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Enlightening the West

New faculty member Duncan Williams brings his expertise in Japanese Buddhism to his roles as the director of the USC School of Religion and the founder and co-director of the USC Center for Japanese Religions and Culture.

By Laurie Moore
November 16, 2011

Duncan Ryûken Williams is the new director of the USC School of Religion, and the founder and co-director of the newly created USC Center for Japanese Religions and Culture.

Duncan Ryûken Williams is the new director of the USC School of Religion, and the founder and co-director of the newly created USC Center for Japanese Religions and Culture.

Born in Tokyo to a Japanese Buddhist mother and a British Christian father, Duncan Ryûken Williams believes it is his destiny to serve as a bridge between the religions and cultures of his upbringing.

“I’ve always felt like somehow I was karmically created to do something in the area of mutual understanding between Japan and the West,” Williams said. “I was brought up bilingually, biculturally, bireligiously, and traversing those worlds in between was something I wanted to focus on.”

Williams will do just that as the new director of the USC School of Religion. He is also the founder and co-director of the newly created USC Center for Japanese Religions and Culture. Housed in USC Dornsife, the center is the first at USC to focus specifically on Japan.

He comes to USC from the University of California, Berkeley, where he was the Shinjo Ito Distinguished Chair of Japanese Buddhism and director of the Center for Japanese Studies. Williams brings with him years of experience in fields such as the social history of Japanese religions with a focus on Buddhism and modernity; Buddhism in America; and Buddhism and environmentalism.

For Williams, the first Buddhist to chair a department of religious studies in the United States, Buddhism is both his primary field of research and the subject of his life’s devotion.

As a child of mixed cultures, Williams began to question his identity while growing up in Japan, and later when he came to the U.S. as an undergraduate at Reed College in Portland, Ore. There, he began to understand the Buddha’s teaching about the self as malleable and hybrid. By the time he was 21, after living in a Zen Buddhist center during college, he decided to be ordained as a Buddhist priest.

“The ordination process — where one shaves one’s hair, receives priestly vows and religious robes — is only the beginning of a lifelong commitment to alleviate suffering of all beings and to live a life in service of wisdom and compassion,” Williams said.

Williams went on to earn his Ph.D. in religion at Harvard University, where he was also the university’s Buddhist chaplain. During the last few years, he has authored books including The Other Side of Zen: A Social History of Sôtô Zen Buddhism in Tokugawa Japan (Princeton University Press, 2005) and the forthcoming Camp Dharma: Buddhism and the Japanese American Incarceration During World War II (University of California Press). Williams has also founded the world’s first online Western-language bibliographical database on Buddhism, the Mugen Project (www.mugenproject.com), as well as a forthcoming database on the history, identity and representations of mixed-race Japanese people.

In June 2011, Williams received a commendation from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan and the Consulate-General of Japan for deepening the bilateral relationship between Japan and the U.S. The award recognized, among other things, an event series he planned at UC Berkeley’s Center for Japanese Studies, which celebrated its 50th anniversary and brought together ­­­influential artists and academics from Japan.

Williams plans to organize a similar series at USC in 2012 as part of the inaugural programming for the USC Center for Japanese Religions and Culture, which is co-directed by Lori Meeks, associate professor of religion and East Asian languages and cultures in USC Dornsife. Williams and Meeks will coordinate events featuring experts in Japanese religions and cultures as well as scholars, artists, politicians and thought leaders from Japan.

The center will also support research projects by a number of USC Dornsife faculty, who will explore topics from religion and social life in premodern Japan to the role of faith in Japanese American communities.

Williams took to heart the inauguration speech by C. L. Max Nikias in November 2010, in which he upheld USC as the western hub connecting the U.S. to a world centered on the Pacific Rim. Williams said that today, the university has the best opportunity to make a long-term global impact in part because of this focus on the East.

“USC is positioned to create a new style of religious studies that is reflective of the city of Los Angeles, the shift into a Pacific century,” he said.

As director of the USC School of Religion, Williams hopes to develop an innovative Ph.D. graduate program; align the department with all of the USC religion research centers, such as a new center that will focus on Islam in America; and significantly increase the number of undergraduate religion majors and minors.

Williams will begin teaching in the 2012–13 academic year with survey courses on Buddhism and Japanese religions. Religious literacy, he believes, is essential for all students, no matter their course of study.

“Religion is so relevant to understanding our increasingly globalized and multi-religious world. It’s so important to understanding how to orient our identities and values in an age of uncertainty,” he said.

“Religious traditions have dealt with the enduring questions of human life, and I think that any member of the Trojan Family would want to tackle some of those questions of values, identity and what it means to be a human being.”