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Work describing Buddhists’ faith despite confinement wins Grawemeyer religion prize

Dr. Duncan Ryuken Williams, a religion professor at the University of Southern California, will deliver an address in April 2022

by Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary | Special to Presbyterian News Service

Dr. Duncan Ryuken Williams, a religion professor at the University of Southern California, is the winner of the 2022 Grawemeyer Award in Religion. (Contributed photo)

LOUISVILLE — A scholar who explained how Japanese American Buddhists remained true to their faith even after being forced into U.S. detention camps during World War II has won the 2022 Grawemeyer Award in Religion.

Dr. Duncan Ryuken Williams, a religion professor who directs the Shinso Ito Center for Japanese Religions and Culture at the University of Southern California, won the prize for ideas set forth in “American Sutra: A Story of Faith and Freedom in the Second World War,” his 2019 book published by Harvard University Press.

After Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, the United States government forcibly relocated more than 125,000 people of Japanese ancestry and imprisoned them in detention camps on U.S. soil. Two-thirds were practicing Buddhists.

Some were sent to live in former fairgrounds where stables were hastily converted into living quarters. Others were crowded into dwellings of tarpaper-roofed, Army-style bunkers. Many lost their homes, farms and businesses along with their possessions.

As Williams reviewed diaries and other records of their stay in the camps, he learned Buddhists continued to worship even in confinement. One family celebrated 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 Buddha statue.

“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 said.

The Buddhists’ steadfast devotion to faith in such conditions showed it was possible to be both Buddhist and American and helped launch a less sectarian form of the religion in the United States, Williams found.

“Williams’ work opens the way for a discussion that values religious inclusion over exclusion,” said Dr. Tyler Mayfield, the A.B. Rhodes Professor of Old Testament at LPTS who directs the Grawemeyer Award in Religion. “He shows how Japanese Americans living in a time of great adversity broadened our nation’s vision of religious freedom.”

The University of Louisville and Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary jointly give the religion prize.

Recipients of next year’s Grawemeyer Awards were named this week pending formal approval by university and seminary trustees. The $100,000 prizes also honor seminal ideas in music, world order, psychology and education. Winners are scheduled to visit Louisville in April 2022 to accept their awards and give free talks on the winning ideas.

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