Butsudan (Buddhist Alter) (仏壇)

Butsudan is a permanent miniature temple in an ordinary house to enshrine Buddha as well as an alter to enshrine the dead of the family. Its inside is designed as a gorgeous simulation of the Buddhist hall of the head temple of each relevant Buddhist sect, where statues of Buddha and ihai (ancestral tablets) are installed. Butsudan is classified into three main types, i.e. kin butsudan (golden alters), karaki butsudan (rare foreign wood altars) and kagucho butsudan (furniture style altars) (details of which are to be referred to the respective sections).

In contemporary Japanese, the term 'butsudan' generally indicates a household Buddhist altar installed at home as mentioned above, although in a broad sense it means the entire range of alters dedicated to Buddha including platforms (shumidan (An altar made of fine timber, generally with paneling)) to install Buddhist images in the hall of a temple. Butsudan is also called 'Onaibutsu' (literally, indoor Buddha) when it must be especially distinguished from that in a broad sense.


There are two theories to explain the origin of butsudan; one refers to 'jibutsudo' (small private buildings or rooms used by noble men to enshrine their own Buddhist images and for their own personal spiritual edification) and another to 'tamadana' (alters dedicated to spirits of ancestors).
In ancient India, people made 'a ceremonial mound' of earth where they enshrined 'Gods.'
Later, the earth mound was roofed in to avoid rain and wind. This was the origin of temples.
To inherit this origin, the Chinese character of 'dan' has a left-hand radical tsuchi-hen (the 'earth' radical.)
On May 5, 685, Emperor Tenmu issued an imperial edict that 'every state should build its own hotokenomiya (an accommodation for Buddha) to install Buddha images with sutras, and worship them and hold a mass for them.'
Accordingly, the twenty-seventh day of each month is designated as 'butsudan no hi' (the day of Buddhist altars) by Zen Nihon Shukyo Yogu Kyodokumiai (literally, a Cooperative of Religious Utensils Dealers of all Japan). Tamamushi no Zushi (a miniature temple owned by Horyu-ji Temple, with beetles' wings used as parts of its decoration) is considered as the oldest butsudan in existence in Japan. However, the current butsudan is not originated directly from the above said imperial edict.

Theory of Jibutsudo as Origin of Butsudan

Some of the upper crust including aristocracy used to possess their own personal Buddha statues. They were installed, for example, in Byodo-in Ho-do (Ho-do Hall of Byodoin Temple) of Yorimichi FUJIWARA and in Rokuon-ji Temple of Yoshimitsu ASHIKAGA. Also butsudan is considered to have its origin in a life-size Yakushi-butsu (the healing Buddha), which was made and worshipped at home by SUGAWARA no Takasue no musume (the daughter of SUGAWARA no Takasue,) an original writer of "Sarashina Nikki" (the Sarashina Diary). According to Choshu TAKEDA, the above mentioned jibutsudo (a small building or room for a noble man to enshrine and worship Buddhist images) was contracted or dwarfed into butsuma (a room for Buddha) and further made smaller into butsudan to be suitably put indoors.

In the Muromachi period, Rennyo, the eighth head of Hongan-ji Temple and the originator of restoration of Jodo Shinshu (the True Pure Land sect of Buddhism,) gave her followers the hanging scrolls with the script of 'Namu Amidabutsu' (a single, sincere call upon the name of Amida) and encouraged them to enshrine the scrolls at their own butsudan. Butsudan was made in imitation of the head temple of the respective sect, which paved the way for the current kin butsudan. Therefore, Jodo Shinshu Sect has set many standard operating rules on butsudan. Even now in the Jodo Shinshu Sect, it is observed that honzon (principal Buddhist image) of a butsudan should be a hanging scroll acquired from its head temple through each family's ancestral temple.

However, butsudan is a unique custom of Japan, since it cannot be seen in other Buddhist countries like the Kingdom of Thailand.
Those people of Buddhism, other than the Japanese, do not need to have other miniature temples at home because they feel familiar enough with their nearby temples and because of an additional category of kuyodan (a small altar for memorial services of each family to their ancestors.)
In Mongolia, a butsudan of Tibetan Buddhism is occasionally installed in a yurt (house).

Theory of Tamadana as Origin of Butsudan

Tamadana (also known as Bondana and Mizudana) is an altar to greet spirits of the newly dead and ancestors of each family during the Bon festival. While its figure varies according to the area and period of its origin, one example is a board fixed on four corner pillars of bamboo or wood, and another is to use a tea table. Kunio YANAGIDA claims this tamadana had changed from temporary use during the Bon festival to permanent installation and eventually became the butsudan. At present, Takeda's theory of jibutsudo as the origin of butsudan is regarded as dominant.

Period of Diffusion

In the Edo period, contemporary bakufu (Japanese feudal government headed by a shogun) instituted as a part of its policy for religions the Terauke seido (the system of organizing whole temples in Japan with registration of follower families) and made it mandatory for every family to become a parishioner of any temple designated as its bodaiji (a family temple). In witness of being a parishioner of a certain temple, each family became accustomed to install a household butsudan to worship every morning and evening and to invite a priest of its bodaiji temple to hold memorial services to commemorate anniversaries of their ancestors' death dates. This custom became widespread among the common people whose lives became rich in the wake of stabilization of society. These butsudan around the country were greatly influenced by such blooming technologies of construction of temples and shrines in the Genroku era as were seen in Nikko Tosho-gu Shrines. Many production centers of kin butsudan reportedly prospered by contemporary miyadaiku (specialists in construction of shrines and temples). In this regard, however, there are many other opinions which are to be further studied including the question about the time when butsudan became nationally popularized.


In the Kamakura period, the Zen sect had introduced ihai which became gradually adopted by the other sects except Jodo Shinshu (the True Pure Land sect) and became common in the Edo period. Those ihai tablets were then installed in ihai-dan (an altar for ihai tablets) or other altars made in imitation of butsudan of Jodo Shinshu Sect. Later, butsudan of Zen sect style was created in order to discriminate it from that of Jodo Shinshu Sect. Accordingly, other sects than Jodo Shinshu became less strict with butsudan than the Jodo Shinshu Sect.

Meanwhile Shinto has soreisha (where ancestral spirits are enshrined) which corresponds to butsudan of Buddhism. Kami (Gods of Shinto) are enshrined on kamidana (a shelf for Gods), while ancestors are worshipped at soreisha. This soreisha is an altar of Shinto style developed from Buddhist kuyodan. Before the Edo period, however, kamidana had been dedicated also to such ancestors' spirits as had passed away more than the 32nd anniversary of one's death. Butsudan for the family of a resident priest of a temple is specially called 'Onaibutsu' (literally, 'indoor Buddha'). If the term of butsudan simply means a miniature temple, it should not be necessary for any temple which has already its own main hall for Buddha, but an onaibutsu altar is additionally installed in many temples considering it serves for the spirits of ancestors.


Butsudan is equipped with a door. It is reportedly made in imitation of a temple gate. Inside of a temple's main hall for Buddha, there is a folding scroll fixed to share borders with its inner sanctuary. Accordingly, butsudan also has its folding screen inside of the door.
Inside of butsudan is composed of three platforms, the highest of which in the center is called 'shumidan.'
Shumidan is said to be made in the shape of Mt. Sumeru (Buddhism as the highest mountain in the world). Especially, a space on the top of shumidan is called 'kuden' (zushi) (a kind of feretory) where honzon is enshrined. Since this shumidan is designed in imitation of the inner sanctuary of the head temple of each sect, its configuration differs by sect. Both sides of honzon are dedicated to wakiji-butsu (Buddha accompanying honzon) and soshi (the founder of relevant sect). The uppermost platform including shumidan is equipped with 'koran' (balustrade). On the platform under the uppermost, install ihai. If there are plural numbers of ihai tablets, they are placed in alternate shifts of right and left toward them. In postwar days, people began to make holes in the upper sections of both right and left sides of butsudan. These holes are made for lacing electric distribution cables for lanterns.

Difference by Sects

Though little difference is seen in the case of karaki butsudan, kin butsudan have remarkable variations as follows:

Hongan-ji School of Jodo Shinshu Sect (Nishi Hongan-ji Temple)
Butsudan with a single gabled roof (palace) and gilded pillars (palace and outer pillars), both made in imitation of Amidado hall of Nishi Hongan-ji Temple
Shinshu Otani School (Higashi Hongan-ji Temple)
Butsudan with a double tiled roof (palace) made in imitation of Daishi-do hall of Higashi Hongan-ji temple, with black lacquered pillars (palace and outer pillars) made in imitation of Amidado hall of the same temple, and with vermillion lacquered balustrades with gilded ornamental railing tops.

There are other features to be seen than the above, which, however, differ by the district of each butsudan. Butsudan of Nichiren Sho Sect (Taiseki-ji Temple) is quite different in configuration from those of other sects, since it is equipped with a door copied from zushi, while, recently, many assembled zushi-type butsudan can be seen. In some cases, people put nothing other than zushi on the top of shumidan, as in the case of temples.

Notations of Measurement

Measurement of butsudan and butsugu (a Buddhist altar and its fittings) is based on shakkan-ho (a Japanese measuring system).

Kin Butsudan

Dai' is used as a measure to represent sizes of kin butsudan. This corresponds to sizes of hanging scrolls to be hanged inside butsudan, indicating the space to hang three scrolls.

For example, butsudan of 50 dai means the butsudan has a space to hang three hanging scrolls of 50 dai size.

In this regard, hanging scrolls are specified to be those ordered from the head temple of Jodo Shinshu Sect (because followers of Jodo Shinshu Sect must enshrine such hanging scroll as sent for from the head temple). There are various sizes, such as 20 dai, 30 dai, 50 dai, 70 dai, 100 dai, 120 dai, 150 dai and 200 dai. Though dimensions of each size differ to some degree depending on sect, the dimensions of butsudan size remain the same through all sects. Specifically, the dimensions of butsudan sizes are as follows, though they may differ by production area.

Examples: 30 dai means about 42 cm in inner dimension; 50 dai means about 48 cm in inner dimension; 70 dai means about 54 cm in inner dimension.

While the above figures are all inner measurements, the outer dimensions of each size, 50 dai for example, are different from each other. The measure of 'Dai' is based on precepts of Jodo Shinshu Sect, suggesting the strong linkage between kin butsudan altar and Jodo Shinshu Sect. This measure goes by the size of objects to be put inside, being rare as a norm of measuring. Besides, outer dimensions are also used in many areas for measuring kin butsudan in the same way as for karaki butsudan.

Karaki Butsudan

Measurements of karaki butsudan are indicated by outer dimensions of its height and door width. The door width means the entire breadth of a portion of closed door.

Example: 43-18 means about 130 cm in height and about 54 cm in door width.

Depending on local customs, dimensions of the door width are indicated before that of the height. Since the door width is just the width of the door itself, the total dimensions of width and depth of each size, 43-20 for example, are different from each other.

Measurements of small butsudan which are usually installed on the top of tansu (chest) are indicated by 'go' or 'take' for total heights.

Example: 18 go means about 54 cm in height, and 20 go means about 60 cm in height.

Number of butsudan is counted by 'ki,' 'hon' and 'dai.'
Ki' is a counter suffix to mean installation. In this case, the installation is meant in other words to fit the owner's house, so that 'dai' and 'hon' are mainly used during the process of production and sale. Therefore, the terms as the number of hon (or dai) on exhibition and the number of hon (or dai) in production are the properly used expressions.

Shogon (to decorate Buddha statues and temples)

To decorate solemnly inside of butsudan with butsugu is called shogon. Honzon is enshrined there, which is either butsuzo (a Buddha statue) or a hanging scroll. Honzon is an object to be enshrined but is not called butsugu. Right from the start, butsudan has been dedicated to honzon, and, therefore, it is no more than furniture if honzon is not enshrined in it yet, nor does it function as butsudan until honzon is installed with the solemn decoration of butsugu, (although this idea is based on the view that butsudan originates from a miniature temple, and, from the point of view that butsudan's origin is kuyodan, any altar with ihai and pictures of ancestors installed is included in the category of butsudan).

Examples of Butsugu

Butsugu Commonly Used Among All Sects
They are toro (a lantern), san-gusoku (three specific articles for a butsudan altar) (go-gusoku (five specific articles for a butsudan altar)), kabin (a vase), koro (an incense burner), hitate (candle stands), buppanki (a rice bowl for a Buddhist altar), rin (a bell for a Buddhist altar), uchishiki (a piece of cloth laid in a Buddhist altar), kakocho (a family register of deaths), kendai (also known as kakocho-dai (a stand for kakocho)), kyozukue (a sutra desk), kogo (an incense container), and so on.

Butsugu only for Jodo Shinshu and its Lineage
They are kebyo (a special kind of vase), kasha-koro (a special kind of incense burner), kuge (an offering stand), rinto (a Buddhist hanging lantern), homyo-jiku (a hanging scroll with posthumous Buddhist names written on it) and so on.

Butsugu Only for the Other Sects than Jodo Shinshu and its Linage
They are chatoki (a special tea cup for Buddhist altar), takatsuki (a standing tray for cake and fruit), ryoguzen (a special tray for servings for Buddha), and others such as mokugyo (a wooden drum), shogo (a metal drum) and mokusho (another type of wooden drum).

Contents of butsugu vary by Buddhist sects. Even such Butsugu as with the same name have different shapes and colors according to the sect. Butsugu used by Jodo Shinshu Sect and its lineage are black-lacquered in the blue range, while those used by other sects are vermillion-lacquered in the vermillion range.

Examples of Articles Which Should not be Put Inside Butsudan.

The following are regarded as items not to be kept in Butsudan.

No sect has such doctrine as to decorate butsudan with photograph. The main hall of a temple, which was the origin of butsudan, represents Jodo (the Buddhist pure land) and, therefore, no picture of the dead is decorated inside its sanctum, and accordingly no picture is put into butsudan. No photograph is supposed to be installed in butsudan because it is nothing more than an instrument to remember the dead. However, actually most households keep in butsudan a small photograph of the departed, which was decorated at his funeral.

Buddha Statues of Other Sects
They should be enshrined separately in zushi or others.

Amulets and Talismans
They are to be brought along with the holders, or to be enshrined separately.

Kaigen-kuyo (a ceremony to consecrate a newly made Buddhist image)

When a new butsudan is purchased, a priest is required to hold kaigen (a Buddhist service to consecrate a newly enshrined Buddhist image). This is so called 'shonen-ire' (literally, 'to breathe life') into butsuzo, hanging scroll and ihai. Only through this ceremony, honzon and ihai become the objects of devotion and the new butsudan changes itself from just a container box to a real Buddhist altar. This ceremony is also called nyubutsu-shiki, owatamashi, nyukon-shiki, otama-ire and so on, depending on the sect. Since this is a festive occasion, gifts are wrapped and tied by red-and-white codes. The description on an envelope of gifts are to be 'Kaigen Kuyo-ryo' (donation for consecration ceremony), 'Nyubutsu-shiki Ofuse' (offering for consecration ceremony) or others. Priests are often required to hold this consecration ceremony at the same time as hoyo (memorial services) if the date of the latter is not very far from the former's. In the event of disposal of butsudan, 'shonen-nuki' (withdrawal of life) from butsuzo, hanging scroll and ihai is required. When kin butsudan is to be washed, 'shonen-nuki' must be done once and then 'shonen-ire' must be done after washing. In Nichiren Sho Sect, nyubutsu-shiki (a consecration ceremony) is held being guided by doshi (the master priest) when honzon is newly bestowed, and is also held under the guidance of hossu (the head priest of the sect) when a temple is newly built or when honzon is newly enshrined in the main hall, or when the main hall of the temple is reconstructed, (if a main hall is reconstructed but honzon is not newly bestowed, rakusei-shiki (an inauguration ceremony) is held in combination with kaigen-kuyo for existing honzon after restoration of the hall). In the cases of moving house or purchases of butsudan, relocation ceremonies are often held. Shonen-nuki' and 'shonen-ire' are not conducted from and into butsudan.

Butsudan for Pets

Recently, pets are considered as family members. Consequently, when pets died, funerals, graves and butsudan for them are increasingly arranged. Basically, pets do not share the same butsudan with human beings. Butsudan to worship pets are separately arranged. It is because the world they live (chikushodo (the realm of animals)) is different from the one human live (ningendo (the realm of human)). Beside their photographs and ancestral tablets, statues of Bato Kannon (horse-headed Kannon) or Kannon Bosatsu (Kannon Buddhisattva) are enshrined.

Inheritance Tax Law

Assets for religious services including butsudan, butsugu, kamidana and gravestones are not regarded as taxable properties in the inheritance tax law. In other words, they are excluded from taxation. This is because butsudan, for example, is not regarded as a personal property but as a common property. However, any item which is hardly considered as the object of beliefs, such as a Buddhist statue made of pure gold, is a taxable property.

[Original Japanese]