Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Self-Portrait Tuesday, Valentine's Day

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.

20 comments:

Kitty said...

Michael, that is a lovely butsudan. It reminds me of the little, simple butsudan I had (it hung on the wall) during the short period of time I practiced Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism, 25 years ago, before I figured out that particular path was not for me. Some of those folks had very fancy butsudans.

About having your dad's picture and sensei's picture on the same altar: my dad served in the US Army Air Force in WWII, in the Eastern theatre -- India-China-Japan. (In fact my father was the person who first spoke the Sanskrit phrase "tat twam asi" to me. He wasn't using it in a spiritual manner; I just remember him using that phrase once when I was a little kid, in talking about being in India.)

Anyway, my sister is now married to a second-generation Japanese-American; both of his parents were in the internment camps during the war. My dad is a little uncomfortable with his Japanese son-in-law but amazingly not that much. So humans are teachable and we are learning.

g said...

So buying a new butsudan for National Butsudan Day, is like buying a new big plasma TV for the Superbowl.

On the other hand, I know many people in this land who have a small altar in their house.

And I've always thought it was a great idea to honor the ancestors.

Chris said...

Self-portraits are great. But I like this style. This picture may tell more about you than any actual portrait.

You are lucky to have had the experiences you have had and been to the places you have. I just received a little Buddha statue from my wife as an anniversary present and was thinking of making a small shelf for it and other objects.

I was struck by the shelf and brackets your butsudan rests upon. They look exactly like a shelf I put up in my living room. Ace Hardware??

Michael said...

Hi Kitty,

Thank you! I'm with you: I'm not very crazy about Nichiren or any of its offshoots, especially Soka Gakkai. Ironically, though, the buddha inside my altar -- Amida in Japanese, Amitabha in Sanskrit -- was purchased at a butsudan store near one of two Nichiren Shoshu head temples, this one not far from Tokyo. Regarding your dad and your brother-in-law, it's funny how things work out, isn't it?

Michael said...

Hello g,

Well, not quite. Maybe more like buying a new car every so often. One of my friends, a Buddhist priest in Japan, told me that the clerks at the butsudan stores actually have a sales pitch that makes customers feel guilty if they don't shell out to buy the very best altar they can (or can't) afford.
I agree with you, it's a good idea to remember where one has come from.

Hello Chris,
Yes, I agree completely: Our possessions speak volumes about ourselves. And I've been extraordinarily lucky to have had the opportunities I've been given.
And yes, your instincts about the shelf and brackets are right: Ace is the place, as they say!

anu said...

And who is that little girl smiling in the pic below. She is so cute.

Happy Valentine's day Michael :)
Wish you loads of health, love, light, laughter, light and prosperity in your life.

Michael said...

Hi Anu,

Happy Valentine's Day to you, too!!!!!
As for the little girl, she is just an appropriately cute tot randomly chosen to grace the butsudan store discount card -- and, probably, to make tightwads feel guilty about not buying a Mercedes-Benz of a butsudan.

Michael said...

P.S. My butsudan is the Japanese Buddhist equivalent of a Hyundai, but I'm all right with that.

mrsbeach said...

Happy Valentines Day new found friend.
I think your picture does "speak a thousand words", as another friend, always says.
I like your idea of self portrait Tuesday, I am seeing the soul, not just a face. I will try to post one next Tuesday for you.
Larry is holding his own, he always has a smile to share!

take care

Michael said...

Thanks, Beachy! Give Larry a hug for me.

LBseahag said...

you are my spiritual valentine...
hope you don't mind!

Michael said...

Not at all, LB, and thanks! Welcome back to the blogosphere. I hope you family visit was a good one.

MikeDoe said...

I found this picture very inetersting and moving. It was an alter of remembrance not of worship.

Yesterday I was thinking to myself that I don't have anything like that in my house. It wasn't the whole truth.

I am looking now at a painting by my father and a few other ornaments arranged on some shelves near me. Together they remind me of various good things.

There is no Butsudan but it is still there.

Mary said...

I love that you have your father's picture on your butsudan ...

Michael said...

Hi JD,
Sounds to me like you have the perfect butsudan.


Hi Mary,
Welcome, and thanks for your comment!

greenbean said...

Dear Michael, I've one in my humble house.It's like having a temple in my home.I always pray to the Buddha and meditate in front of the altar.Have been doing it for the past 20 years. Things come and go.Events up and down. Happiness, joy, grief and sorrows..they all happened in the household.Currently going through a crisis...hope it will pass too.Take care and cheers!

Michael said...

Hi Greenbean,

I hope you find peace, as I'm sure you will.

Green said...

I still remember the CM song, "obutsudan no Hasegawa~~". I think they have a very big chain everywhere in Japan.
Your butsudan is very cute. Do you have a Mokugyo?
I love the sound of Mokugyo, very calming.

Phats said...

I hope you had a nice valentine's day and all is well with ya!

Michael said...

Hi Phats,
Yes, my Valentine's Day was pleasant, as I hope yours was, too. I'm feeling fine. How about you?

Hi Greensleeves,
Yes, the Hasegawa chain is HUGE! I have a small mokugyo that I bought at a temple on Shikoku. I agree, the sound is very comforting, especially the sound of the very large ones you see in temples.