WALKING THE MIDDLE PATH: USC professor engages hapa identity via Buddhism


If there’s one person besides, perhaps, Naomi Osaka, who has reinvigorated the subject of mixed race in the Japanese diaspora, it’s Duncan Ryūken Williams.

Born and raised in Tokyo by his Japanese mother and British father, Williams came to the United States to attend Reed College for his undergraduate work before going on to earn a Ph.D. in religion from Harvard University. Along the way he became ordained as a priest in the Sōtō Zen sect of Buddhism.

Duncan Ryūken Williams. photo courtesy of Duncan Ryūken Williams

Since then, he has taught at University of California, Berkeley, UC Irvine, and Trinity College, and is currently a professor and the director of the Shinso Ito Center for Japanese Religion and Culture at the University of Southern California.

In 2011, while Williams was teaching at UC Berkeley, he started Hapa Japan as an academic conference that brought together scholars and creatives from both the U.S. and Japan. Today, that effort has grown into the Hapa Japan Project, a multi-faceted organization based at USC that sponsors academic panels and conferences, festivals, performances, a Website, and in 2017 published a two-volume collection of essays entitled “Hapa Japan.”

I had the recent pleasure of chatting with Williams as he traveled across the country on tour for his newly published book “American Sutra: A Story of Faith and Freedom in the Second World War,” the first in-depth discussion of Japanese American Buddhism during the World War II incarceration.

Cindy Nakashima: How did you decide to become a Buddhist studies scholar and a Buddhist priest?
Duncan Williams:
Growing up, we would go to Buddhist temple regularly, but also to Saint Alban’s Church, which was the Anglican church in Tokyo, every Sunday. I spoke only Japanese to my mom and she to me, and only English to my dad. At some point when you’re growing up like that — at the linguistic level or at the ethnic/cultural level or at the level of religion — you begin to ask yourself, “Who am I? Am I Christian? Am I Buddhist? Am I British? Am I Japanese?”

I could never “pass” as Japanese in Japan because a) my name is Duncan Williams and b) I just took all the genes from my dad’s side of the family, so I never “looked” very Japanese. But then on my first summer vacation in England when I was seven, we landed in London, checked into our hotel and went up to our room, and — my parents told me this story later — they asked me, “Duncan, where are your shoes?” Apparently I had left them at the front of the lobby, as you would in a Japanese ryokan!

I think that this was my first indication that I’m not British either. I don’t fit in fully in Japan because of the way that I look, but culturally I don’t understand anything about being outside of a Japanese context.

In the next decade there would be many types of incidents like that, where I was made aware that — from a bunch of different angles — I don’t quite belong in x or y.

And so in that exploration of being “in between” cultures or languages or religions, somehow I found that Buddhism was an interesting philosophy or perspective that allowed me to engage the question of “Who am I?”

I was drawn to the particular lineage of Buddhism, Sōtō Zen, because the founder Dōgen wrote a text called the “Shobogenzo,” and there’s a famous set of lines in there:

To study the Buddha Way is to study the self.
To study the self is to forget the self. 
To forget the self is to be actualized by the Ten Thousand Things. 

What these lines are pointing to is that Buddhism is first and foremost an investigation of “Who am I? What is this body? What is life? What is death? What makes me up?” To investigate this very seriously is to practice Buddhism.

But then the second line says that you’ve got to forget the self. And “forget” — in this case, in English, we might want to phrase it as to “let go” of the self.

We have all kinds of preconceptions about who we are. Buddhism teaches non-attachment; releasing and letting go of preconceptions. So a part of a Buddhist practice is, once we think we know who we are, let that go and investigate further.

And in that process of investigation we become actualized by the Ten Thousand Things, meaning we recognize that we are interconnected with everything in the universe. This interconnectedness is one of the really important visions of Buddhism.

So that’s how I both got into my career as a Buddhist study scholar, and ordained as a Buddhist priest in my early 20s.

Sometimes Buddhism is called Chudo — the middle way, the middle path. It means to practice without taking an extreme stance. To me that meant not rejecting anything; it meant being able to embrace both parents. It allowed me to embrace everything.

Another teaching that the Buddha had was that the self is not permanent. And when you see that your “self” is flexible, dynamic, and not static, you can be like, “Oh, in certain circumstances I’m going to be more Japanese, and in other contexts I might be a little more British, and that’s okay.”

So it somehow fit me, to be able to frame things like that. It helped me to navigate.

CN: How did you decide at some point to study mixed race, and what made you start the Hapa Japan Project?
I wasn’t trained to do anything in Mixed Race Studies — and for “American Sutra” the book, I wasn’t trained in Japanese American World War II history or Asian American history. Only after tenure was I comfortable enough to stretch myself to take on subjects that I’ve always had a curiosity and interest in, but no formal training in.
I’ve always said that in Asian American Studies there are two blind spots: one that has to do with religion and the other that has to do with mixed race. Both subjects are seen as threatening, in a way, because the field is predicated on an understanding that Asian Americans are a unitary group.
If there was an overall theme to the type of work I’m interested in, it’s really about how do we come up with a vision — for me it happens to be based in Buddhism but you could come at it from whatever angle you want to — but a vision that says that the boundaries of nation, of community, of yourself even, shouldn’t be structured around a notion of purity. For example, when we say “as pure as snow” — even snow is not pure!

That’s what the Buddha was trying to say — there’s nothing that’s absolutely pure, everything is interconnected and made up of everything else.

Whenever I decide to study something, I read everything I can find, and then I ask myself, “What can I contribute? Where’s the gap?”

On the scholarly side, in Mixed Race Studies, I was seeing that there were conversations happening that could use a historical perspective. I felt like it was important to acknowledge that there have been previous generations of peoples; I thought that they needed to be part of the discussion. So the first essay of “Hapa Japan” begins in the seventh, eighth, ninth centuries.

Also, I could bring into conversation Japan-based scholars working on multiraciality in Japan; bring them into conversation with North American scholars.

This subject is so ripe for a comparative perspective, to help people think of mixed-race Japanese in a more global way.

Cindy Nakashima has researched, written on, and taught about mixed race for over 30 years, and recently spoke with American Sutra author Duncan Williams about the connections between Buddhism and Japanese multiraciality.

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