Japanese Buddhist temples throughout Hawaii and North America have a secret. Move past the usual public spaces—the hondo (main hall) and the social hall—and you’ll quickly discover it. Lurking behind the altar area, squatting in the minister’s office, and hiding in libraries, closets, and random corners are innumerable dark wooden boxes. Shiny with black lacquer, dusty with age, some smaller than a breadbox and others big enough to crawl into, there are the mortal remains of fading Buddhist devotion. They are butsudan (sometimes spelled with the honorific “O,” meaning “respected”): home Buddhist shrines filled with sacred objects, religious icons, loves, fears, and maybe even a ghost or two. Their presence in the back spaces of temples reveals much about changing Buddhist patterns in the West.
Historically, the majority of Buddhists have been ordinary householders with home-based practices. In many Buddhist cultures such as Japan, domestic Buddhism has centered on a home shrine or altar. That family Buddhism was brought to Hawaii and North America with the early Japanese immigrants, providing an anchor for Asian Buddhists in an often hostile land without Buddhist culture or Buddhist ancestors.
Most Japanese Americans and Canadians can call to mind a family butsudan, whether their own or their grandparents’. Ordained Jodo Shinshu minister Alice Unno is an important mentor to generations of Shin Buddhists. As she was growing up in California’s Central Valley in the 1930s, the family butsudan often occupied her imagination:
It was really important to my parents that we had an Obutsudan at home. My parents always told us that if ever there were a fire, the altar was the first thing we had to take out of the house—that and the drawer underneath it, which contained the sutras and important papers like birth certificates. I was always scared of dusting the altar because it was so special and sacred. My mother always said you shouldn’t just use an ordinary rag. There was a special cloth to clean it with. We bowed to it in the morning and in the evening before we went to sleep.
Butsudan remain cherished items in many Japanese American and Canadian homes. But many others have become orphans as patterns of religious belonging and practice shift, and they ultimately end up sheltering in nearby temples. Refugees of a secularizing society, these cast-out sacred objects wait to be adopted by new generations. But if they can’t find a new family, they face eventual destruction.
Buddhist cultures often have a tradition of domestic altars. The butsudan became ubiquitous in all Japanese households, from the lowest peasant to the royal family, during the long Tokugawa period (1603–1867) that preceded Japan’s forced entry into the modern world. Their basic shape is a wooden cabinet, taller than it is wide, with double doors on the front that open to reveal a mini-world of buddha statues, scrolls, and ihai (ancestral tablets). There are candles, memorial books, incense burners, stands for offerings, and other items that cluster around or within the altar. Butsudan range from humble to grand, with gold leaf, black lacquer, delicate carvings, hanging adornments, and other flourishes suggesting levels of devotion, sectarian affiliation, and, frankly, conspicuous wealth in some cases.
Butsudan historically held an honored place in Japanese homes, often with a separate shrine room. Devout family members gathered daily before the butsudan to pray, make offerings, chant scriptures, and commune with the spiritual figures enshrined within. Monks would visit the home on memorial days and Buddhist holidays to perform services at the butsudan.
The lack of clear distinction between buddhas and ancestors is a key aspect of the Japanese Buddhist tradition. Buddhist funeral rituals involve dressing the corpse as a monk and bestowing an ordination name on the departing spirit so that they become enlightened in the afterlife. In this way, the ancient tradition of ancestor veneration melds with the long-ago-introduced practices of Buddhism, accommodating both religious impetuses. The butsudan is the primary tool and site in this Japanese spiritual blend. Memorial plaques for deceased parents and grandparents are placed near the central buddha image, and all receive offerings and devotion. Family members take on the patina of awakened tathagatas, and buddha figures may be considered ultimate household patriarchs.
The swirl of forces that centers on the butsudan is complex. Rituals help to placate the spirits and send them away on their journey to the next life. Rites also help to hold on to missing loved ones and rebind them to watch over the family. Dharma practices inculcate values of selflessness, nondual wisdom, and transpersonal perspectives. And learning and repeating the lineage and religious procedures cultivates family identity and cultural continuity.
As such, butsudan are more than boxes. They are storytellers and lineage holders. They act as meeting places for the living and the dead, for foolish beings and compassionate buddhas. Butsudan are places of holding on and letting go, of detachment and identity formation. As sites of practice, mourning, and renewal, they are visible reminders of the competing forces that comprise the lives of ordinary people in an imperfect, challenging world.
All of this was magnified in the initial immigrant generations. Cut off from their homeland, Japanese immigrants set up butsudan when their parents died far away on the other side of the ocean. Unable to be with them in person, the butsudan provided a portal to lives and loved ones separated by water, nation, and death. The butsudan provided a way to care for departed elders, calm the mind, and hold on to a private symbol of Buddhist commitment in a place where Buddhists were often under suspicion or attack.
Given the importance of butsudan in Japanese Buddhism, why are so many coming to live at American and Canadian temples? Primarily, abandoned butsudan arrive at a temple in the wake of a death. An older family member has died, and the next generation inherits their property, including the butsudan. In the past, the newly deceased would be enshrined with an ihai. The inheritors would use the butsudan as the focus of their devotions, teaching their children the ways of respect so that they might one day receive and carry on the butsudan and its traditions.
But religiosity has decreased in newer Japanese American and Canadian generations just as in most non-immigrant populations; already into the fifth and sixth generations, Japanese North Americans and Hawaiians are not a majority immigrant group. More and more Americans and Canadians of every background are dropping out of formal religion, sometimes opting for a more diffuse spirituality or simple secularism. Even among those who retain an interest in Buddhism, the older traditions are often lost as economic and social forces cause people to live far from family in nuclear units. It was mainly the more senior, often retired generations who actively used the butsudan; they also did much of the childcare, and thus wisdom and practices were naturally passed down through the generations. Now that so many live apart from their parents and grandparents, these transmission lines are weakened or broken. Thus, when they inherit butsudan, many people are clueless about their purpose or how to use them.
Butsudan are places of holding on and letting go, of detachment and identity formation.
As such, the arrival of butsudan at temples represents a decrease in Buddhist practice in the Japanese American and Canadian subcultures. But it’s also a sign of trends far beyond the Buddhist community: the fraying of family ties, weakening of social bonds, and rise of a distracted, drifting society increasingly out of touch with the valuable aspects of its heritage.
There’s another factor to account for too: some people view butsudan as creepy. They’re dark boxes within which spirits perhaps dwell. Not knowing their function, people with minimal Buddhist training may fear that bringing one into the home invites bachi (bad luck). Rather than a source of love and respect, butsudan can provoke fear in those who only know that Grandma used to kneel and mumble in an unfamiliar language before this strange cabinet when they visited her.
But suppose the accumulating butsudan at temples indicates a decrease in Buddhist devotion and weakened family ties. In that case, their presence also indicates the staying power of Buddhist material culture and respect for family, no matter how distant. After all, lots of furniture, clothing, and knick-knacks that people inherit go immediately to the thrift store or garbage bin. But many butsudan and their associated items are recognized as sacred—if not to the new owners, to someone—and are carefully (if sheepishly) deposited at Buddhist temples in the hope that someone else will care for these things.
Ministers have mixed feelings about the tide of butsudan washing up at their doorsteps. Their immediate reaction is to try to make the family feel comfortable and to express gratitude to them for not tossing the butsudan in the trash. Ministers accept that the butsudan’s journey with this family has ended and rarely try to persuade anyone to keep it.
Their gratitude exists alongside some sadness as well, as Reverend Matt Hamasaki of the Sacramento Buddhist Temple expressed:
I appreciate that people have the respect to put it someplace that it belongs. But it does make me sad that people don’t want to keep it. Within my own family, I don’t think anyone has an obutsudan except for me, and I inherited my grandparents’ because no one wanted it. It makes me sad that no one would want it. But like I said, I appreciate that they bring it to some place instead of just throwing it out.
Some ministers experience frustration over the clutter that results from so many butsudan huddling in the back of their temples, occasionally taking over whole storage rooms and crowding out other possible uses of the space. Many butsudan languish for years, with no one to take them home yet reluctance by the temple to dispose of them.
When the time comes, the decision to get rid of old, often broken-down butsudan presents its own challenges. Most ministers are unwilling to toss them in the dumpster. In Japan, the usual method for disposing of sacred objects is to burn them, mirroring the respectful cremation of bodies. Many ministers carry out a funeral ritual for aged butsudan, chanting a sutra and offering thanks for the shrine’s work to uphold the buddhadharma and care for families. Burning the butsudan can be a problem: most temples are on the West Coast, where strict fire laws prevent easy disposal. One temple used to get around this by using them as fuel for beach bonfires when they were still permitted—but even that possibility has been cut off in the new age of extreme climate change. Thus, respectful funerals for old butsudan may become another casualty of global warming.
Not all butsudan end up cremated. Some temples run butsudan adoption programs, advertising available shrines in their newsletters, displaying them at community events, and showing them to new members. In March, the Fresno Betsuin Buddhist Temple displayed a dozen butsudan, and all found new homes.
The community’s youngest members are also not always indifferent to butsudan and their practices. The Young Buddhist Editorial (YBE) is one of the most dynamic initiatives to recently emerge from Japanese American temples. A collective of primarily young Japanese American Jodo Shinshu Buddhists, YBE ran a special feature titled “Home is Where the Buddha Is.” Dozens of people contributed photographs of their butsudan with short remarks. For example, YBE editor Gillian Yamagiwa wrote:
My Obutsudan was inherited in 2005 from my great uncle after he passed away. Both of my aunts felt that I would appreciate the sentiment and importance of the Obutsudan the most, coming from a family that regularly practiced Buddhism. As a kid, I never really understood why we had an Obutsudan, but as I got older, I began to see it as a way to honor and remember loved ones that have passed.
Most of the butsudan in the YBE photo essay are traditional black wooden boxes, like Yamagiwa’s. But a significant minority are little handcrafted ones made as dharma school activities from materials like kamaboko (fish cake) boards or shoeboxes. Some freestyling interpretations of butsudan also exist, using statues, personal mementos, and even light-up buddha images. The less traditional shrines suggest that even if some butsudan complete their life cycle and are cremated, the impulse to maintain personal sacred space lingers. The karma of butsudan practice hasn’t been extinguished.
That ability to be reinterpreted and reborn through individual meaning-making may provide the longest staying power for butsudan in a rapidly changing world. As domestic religious objects, butsudan have often existed in tension between the orthodox views of organized Buddhist sects in Japan and the quotidian desires and needs of regular laypeople. Stored within homes rather than temples, butsudan have always had the potential to be adapted to their families’ preferences. Two stories from Reverend Henry Adams of the San Mateo Buddhist Temple illustrate the push and pull of orthodoxy and domesticity.
Rev. Adams had a traditional monastic education in Japan and recalled a story about his teacher being taken to a home to conduct a service at the butsudan. The family had set a cup of tea in front of the butsudan, probably as an offering to an ancestor who enjoyed tea during their life. This isn’t orthodox Jodo Shinshu behavior, and the officiating minister dropped a match into the teacup after lighting the candle as if to say, “Surely this is why this teacup is here—what other purpose could it serve?” As a trainee, Rev. Adams was impressed by this story, which suggested that the head minister was bold in righteously fulfilling and passing down the proper tradition from 800 years ago.
But his attitude changed after becoming a minister. He was invited to conduct a memorial service at a temple member’s home and was surprised to find several glasses of water laid out in front of the butsudan, another violation of the orthodox practice. As he noticed that the people being memorialized all had the same date of death and remembered that the member was from Nagasaki, he realized that she had lost most of her family in the atomic bombing. She told him the people injured by the bomb were terribly thirsty and called out for water as they died. So, she remembers her loved ones lost to war and offers glasses of water to honor them.
Usually, we think of ministers instructing laypeople. But here the layperson showed the minister the true potentiality that the butsudan possessed. As Rev. Adams related:
That was very eye-opening to me, you know—it meant that I needed to be much more flexible and open to appreciating the ways in which the obutsudan can serve as a focal point for people in their home spiritual lives. And in the case of this woman, it’s really her lifelong process of navigating the grief from that traumatic event of her childhood.
The ever-growing number of butsudan at temples suggests that Buddhist devotion and traditional practices are losing their grip on people’s hearts and imagination, even as some manage to find new homes and some young people work to maintain and reinvent their religious heritage. Those discarded butsudan all have stories to tell like the one from Nagasaki. Some were assembled from scrap wood during the WWII incarceration of Japanese Americans and Canadians. Others have less dramatic, yet no less poignant, origins in the everyday lives of immigrants and their children discovering how to be American and Canadian Buddhists. All watched over generations of Buddhists as their families grew, played, quarreled, and went about their daily lives. Resting in the dim corners of temples, away from the bustle and chanting of the main hall, they wait to see what karma has in store for them.
To learn more about the contemporary fates of butsudan, see Jeff Wilson’s chapter “The Afterlives of Butsudan: Ambivalence and the Disposal of Home Altars in the United States and Canada” in Buddhism and Waste: The Excess, Discard, and Afterlife of Buddhist Consumption, edited by Trine Brox and Elizabeth Williams-Oerberg (Bloomsbury Academic, 2022).