butsudan 仏壇
KEY WORD : architecture / folk dwellings
An altar or tabernacle in the form of a podium, table, recess or cabinet used in the sanctuaries of temples and in private residences for the installation of Buddhist images and ancestral tablets, ihai 位牌, recording the posthumous names of deceased family members. The custom of setting Buddhist images upon podia was introduced to Japan along with the religion itself, and examples made from stone, tamped earth, clay, and timber are known. With increasing use of a raised timber floor in temples from the Heian period, timber podia--often built-in, lacquered and elaborately decorated--became the norm. The use of a cabinet *zushi 厨子, to house images (statues, paintings, and mandalas) placed upon the podium also goes back to the early days of Buddhism in Japan. The provision of a butsudan in private residences began amongst the highest aristocracy at an early date and spread widely among the upper classes during the Kamakura and Muromachi periods, along with the provision of private chapels *jibutsudou 持仏堂. The practice of placing ancestral tablets in the butsudan is believed to derive from the influence of Confucianism, jukyou 儒教. By the Edo period, the principal purpose of the domestic butsudan was to provide a place to make offerings to the spirits of dead parents and ancestors. Only those who had inherited the parental house and carried on the main line possessed a butsudan. Thus a main house, honke 本家, possessed a butsudan, but a first generation branch house, bunke 分家, did not. It is not known when the butsudan spread to vernacular houses *minka 民家, although it can be inferred from the presence of a private chapel on the plan of the 1397 Rin'ami 琳阿弥 house, that some kind of butsudan was in use in the most sophisticated vernacular houses by the end of the 14c. Among early surviving vernacular houses of the 17c, a number originally had no permanent butsudan, so it is probable that a portable table was set up when necessary for rituals. However, with the exception of some areas such as Kagoshima, the butsudan had become an almost universal fixture of vernacular houses by the end of the Edo period. Amongst the upper classes, the butsudan might take the form of a platform representing Mt. Sumeru *shumidan 須弥壇, an example being that of Jishouji *Tougudou 慈照寺東求堂 (1486) in Kyoto, in Ashikaga Yoshimasa's 足利義政 Higashiyama 東山 residence. An area known as the *butsuma 仏間 inside the Tougudou also contained a recess, closed with sliding screens *fusuma 襖, with a shelf which is believed to have been intended for the installation of ancestral tablets, an arrangement foreshadowing the butsudan as it appears in Edo period vernacular houses. The butsudan in Edo period vernacular houses may be divided into 6 basic types as follows.

1 A butsudan built into a recess, equipped with sliding doors and a small podium inside on which to stand the ancestral tablets. This type is to be found in the highest-ranking vernacular houses of the early 17c in the Kinki 近畿 region. By the mid-17c these had become decorative, and above them was placed a transom *ranma 欄間, with openwork *sukashibori 透彫, and an inner cabinet with its own doors and a base resembling a miniature shumidan.

2 A recess similar to a decorative alcove *tokonoma 床の間, within which a freestanding lacquered cabinet was placed. Originally open, it tended to acquire doors at the front. This type is particularly associated with the New Pure Land sect, Joudo shinshuu 浄土真宗, but was not confined to that sect.

3 Similar to 2, but the *tokogamachi 床框 was higher--about 30cm above the floor--and the recess too shallow for a cabinet so it is probable and the ancestral tablets were placed upon the shelf directly. Originally it had no doors, but it tended to acquire them.

4 Cupboard, todana 戸棚, type, the lower part containing a storage cupboard with sliding doors and the upper part the butsudan. The butsudan section may have 4 sliding doors, hikichigaido 引違戸 (see *hikichigai 引違), or a pair of double-folding swing doors *kannonbiraki tobira 観音開扉. This type may be a freestanding piece of furniture or it may be built in. Over time there was a tendency to raise the height of the sill track *shikii 敷居, dividing lower cupboard section from the butsudan, which is believed to reflect a change in seating styles from sitting cross-legged, agura あぐら, to sitting up straight on folded legs, seiza 正座.

5 Also a cupboard type, but set in a high position, usually with storage cupboards below. See *fukurodana 袋棚.

6 The butsudan is placed within a small enclosed room and observers pay their respects from an outer room, an arrangement that may reflect the influence of the sanctuary *naijin 内陣, and worship hall *gejin 外陣, of temple architecture characteristic of Esoteric Buddhism, mikkyou 密教. Sometimes a special room *butsudan-no-ma 仏壇の間 or butsudanma 仏壇間, is provided for the butsudan, but in other cases it may be located in the main reception room *dei 出居, *zashiki 座敷, or grand room *hiroma 広間 of a vernacular house of the *hiromagata 広間型 format.

Old Sakuta 作田 house
Original Location : Chiba prefecture
Nihon Minka-En 日本民家園 in Kawasaki (Kanagawa)

*kamidana 神棚, *nenjibutsu 念持仏

(C)2001 Japanese Architecture and Art Net Users System. No reproduction or republication without written permission.