Pages Navigation Menu

Give Grow Transform

Interview with Dr. Duncan Williams

Dr. Duncan WilliamsDr. Duncan Williams, Chair of the Center for Japanese Studies, UC Berkeley

Duncan Williams, Associate Professor of Japanese Buddhism, received his B.A. in Religious Studies at Reed College (1991), his M.T.S. at Harvard Divinity School (1993), and Ph.D. in Religion at Harvard University (2000). He works primarily on Japanese Buddhist history, Buddhism and environmentalism, and American Buddhism. He is the author of The Other Side of Zen: A Social History of Soto Zen Buddhism in Tokugawa Japan (Princeton, 2005), translator of four Japanese books, and editor of three volumes including American Buddhism (Curzon, 1999) and Buddhism and Ecology (Harvard, 1997). He is currently completing a manuscript entitled Camp Dharma: Japanese-American Buddhism and the World War Two Incarceration Experience (forthcoming, UC Press) and an edited volume, Issei Buddhism in the Americas: The Pioneers of the Japanese-American Buddhist Diaspora. His next project focuses on Buddhism and bathing practices in Japan through the themes of healing and purification.

The Shinnyo-en Foundation recently talked with Dr. Willams about the mission with the Center for Japanese Studies, and the collaboration with the Shinnyo-en Foundation.

Would you please tell us a little about your background? Also, how long have you been at UC Berkeley?

Dr. Williams:  I have been at Berkeley for three years. There had been a national search to find someone in the field of Japanese Buddhism and I was fortunate enough to land the position as a tenured professor. At the time, UC Berkeley already had professors in Indian, Tibetan and Chinese Buddhism, but they needed someone for Japanese Buddhism.

I received my undergraduate degree in Religious Studies at Reed College in Portland, Oregon as well as my Ph.D. from Harvard.

In addition to working in the Buddhist Studies program at Berkeley, I also direct the Center for Japanese Studies with 30 or so affiliate faculty from different departments.

What is your Mission Statement for the Center of Japanese Studies?

Dr. Williams:  Our mission is to deepen the understanding of Japan.

There are five major Japan Centers in U.S. Universities.  They are located at Harvard, Columbia, Michigan, UCLA and Berkeley. There are smaller programs, but those are the big five. Currently UC Berkeley is at the forefront. We have the largest faculty involvement as well as the highest number of students in our first year language classes. We also have the largest library collection in the nation. Along with all this comes the heavy responsibility for sharing information about Japan.

In addition, we often have members of the San Francisco Bay Area community taking part at our events.

How does the Shinnyo-en Foundation connect with your mission as Chair for the Center of Japanese Studies?

Dr. Williams:  The Center and the Shinnyo-en Foundation have some basic, shared values.  Both institutions focus on the great traditions that come out of Japan. First and foremost this includes the study of Buddhism and its values.  In addition we are also exploring the ways in which Buddhism can be translated into a more universal language allowing people around the world and across various kinds of boundaries, both national and religious, to create a more peaceful world.  UC Berkeley, as a public university, also has a mission to ensure that our students are well prepared to contribute to society and make public service a deep part of the fabric of their lives.

I believe that the Shinnyo-en Foundation and it’s orientation, not only towards creating a more peaceful world, but also through public service, is another way that UC Berkeley traditions match with the values of Shinnyo-en Foundation.

Can you tell us a little about your recent trip to Japan and what transpired?

Dr. Williams:  In November, a group of professors from UC Berkeley, including our Chancellor Robert Birgeneau, assembled in Tokyo for a signing ceremony with the Shinnyo-en Foundation. At this ceremony two major initiatives were signed. One was the Faculty Chair of the Shinjo Ito Distinguished Chair in Japanese Buddhism. There were also two different post-doctorate fellowships initiated: the Shinjo Ito Postdoctoral Fellowship in Japanese Buddhism and the Shinjo Ito post-doctoral Fellowship in Buddhist Studies. With these two Fellowship Programs, the Shinnyo-en Foundation will support the study of Japanese Buddhism more broadly at UC Berkeley.

At Harvard, Colombia and UCLA, there are Tibetan and Chinese Buddhism Chairs, but nowhere in the United States is there a focus on Japanese Buddhism. This Distinguished Chair in Japanese Buddhism is the first of its kind, and in that sense I think it’s going to shape the field in a very important way. The same is true with the postdoctoral fellowships. They will attract the best in the nation as the world’s first postdoctoral focused on the study of Buddhism.

In closing can you tell us what is your personal path to peace?

Dr. Williams:  My own personal path to peace is to be a bridge between Japan and the western world. My mom is Japanese and my dad is from England. I have always felt it was part of my DNA, my karma, and my Buddhist background to try to integrate those things. My path to peace is always about trying to reconcile, to further and to deepen the understanding between Japanese and western people. I try to do that as part of my job as a University Professor. I also try to do that as the Chair at the Center for Japanese Studies. And I try to do that in my own family life. I am married to a Korean American. Korean and Japanese people have not always gotten along. When I am doing work of this kind, whether its at work or at home, that is when I know I am on my path to peace.  No matter how hard it is or how busy I get, what I am doing feels exactly right. That’s when I know that I am doing my path to peace. I am an example of living reconciliation and I am not doing it out of ego, it is simply part of my life’s work.

Thank you so much.