Duncan Ryuken Williams is a professor Buddhist Studies and the Director of the USC Shinso Ito Center for Japanese Religions and Culture. He is also the author of American Sutra: A Story of Faith and Freedom in the Second World War, an ordained Soto Zen priest, and a co-chair of Tsuru for Solidarity, an activist organization hoping to end detention of immigrants by linking the experiences of Japanese Americans during World War II with current human rights violations. IBS Dean Scott Mitchell interviewed Williams recently about the role of activism and personal investment in academia, as well as how to conceptualize recent xenophobic and racist trends in American history.
Mitchell: I’m interested in the relationship between your academic and scholarly work and other kinds of work, whether it’s the activist work or your life as a Zen priest. There’s a vein of thought within academic circles that academics need to be objective and dispassionate and in Buddhist studies there’s the tension between scholar and practitioner. So I’m curious how you see your scholarship intersecting or influencing the work you do for Tsuru for Solidarity, and the inverse, how other kinds of work influence your scholarship.
Williams: The way I look at it is, we live a life that is multi-faceted or multi-layered, just as a fact of life. You were talking earlier about if you have kids: sometimes you’re a dad, sometimes you’re a professor, sometimes you’re a soccer coach. You can be more than one thing. It’s unusual to find people who are only one thing. That’s the way life is; sometimes you’re a son, sometimes you’re a father, sometimes you’re a brother, etc. So it’s just a fact of life that we have different modalities that we live in. But they’re actually all interconnected in your existence. So it’s not like any of them cancel each other out, nor is it that they always have to be fully aligned and in tuned and consistent. Because that’s not how life actually works.
The more interesting question to me is, how do you bring the best of each register of your life into resonance with other things in your life? How do you make it work? It is true that temple members sometimes do get either intimidated or put off by the academic and scholarly type of work that we do in Buddhist studies and academic professions. And to them I always try to highlight some of the things that bring historical context and understanding through our work in scholarship, that really help to enliven and give deeper meaning to the teachings of the Buddha. That’s what I try to emphasize. And then for academic people I will say, “It’s just so weird to be doing scholarly work for an audience of five, you know?” Like someone will be working on a very obscure text and there’s maybe three or four other people in the world who care about that particular thing, and nowhere else would we think that’s normal. If you’re a scholar of Shakespeare, and you’ve never gone to see a Shakespeare play, and you can’t even have a good conversation with fans of Shakespeare because you’re in this ivory tower that doesn’t let you communicate well [we wouldn’t think that’s normal or good]. It seems weird that for the study of Buddhism we have to act in such a fashion.
What I say to people in academia is that I think we should try to do the kind of work that is translatable beyond an audience of 3, 4 and 5 specialist people. And beyond that, our work should also have some meaning and add value to the world we live in. It’s not just about translatability, but the transformational ways in which our scholarly work might impact the world.
So with Tsuru for Solidarity for example, when we went to protest at Fort Sill, yes I was involved in the organizational work of gathering people together, but there’s also the work of doing the scholarship. Nobody had ever written an academic article about what Fort Sill was like back in World War II. None of the protestors or community organizers could have done that work; it required a certain kind of attention to historical documents, being able to read Japanese language documents, and putting them into relationship with English-language government documents – the kind of work we tend to do in academia of compiling research and being able to tell a story, but doing it in a careful manner. That is important to the movement, to have accurate information and accurate language for talking about [what they’re doing]. We can bring something of value from one register into another register.
Conversely, when I talk to students in my classes about what’s happening today with groups like Tsuru for Solidarity doing that kind of racial justice work, taking what they’ve learned from World War II and applying it to exclusions around race and religion today, the students see how this past history is still alive. I’ll ask, “What are the enduring questions of American life, of race and religion, and what are the enduring questions about being a human being, the existential questions?” As scholars of religion we study the big questions. Then we link [these enduring questions] to timely questions. I think students in the class learn better when they hear about something in the news today, and can link it [to the past]. They can learn the old stuff better. That’s what I mean by bringing different things from different registers into the conversation. It’s not just a Duncan Williams thing. It has a long and distinguished tradition as a pedagogical approach.
Mitchell: That sort of anticipates another question I was going to ask about what we can learn from history. As you point out, you can learn the thousand-year-old issue better by linking it to a current event. But I think the reverse is true, that you can look at these historical events, even if it’s from a thousand years ago and a different historical context, and still derive some kind of meaning or insight.
Williams: Especially if those topics you’re discussing have an enduring quality—if it’s talking about, “How do we relate to each other?” Ethics. If it’s talking about how do we find a place in the world. When we talk about refugees seeking asylum at the southern border, people fleeing violence, these questions about refuge, home, what constitutes belonging—
Mitchell: They’re not new questions.
Williams: They’re not new questions! Right. There were examples of that kind of thing in the past, people drawing on their faith, viewing exile and diaspora through the lens of religious traditions. There were questions about belonging, about solidarity and ethics, about resilience, about how to adapt; these are enduring questions.
Mitchell: I remember when you gave talk at Cal about American Sutra, you spoke about this pendulum in American history, how America goes through these moments where it’s more isolationist, more restrictive, more exclusionary, and then we pivot back to these other moments. I was wondering if you could say a bit more about that. I really like that metaphor, that things seem bad—well, they are bad— but they’ve been bad before.
Williams: They’ve been bad before. When you talk to people who are older, who went to one of these incarceration sites or internment camps, of course they’re worried about what’s happening today, that America seems to be swinging towards the closing of the American border, the American mind. It’s a closing down moment. But then there’s a moment where it goes the other way—towards more openness, more plurality, more multiplicity, and not just multiplicity but hybridity, where things intermix, whether it’s racial intermixing, food, culture, or religion, multi-faith families, the pendulum can go back and forth. That’s the advantage of seeing things from a long view. If you’re an old person you know that there was a period where if you were a black person, you couldn’t vote. There’s so many examples of moments when it was quite difficult and quite restrictive. So if we have the long view it allows us to know that however bad things may look in a given moment, the trajectory is that there’s movement.
But that trajectory doesn’t come naturally like the movement of a pendulum clock, it actually requires people embodying the opposite. Just like people are sometimes embodying closed mindedness, it’s not like that happens without action either. It’s actively being done by people. So if you believe that equality under the law, due process, and religious freedom are worth highlighting and talking about as a nation, you actually have to embody that and actualize it. And that’s when the pendulum starts to swing, when enough people are doing that, or when the right kinds of people start doing that, leaders in medical professions or the business world. Everyone has a role. How we enact and enable things is how reality gets constructed.
We know that from Buddhism too—we have emptiness, the concept that things are arbitrary and constructed, but we also know that our minds are capable of building Pure Lands and worlds where there are bodhisattvas. We have tremendous imaginative power. We have both those impulses within Buddhism. So we can deploy that smartly, depending on what we need to be doing.
Mitchell: That’s lovely, and I appreciate the idea of agency, that we have to push the pendulum rather than viewing it as something that’s beyond our control. I think a lot of times there can be a feeling of powerlessness; we can feel like there are all these terrible things that are happening that we can’t do anything about. But we can [do things] and we should.
I also know that American Sutra is a fantastic book and you have enough material for like, three books, so I’m wondering what else you’re working on? What’s coming next?
Williams: I want to take some of the material I couldn’t put in American Sutra that happened before the war, like the Chinese Exclusion Act, the first immigration law that excluded a particular people because of their race and their religion (or their “heathenism” or non-Christianity). This older history tells us that what happened to the Japanese Americans during World War II is not some kind of hysterical reaction after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, but is actually at the tail end of a much longer history. So I want to start back then.
But I also want to start with the prequel to American Sutra with people like Frederick Douglas. One of the few people who spoke up against the rising tide of anti-Chineseness around the time of the Chinese Exclusion Act. In one of his speeches against exclusion, he offers the word “composite nation,” or bringing together of multiplicity to compose a nation. He highlight how African American emancipation from the legacy of slavery and Asian exclusion and immigration was linked. And so I kind of want to write from that perspective, to talk about what it is that Asian Americans brought to America, and how their histories are interlinked with these other histories in the building of a different vision of America.
And I’m thinking of using the word “interlinked” somewhere in the title as a kind of Buddhist take or perspective. And maybe subtitling the book something like “A Buddhist History of America,” where it’s not just about telling the history of America, but it’s also about telling the history of America from a Buddhist point of view. It’s an ambitious and challenging sort of project that could serve as a template for how others might write other kinds of Buddhist histories of America. In general, we’ve done different kinds of [histories]: disabilities history of America, or queer history of America. But what if we actually had a Buddhist history of America, where Buddhists were somehow central to the story? Just like James Baldwin would put African-Americans at the center of telling the American story. That’s the ambition for the book I want to write next.