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Stellar Religion Students Receive Major University Awards

Religion and Archaeology students at USC have scooped up an outstanding number of awards this year - quite possibly a record number for any department!


An incredible total of FOUR out of the ten Steven and Kathryn Sample Renaissance Scholars this year are Religion or Archaeology students: Kausar Ali, Grant Dixon, Karissa Masciel, and Adeel Mohammadi.


Adeel Mohammadi was one of only seven students to receive the University Trustees Award.


Kalena Giessler in Archaeology, and Karissa Masciel and Adeel Mohammadi in Religion all received the prestigious Andrew W. Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowships – only seven in total were awarded.


See this article for the full lists of honors.



Commencement 2014: Congratulations to Religion Students!

Some images from USC Commencement ceremony 2014. Congratulations to all our very successful religion students.


Karissa Masciel at the post commencement reception. Karissa also just received an award for Extraordinary Community Service:


Birka Burnison and Grant Dixon at the reception.



Professors Duncan Williams and David Albertson on the commencement stage.




End of Year Message from Chair Duncan Williams

Dear School of Religion Community,

It is my great pleasure to announce that Professor Lori Meeks has been appointed the incoming chair of the School of Religion when my term ends this summer. She is a leading scholar of Buddhism and Japanese religions with national and international prominence in those respective fields as reflected in her service as the American Academy of Religion Buddhism Section Co-Chair and the Society for the Study of Japanese Religion’s President. Please help me welcome her to this new leadership role.

As this newsletter is one of the last ones of the semester, let me briefly list up some of our department’s recent developments. First, we have recently added three new tenure-track faculty members: Rongdao Lai (Chinese religions), Jessica Marglin (modern Judaic studies), and Cavan Concannon (early Christianity). Second, we have revamped the undergraduate curriculum, reversing some previous trends with a gradual increase in majors, double majors, and minors. Third, the faculty worked hard to develop a new Ph.D. program proposal and curriculum, which should be on track to be approved in the near future. Finally, several development initiatives such as the funding of a new endowed chair in Hindu Studies (pledge to be completed by the end of the year) has added new momentum to the already robust development efforts of the various religion-related research centers directed by SOR faculty.

On a personal note, it has been a privilege to work with everyone in the SOR community (students, faculty, staff, external supporters) during the past three years. With the recent establishment of the newly renamed USC Shinso Ito Center for Japanese Religions and Culture, I will be shifting over to directing that center as a hub for the study of Japan on the USC campus.

Please continue your enthusiastic support for the department under the new leadership of Lori Meeks. I am very confident that she will take the department to new heights with your ever warm-hearted support.

Finally, just a reminder that the department is hosting a welcome reception for Rongdao Lai, who joined us this semester from McGill and a celebration for James McHugh, who has recently been promoted to Associate Professor with tenure. This event will take place at 5pm on Monday, May 5th at the University Club.

Please join us if you can,


Religion Honor Society Ceremony, April 10


Some of this years students who were inducted into the TAK National Honor Society at a ceremony on the University Club on April 10 2014.



Prof Sherma Wins 2014 Professors of Color Award

Professor Rita Sherma has been selected to review the 2014 Professors of Color Recognition Award, hosted by the Asian Pacific American Student Assembly, and the Academic Culture Assembly of USCs Program Award.

The awarding body stated that Prof Sherma has been described by her nominators as inspirational, passionate, and dedicated. And that she has created active thinkers and leaders by constantly challenging her students to think critically and creatively.



April 23 - Mehfil Massive: South Asian Religions, Music and Poetry

Friday April 25 - Religion Democracy and the Arab Awakening

On Friday, April 25, the USC Center for Islamic Thought, Culture and Practice, the USC Knight Program for Media and Religion, and GlobalPost will sponsor a one-day conference, “Religion Democracy and the Arab Awakening. The gathering will be a groundbreaking exchange and collaboration between scholars and journalists, aimed at advancing knowledge and strengthening coverage of a critical topic The conference will conclude with a keynote address by Professor Tariq Ramadan at 5 p.m. in the Annenberg Auditorium. A reception will follow.

Registration is not required but to RSVP for Religion, Democracy and the Arab Awakening, please visit: .

Two Lectures on Buddhism this Week

The Shinso Ito Center for Japanese Religions and Culture is hosting two lectures on Buddhism this week.

Monday April 14th:

Levi McLaughin is speaking about “The Origins of Soka Gakkai: Tracing the Transformation of an Educational Reform Society into Japan’s Largest Religious Organization.”

5:00-6:30 pm in the East Asian Seminar Room of Doheny Library.


Tuesday April 15th:

Robert Buswell (UCLA) will be speaking at an event to launch the new Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism.

5:00-7:00 pm in the Alumni Conference Room, Davidson Conference Center. 



The USC Shinso Ito Center for Japanese Religions and Culture presents: “The Origins of Soka Gakkai”

The USC Shinso Ito Center for Japanese Religions and Culture invites you to our upcoming lecture by Professor Levi McLaughlin of North Carolina State University:

The Origins of Soka Gakkai: Tracing the Transformation of an Educational Reform Society into Japan’s Largest Religious Organization

 5:00-6:30 PM

East Asian Seminar Room (110C), Doheny Memorial Library 

**Please RSVP to**

 Soka Gakkai, literally the “Value Creation Study Association,” is a lay organization rooted in Nichiren Buddhism that rose in the postwar era to become the largest religious organization in Japan, and most likely the largest religious group in Japanese history. Perhaps ironically, Japan’s largest religion did not begin as a religion at all but instead started in the 1930s as a small collective of schoolteachers and intellectuals committed to educational reform. Drawing on rare primary sources and interviews with veteran adherents, this presentation will trace Soka Gakkai’s foundation and will identify crucial points in its development by discussing how its twin legacies of medieval Japanese Buddhism and modern humanism conflated within the group’s practices – such as youth training, cultural activities, and political mobilization. Analysis of Soka Gakkai’s remarkable transformation into a religious mass movement will reveal distinctive aspects of “New Religions” that take shape in the context of modern nation-states.  

This talk comprises portions of Prof. Mclaughlin’s forthcoming book Soka Gakkai: Buddhism and Romantic Heroism in Modern.

This event is free and open to the public. Refreshments will be provided!



$6.6 Million Gift for USC Shinso Ito Center for Japanese Religions and Culture


Her Holiness Shinso Ito, leader of the Shinnyo-en Buddhist order 

The Shinnyo-en Buddhist order has provided a $6.6 million gift to USC for the study of Japan. The newly named USC Shinso Ito Center for Japanese Religions and Culture, which was established in 2011 to serve as a hub for the study of Japan at the university, honors Shinnyo-en’s current leader, Her Holiness Shinso Ito.

Shinnyo-en’s support for USC’s center represents one of the largest gifts ever given to a center dedicated to the study of Japan in North America. Shinnyo-en is an international Buddhist order of nearly a million practitioners that promotes an inclusive and innovative pathway to enlightenment, the values of peaceful coexistence with other religions and a culture of service to others in need.

(Text: Michelle Boston, for USC News, March 14, 2014)

- See more at:!/article/60057/major-gift-supports-newly-named-usc-shinso-ito-center/%E2%80%8B

Also see the report on this in the LA Times:,0,

USC Archaeology in the News

USC Archaeology students and faculty helped exhume the remains of a famous racehorse at the closed Hollywood Park race track - this fascinating story made local and national news:



Talk Tues 18 - Phallicism and Fertility in Japan

Phallicism and Fertility in Contemporary Japan:

Ancient Traditions or Urban Myths?

18 February 2014, 9am

CJRC Lecture Series


Dr. Stephen Turnbull

University of Leeds

ABSTRACT: The topic of Japanese phallicism is one that is best known through matsuri such as the famous Tagata Shrine Festival where a large phallus is carried in procession, yet this popular event conceals a much more widespread and little known tradition. This lecture will explain the systems of classification that are possible to apply to phallic shrines in Japan and will illustrate the scheme with numerous examples including key festival performances. Other matters to be discussed include their relationship to mainstream Shinto, the dynamic nature of their related beliefs and practices, the continued relevance of the overall term ‘phallicism’ to describe them in view of the presence of female imagery and the crucial question of their place in an increasingly secular and urban society.

BIOGRAPHY: Stephen Turnbull took his first degree at Cambridge and has two MAs (in Theology and Military History) from Leeds University. In 1996 he received a PhD from Leeds for his work on Japan’s ‘Hidden Christians’. His work has been recognized by the awarding of the Canon Prize of the British Association for Japanese Studies and a Japan Festival Literary Award. In 2008 he was appointed Visiting Professor of Japanese Studies at Akita International University, a position he still holds. Now retired, Stephen

Turnbull is also a Research Associate at SOAS and an Honorary Lecturer at Leeds. He currently divides his time between an annual trip to Akita to teach and much freelance research and advisory work. His interests are focused on Japanese religion and military history and he has published 71 academic and popular books on these themes together with several journal articles. His expertise was also put to use in helping design the strategy game Shogun Total War, and in 2010 he acted as Historical Adviser to Universal Pictures for the movie 47 Ronin starring Keanu Reeves. Dr. Turnbull’s current academic research projects include a study of Japanese mercenaries in South East Asia in the seventeenth century and a major comprehensive survey of Japan’s phallic shrines.

This event is free and open to the public. Please join us for Breakfast with Dr. Turnbull before the lecture at 8:30 AM! RSVP to


Meijun Fan and Zhihe Wang, scholars from China currently in residence at Claremont School of Theology, will lead a conversation on the growing influence of the thought of Alfred North Whitehead in China today.  There are now 25 centers of scholarship on process philosophy and theology at universities in China.  Process thought is a bridge between East and West, a bridge between science and religion, and a philosophical platform for the development of ecologically sustainable civilization.  Hosted by the USC Office of Religious Life.  For background on process thought, click here.

Feb 20, Thurs, 12-1:30 pm - Free and Open to the Public — Lunch provided — RSVP:

Fishbowl Room, University Religious Center, USC



New Lori Meeks Maymester Course on Buddhist Literature

Dear Religion Majors and Minors,

I am excited to offer a Maymester version of REL 134 this spring, May 21-June 19, 2014. This course will take place in Los Angeles but will feature a series of field trips to Buddhist sites throughout the greater Los Angeles area. To register for the course, choose “REL 134: Introduction to Buddhist Literature” (here: There is no formal application process, but you should feel free to contact me with any questions your might have. I hope to see some of you in May! And please spread the word to friends or classmates who may be interested, too. We can enroll up to 50 students in the course.

Many thanks, Lori M.

REL 134g/Introduction to Buddhist Literature: Ancient Scriptures and Contemporary Buddhist Life

Explore Buddhist Thought and Practice in Southern California

Instructor: Associate Prof. Lori Meeks

Dates: May, 2014: 

What roles do scriptures—or religious texts—play in contemporary religious life? Westerners first learning about an unfamiliar religious tradition often begin by studying the tradition’s most sacred texts. Scriptures provide a good starting point for learning about a religious community, but even the closest investigation of scripture provides only partial knowledge. To understand the role that scriptures play in a particular religious tradition, we need to investigate the dynamics between text, interpretation, and practice. What do Buddhists do that identifies them as Buddhists, and how do these practices relate to sacred texts? Through what processes have Buddhist communities recorded, transmitted, and reinterpreted their teachings? And finally, how do Buddhist communities make sense of and use scriptures today? 

This course is two-pronged. Part of the week will be devoted to lecture and discussion sections. In these meetings you will learn about the history of Buddhist literature and will perform close readings of the tradition’s most fundamental texts. During the remainder of the week, we will embark on fieldtrips to Buddhist temples and will interact with local Buddhist nuns, monks, ministers, and lay followers. On these trips you will discover how contemporary Buddhist communities understand, use, and interpret ancient scriptures as they engage with twenty-first-century American society. 

In addition to our group field trips, you will also work with a small group of peers on a final research project in which you investigate the use of scripture at a particular community or set of communities. Together with your group (and under the guidance of the instructor and teaching assistant), you will make at least four independent site visits to collect data and perform interviews. Your group will present a short, preliminary report to the class at the beginning of week three and will present a final report on the last day of class.

Program Costs:

Tuition: $6144 (can be included as part of Spring load) 

The Queen and the Monk - Talk on Buddhist Meditation at UCLA

Scholar Erik Braun is giving a talk on “The Queen and the Monk: How Colonialism Sparked the Global Insight Meditation Movement” at UCLA this Friday 7 Feb.

These days, insight meditation (vipassana) has a global reach in both religious and secular settings, but the precise circumstances and reasons for its transformation into a mass movement have remained unexplained. This talk will examine the Burmese colonial context of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries—where the queen and the monk met—to trace the rise of modern insight practice and the logic of its development up to the present day.

Friday, February 07, 2014
3:00 PM - 5:00 PM
243 Royce Hall

Erik Braun received his PhD from the Committee on the Study of Religion at Harvard University.  He recently published the book The Birth of Insight: Meditation, Modern Buddhism, and the Burmese Monk Ledi Sayadaw and now teaches at the University of Oklahoma. 

Special Instructions
Pay parking available on Lot 5 Level 6

Cost : Free and open to the public