Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Butsudan - Bringing Buddha To The Home

2nd August, 2010 - Today I'll touch on something that is fairly common within Japan... Buddhist worship at home. Now T-chan's family are not especially religious, but they do have a Buddhist faith, sitting unobtrusively alongside their more traditional shinto customs, which in itself sits within a very broad view of the world. The most obvious focal point in their home, like many Japanese homes, is the butsudan - or Buddhist alter. These ornate home altars arose particularly during the Edo period from the the dedication to Buddhist teachings, and were designed to reflect the Buddhist temples, but in miniature. This is important in families of the eldest son, who may be seen as the heir to the family name. It's now very much a common part of the life within Japan.

I'm amazed at just how much intricate detail work is included in these altars... and just how gold they are. I'm not sure whether the use of gold is just an historical left over (and a great marketing ploy by butsudan makers to increase the cost of their goods?), but it certainly conveys the impression of grandness. Of course, I'm sure the real Buddha was never one for such golden shrines (although the historical Gautama or Sakyamuni Buddha was supposedly born a prince...). The altars themselves are housed within a larger cupboard for protection...

There are lots of paraphernalia associated with the butsudan... other than the central statue of the Buddha, rice offerings, candle-sticks and of course the incense sticks and Buddhist scriptures. Actually, it's not unusual to find food (including vegetables) being placed here overnight, an offering and yet something also to be consumed (perhaps extra tasty after a good period of blessing).

A small rin or bell/gong sits to the right (shown below)...these are sometimes known as singing bowls due to the fact that they (like bells) resonate when played along its surface with cylindrical hammer or mallet (I think they're called kon). These are often used in the practice of meditation and ancestor worship.

Okaasan had organised for a monk to come by for a special blessing. It's a strange combination to see the traditional buddhist aspects juxtaposed with L-kun's foam play mat. But the reality is that every part of T-chan's house in Japan is now L-kun's play area while we're there. Unfortunately, T-chan and I were going out so we didn't stay for the monk's visit (and I'm not sure it would have been so appropriate to be snapping away with my camera anyhow).

L-kun has always been interested in the butsdan, and often would sit by Okaasan when she prayed. I'm sure he doesn't understand exactly what's going on, but he knows that it's solemn, quiet and serious time. I think it's nice for L-kun to grow up with a broad spiritual base.

And here's just some more gratuitous photos of Okaasan's flower arrangements. She loves her flowers, and especially in Spring (although this was well into Summer by now), her front garden is always alive with colour of plants in bloom.


  1. Interesting. I am curious though about Butsudan location in Japanese homes. Can you enlighten me please?

    1. Thanks for your comment... I'm not sure where they go in general - but it's likely to be in the 'Japanese' room (ie a more traditional room with tatami floor). Our home in Sapporo doesn't have a Japanese room however (which is becoming more typical these days), so it's kept in the living room. From what I understand, it's not that important which room it's placed in... Likewise, there's no hard and fast rules in terms of directions, though we understand that it's sometimes placed to face south or eastwards. Also, if you also have a 'kamidana' (or Shinto shrine), it's thought to be bad to have these facing each other.

      It's quite likely to depend on the specific Buddhist faith being followed... Sorry I can't be of more help, but that's at least our understanding.

  2. Thanks to Springwolf for picking up a typo... or spelling mistake... Definitely alter ain't no altar.

    1. Oops... once might have been a typo, three times is definitely a spelling mistake. Great to have feedback, and that includes good editorial review. I'd +1 you Springwolf, if I could.

      Change made!