A Newsletter of the White River Valley Museum

July 1999

Japanese Buddhist Family Shrine

by Dr. Tina Brewster Wray, Curator of Collections



I remember we had a budsudan in our house
when I was growing up. Every morning
the family would gather around it to pray.
Being farmers, one of the main things,
we prayed for was a good crop.

Sauce Shimojima

When the first Japanese immigrants came to the White River Valley in the late 1800s and early 1900s, they brought with them the practices and rituals of their Buddhist faith. One Buddhist tradition is to have a family shrine, or butsudan, in the home. The butsudan is placed in the central location in the home to emphasize the importance of the teachings of the Buddha to enhance daily life. It is also used as a focus for family members to reflect on their lives, as well as their ancestors. The family Buddhist shrine and its maintenance serve as a mirror for each person to see their true self and to fully awaken their religious consciousness.

The butsudan is used by the family in daily rituals, as well as on special occasions during the year. The ritual usually begins with ringing a bell, which symbolizes unity and wisdom. Then the first serving of rice is placed on a special plate in front of the representation of the Buddha (which is located in the center of the topmost shelf in the altar). Next the family says or reads their prayers. Finally, the bell is rung again to indicate the end of the ritual. There are always at least three other articles that are placed on the altar: a flower vase, a candleholder and an incense burner. The flowers and candlelight represent the compassion and wisdom of the Buddha. The burning of incense has many symbolic interpretations to Buddhists. The change from powder to smoke to scent represents how the form of something may change but its essence remains (for example, the body may die, but the spirit continues, transformed).

The White River Valley Museum is fortunate to have a butsudan in its collection. This turn-of-the-century Buddhist family shrine is 51" tall and 18" deep. It is made of wood, and the exterior surface is lacquered black, while the interior is decorated with gold paint and gold leaf. It is divided into two sections. The upper section has a double set of doors which open into the interior of the shrine. The lower section contains compartments and drawers which could be used for storing the various items used in the rituals.

This large and elaborately crafted family shrine contains many details of symbolic and religious significance. For example, the various shelves and levels represent the levels of existence in the Buddhist world view. At the top are depictions of birds and other symbols which represent the Pure Land (the heavenly world). The lower shelves have scenes of people and trees, representing the earthly, everyday world. Another symbol which appears on both the outside and interior of this butsudan is the lotus. To Buddhists, this flower -- which rises immaculately white from the muddy water -- symbolizes purity and perfection unaffected by the impurity of the world around it.

We have been able to piece together some of the history of the butsudan in the museum's collection. The shrine belonged to a Japanese family that lived in the White River Valley. Since the shrine is quite large and elaborate, the family must have been relatively wealthy. At the time of the evacuation of all persons of Japanese heritage from the West Coast in 1942, the shrine was put in storage locally, possibly at the White River Buddhist Temple. After the end of the War, the family never returned to claim it. It was eventually donated to the museum, where it has been on display for many years. If you have any information about this butsudan, or the family who owed it, please contact Tina or Patricia (253) 939-2783.

Dr. Tina Brewster Wray