buddhist treatise.