Recently I had an interesting encounter with someone who had a Japanese o-butsudan displayed behind them on a Zoom meeting. An o-butsudan (お仏壇) is a kind of Buddhist altar in Japanese culture, usually a tall cabinet with doors. They can be small cabinets that fit in one’s home, or much larger, ornate ones found in temples like the one below:
I assumed the person was a fellow Buddhist like myself, so afterwards I asked about it, and it turns out they had inherited it from a Japanese friend who had passed away. The obutsudan was open in the Zoom meeting, revealing a gohonzon central image, marking it as a Nichiren-Buddhist altar of some kind. I didn’t have a chance to follow up, though, and learn more about her relationship with the o-butsudan.
Buddhist shrines of some form or another are pretty universal across many cultures. They also come in many shapes or sizes. For example, if you go to a Thai restaurant, you’ll see often see a small, elevated alcove with a small statue of the Buddha there for example. The Buddha is often revered as a special guest or venerable teacher in such altars. For a Buddhist, maintaining an altar has many benefits towards one’s Buddhist practice (more on this in a future post), and it’s also a kind of sacred space too. In the case of Japanese culture, depending on the particular sect, relatives who passed away might have a photo enshrined below the Buddha of course, or funerary tablets (ihai, 位牌) which are based on Chinese funerary traditions. Offerings are also made during Obon Season as well.
It’s not a sacred icon in quite the same way as the Holy Host or the Torah, but it is a sacred space within Buddhist tradition, it’s very personal, and very specific to one’s sect or tradition.
For my part, I inherited a small o-butsudan from a Japanese-American family in my old temple community whose grandmother passed away. They did not need the obutsudan, and it fit nicely in a cubby in my bookshelf, so we adopted it, and installed it in there. I was surprised to learn later that the grandmother had been in the internment camps during WWII.
I wish I knew about Buddhist altars in non-Japanese cultures, but unfortunately, I don’t.
Also, if you’re new to Buddhism, you don’t need an elaborate Buddhist altar. As long as you have an image of the Buddha, a statue, or even a scroll of some kind, that’s a good start. You can adorn with incense, flowers, a candle (including those little LED candles), or even all three, that’s a great start.
If you think of a Buddhist altar as a mirror for oneself and one’s practice, then regardless of what it looks like, the care you put into it is what matters.