Japanese Shrine or Butsudan

A Buddhist Shrine that houses a mystery

This Yorkshire World Collections object was one of 100 chosen by young people aged 16-24, as part of the London Cultural Olympiad programme Stories of the World.


The Butsudan is a shrine commonly found in Japanese Buddhist homes or temples. It is in the form of a cabinet: a free standing cupboard that can be small or as large as a wardrobe. It is made of lacquered wood, with doors that close to protect the figures inside representing deities that are there to inspire the family members. Sometimes there are drawers at the base used to contain the relics of family ancestors. The doors would be opened during religious ceremonies, with offerings like incense, fruit and tea placed nearby.The doors would then be closed before sunset.

This shrine may not be all that it seems, however. It opens to show 32 different small carved figures, depicting various deities, and one big figure of Kannon Bodhisattva (the Goddess of Mercy).This is a much larger number than usual: most Butsudan shrines would contain only a few Bodhisattva figures, not 33! In addition, during conservation work, it was found that each figure had a number written in Japanese on its back, but that the figures are not positioned in the order of their respective numbers. Could this cabinet have been owned by a Western collector of these figures, who wanted his or her own ‘butsudan’ to house them in? 

Young person's response to this object

The elaborate and beautifully decorated shrine is an example of all that is wonderful about faith. It reflects the Buddhist respect for those who watch over us. Jordan Keighley

Glossary

Shrine - Found in a home or a religious building like a temple or a church, a shrine is used as a focus for prayer.
Deity - A god, often with special qualities.
Lacquered - This cabinet is decorated with layers of different varnishes which would be rubbed down between each layer to produce a glassy surface called 'lacquer'.
Relics - These would be bones or ash from ancestors. Honouring the memory of members of the family who have died is very important in Japanese and Chinese culture.

Discussion Ideas:

  • This Butsudan is placed in a home to help the family think about how to live their everyday life. How will the figure of Kannon Bodhisattva help them to do this?
  • What objects might other families have in their homes to help them focus on living a good life?
  • Apart from 'mercy' what other qualities do you think we need to live a good life in our family and community?
  • What do we use to remember our ancestors and how do we show our respect for them?

Activity Idea:

  • Look at the Google map below and indentify all the countries that are between India and Japan




 
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