Gods on a Shelf

“How long will you love delusions and seek false gods?”                Psalm 4:2b

Butsudan2

We watched silently as the flames steadily consumed the butsudan (仏壇), or Buddhist altar that represented the gathered family’s dramatic break from the false gods they and generations before them had previously served. A butsudan is a shrine commonly found in temples and homes in Japan. It basically consists of an ornate wooden cabinet that typically houses a Buddhist religious icon and other accessories known as butsugu. These items are usually candlesticks, bells, incense burners and elaborate dishes where rice, tea or fruit are placed as an offering to deceased ancestors. A photo, memorial tablet (ihai), or ashes of a venerated family member are often placed within the butsudan, which represents a unique combination of traditional Buddhism and ancestral worship. Local Buddhist priests are usually called in to conduct periodic formal ceremonies in front of the butsudan, as determined by the date of the deceased’s death. Many households also maintain a simple daily ritual at the Buddhist altar of offering prayers, putting out food or burning incense; this responsibility usually falls on the wife.

Worship before the butsudan was traditionally viewed as an essential element in Japanese life, as it represented the center of a family’s spiritual faith and their historical heritage. While this practice is still quite common in the more rural areas of Japan, the responsibility of maintaining the family Buddhist altar is a burden modern Japanese are increasingly unwilling to bear as their religious convictions and lifestyles continue to evolve. The high price of these butsudan and the space they require in crowded homes are additional deterrents to owning one.

The butsudan is not to be confused with a kamidana (神棚), which is a Shinto god shelf and represents an entirely different religion unique to Japan. Many Japanese adhere to both Buddhist and Shinto practices. In contrast to the butsudan, kamidana are much more simplistic in appearance and are even sold as inexpensive kits at the local hardware store if you want to construct your own. The general purpose of a Shinto god shelf is to house a local Japanese kami or spirits, which are believed to inhabit all things. According to Japanese mythology, there are eight million of these quasi spirits who should be properly venerated.

Unlike a butsudan, a kamidana is typically placed high on a wall above eye level in a place where people will not walk under it. The Shinto god shelf contains a variety of items, but the most important one is the shintai. This is an object designed to house a particular kami, by providing a physical form to enhance worship. A shintai is usually a small circular mirror, but it can also be a stone, jewel or some other object with symbolic value. Worship at a kamidana is believed to invite success or good fortune, so is it is quite common to see Shinto god shelves on prominent display in places of business.

Idolatry actually comes in many forms and is not limited to images or objects commonly condemned in the Bible and currently present in Japan. The Ten Commandments begin with a prohibition of placing any other gods before the One True God where one constructs images of such gods or bows in worship before them. While very few of us place such obvious idols in our homes and worship them, our hearts are unfortunately inclined to value people, things, or objectives ahead of God and wrongfully give ourselves to them. Such “gods” should have no place on the shelves of our lives.