Kind of a strange self-portrait, but insofar as it reflects things that are important in my life, it's actually quite accurate.
This is a butsudan, a Buddhist altar. Butsudan in Japanese literally means "buddha shelf."
This one is about 21 inches tall, 17 inches wide and 12 inches deep.
I brought it with me when I moved back to the U.S. from Japan. As a student of Japanese religions, I wanted it as a keepsake and something more.
The butsudan business is big money in Japan. B-I-G money. My butsudan is of the type you might find in the small apartment of a person on a budget, or kept by a shopkeeper in his store. It cost about $350 back in 1998. More ornate butsudan, the type you often find in a house, can stand 6 feet tall and cost $35,000 or more.
If memory serves, there's an annual unofficial (I think) holiday, celebrated in February or March, stemming from the nearly 1,500-year-old custom of having a butsudan in one's house.
It's sort of a National Butsudan Day, on which everyone is encouraged to spruce up their altars, maybe buy a new one -- the most expensive one you can afford. After all, you wouldn't want to dishonor your ancestors -- whose memorial tablets are kept inside the altars -- by purchasing something chintzy.
The thing is, there is nothing -- NOTHING -- written in any of the Buddhist sutras mandating that people have butsudan. Buddhist teachings don't even mention butsudan. Nor do they mention memorial tablets. These things aren't Buddhist at all.
Butsudan and memorial tablets come out of a purely Confucian tradition that was imported into Japan from China ages and ages ago.
When Buddhism itself came to Japan, first from Korea in the sixth century and afterward from China, the monarchy ordered all households to have a butsudan as a way to entrench the new religion among the people. The idea was to enshrine the Buddha in your house, and also enshrine your ancestors for good measure.
In Japan, there are stores that sell only Buddhist altars and such trappings as butsuzo (statues of buddhas), incense, candles, sutra books, Buddhist wall scrolls and juzu (Buddhist rosaries). That's my discount card, above, from one such chain, Hasegawa Butsudan. This place should be called The Buddha Depot. It's where I bought my butsudan.
The card has the store name and the words Magokoro Kado -- sincerity card.
OK, enough of the history lesson, and back to the self-portrait aspects.
Inside the altar is a buddha statue I bought at a very famous temple in Ichikawa, Chiba prefecture.
The vase next to the statue with the flowers in it was purchased at Mt. Koya in Wakayama prefecture, site of a 1,300-year-old temple complex and one of the holiest spots in Japan.
Below and to the right of the statue is a bell -- not the kind you shake, but the type you strike, sort of like a Tibetan "singing bowl." I bought it in Ibaraki prefecture, north of where I lived, from a butsudan shop along a coastal road that holds many fond memories for me.
To the left of the bell is a white offering cup. To its left is a candle I bought in New York City at a Japanese restaurant at which my sister and I had a beautiful lunch just a week or so before one of my first major surgeries.
On it is printed the Heart Sutra.
The photo on the left is of my dad shortly after his induction into the army in World War II. The other photo is of Chojun Miyagi-sensei, founder of Goju-ryu, the style of karate I practice. Funny, two pictures of dead men who would've been mortal enemies 60-odd years ago, together on a buddha shelf.
And there you have it.