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 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 also is the founder and co-director of the newly created USC Center for Japanese Religions and Culture. Housed at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, the center is the first at USC to focus specifically on Japan.
He comes to USC from the University of California, Berkeley, where he held the Shinjo Ito Distinguished Chair of Japanese Buddhism and served as director of the Center for Japanese Studies. Williams brings with him years of experience in fields like 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 both is 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 United States 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,” he said.
Williams went on to earn his Ph.D. in religion at Harvard University, where he also was 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 also has founded the Mugen Project, the world’s first online Western-language bibliographical database on Buddhism, as well as a forthcoming database on the history, identity and representations of mixed-race Japanese people.
In June, 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 United States. Among other things, the award recognized an event series he planned at UC Berkeley’s Center for Japanese Studies, which brought together influential artists and academics from Japan to celebrate its 50th anniversary.
Williams plans to organize a similar series at USC next year 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 at 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 also will support research projects by a number of USC Dornsife faculty, who will explore topics from religion and social life in Japan.
Williams took to heart the inauguration speech by USC president C. L. Max Nikias in November 2010, in which he upheld the university as the western hub connecting the United States to a world centered on the Pacific Rim. Williams said that the university currently 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 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 multireligious 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.”