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Scholar and Buddhist priest Duncan Ryuken Williams wins 2022 Grawemeyer religion prize

 “Is America fundamentally a White and Christian nation or is America a multi-ethnic and religiously free country?” Scholar Duncan Ryuken Williams poses this question both in his life as a Buddhist priest and his work as a religious scholar. Today, the University of Louisville and Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary recognized Williams’ thoughtful response to this essential question, naming him as the recipient of the 2022 Grawemeyer religion prize.

Williams, a religion professor who directs the Shinso Ito Center for Japanese Religions and Culture at the University of Southern California, is also a Buddhist priest. Williams believes that every generation revisits this question — however, they act upon it in different ways.

“I tend to think about this (question) as two sides of a coin,” Williams says. “It’s both enduring and timely. One side is the fundamental question about who are we as Americans … the identity of the nation.” The flip or “timely” side is that, “in every time there’s a specific variation on how exclusion works.” Williams points to the current rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans as an example, and his work traces its roots to our country’s history of excluding Asian Americans.

Looking to the past not only helps explain the present, but it also inspires American Buddhists and other religious groups seeking to be faithful to their traditions. In his 2019 book “American Sutra: A Story of Faith and Freedom in the Second World War,” Williams explored how Japanese American Buddhists continued to practice their faith after being forced into U.S. detention camps during WWII.

Through diaries and other records, he learned Buddhists continued to worship, even celebrating Buddha’s birthday by pouring coffee over a carrot carved in his likeness when they could not perform the traditional ritual of pouring tea over a statue of Buddha. “Their imprisonment became a way to discover freedom, a liberation that the Buddha himself attained only after embarking on a spiritual journey filled with obstacles and hardships,” he explains.

Buddhists’ steadfast devotion to faith in such conditions shows people being both Buddhist and American. “They were embodying and practicing a way of being … we are going to make a claim that we belong in this nation and being able to practice freely in this nation is part of that,” Williams says.

Williams similarly embodies his faith in his life and work, as he seeks to respond to exclusion with integrity. “The Buddha taught that you can’t put out fire with fire but only with water,“ he explains. “Water represents a compassionate response or recognition that we all suffer.” Suffering, Williams says, is part of the shared human experience.

However, we don’t suffer alone. “Community is one of the treasures of Buddhism … one’s liberation or freedom doesn’t happen in a vacuum … it happens together with each other. Our suffering is intertwined and our freedom is also intertwined.”

Tyler Mayfield, who directs the Grawemeyer religion award, said that Williams, “shows how Japanese Americans living in a time of great adversity broadened our nation’s vision of religious freedom.” The award includes a $100,000 prize and an opportunity to visit Louisville in April to accept the award and offer a public talk on the winning ideas.