• Butsudans are Buddhist altars most recognised in Japanese culture. (iStockphoto)Source: iStockphoto
A butsudan, or ‘Buddha shelf’ is usually a cabinet arranged with sacred objects, with doors that are opened each morning and closed at sunset.
Katherine Tamiko Arguile

6 May 2020 - 10:50 AM  UPDATED 6 May 2020 - 12:03 PM

Everything changes. A central tenet of Buddhism is that suffering arises from attachment to anybody or anything without recognising this impermanence. But sometimes – as this pandemic has shown us – the world spins too fast and we’re confronted by overwhelming change. At such times it’s the people, places and things we love that keep us grounded, giving us a sense of identity and belonging.

But what if they’re no longer within reach – not even through FaceTime, Zoom or WhatsApp? As a mixed-race child growing up in Tokyo, my world – and the people in it – was so utterly different to the one I live in now in Adelaide that I may as well have moved to a different planet. But a Japanese ritual I carry out each day lets me step through a portal that reconnects me with the past, to the beloved people and places I lost long ago. I step through it to wander the corridors of my memories.

I adored visiting Obāchan, my Japanese grandmother, who lived in a small seventh floor apartment in central Tokyo. ‘Big Uncle’, who’d replaced my grandfather as head of the family, lived on the floor above with my aunt and cousins. In the seventies Big Uncle replaced the two-storey wooden house that had housed generations of the family with the sleek eight-storey building that stands there still, a totem to his progressive-mindedness. The family shop still occupies the ground floor of the modern building as it did in the old, selling tsukudani, a traditional Tokyo delicacy.

I remember the thrill the day I’d grown tall enough to reach the seventh floor button in the new building’s lift, and the belly-swoop of anticipation as the lift rumbled me upwards continued into my teens. The doors would open and Obāchan would stand at her open door, beaming, waiting to lavish me with loving words and delicious treats. I’d remove my shoes and step into her apartment, but though I’d be itching to tell her about my week and tuck into the delicious snacks she’d prepared, there was something I had to do first: kneel before the butsudan and pay my respects to my ancestors.

More than three quarters of families in Japan own a butsudan, or ‘Buddha shelf’.

More than three quarters of families in Japan own a butsudan, or ‘Buddha shelf’. It’s usually a cabinet arranged with sacred objects, with doors that are opened each morning and closed at sunset. Paying respects at a butsudan is peculiarly Japanese and not a prescribed Buddhist practice, though you might reflect upon the Buddha’s virtues as you do. It’s based more on Confucian ideals of filial piety, of venerating the ancestors.

The family butsudan plays a big part in daily life because that’s where the living meet the dead. The one in my grandmother’s old apartment is a huge ebony cabinet over a metre tall. A statuette of the Buddha, candlesticks, incense burner and other paraphernalia are arranged inside along with o-ihai ancestral tablets for each deceased family member, inscribed with their spirit names. Invoking the dead by their living names is thought to keep them attached to the material world, interrupting their progress towards enlightenment.

I knew the ritual by heart: light candle, use flame to light two sticks of incense, extinguish flames by wafting hands (it’s disrespectful to blow them out). Insert incense into kōrō burner, strike o-rin bowl-shaped bell, mindfully, twice; put hands together, close eyes and recite mantras wishing enlightenment upon spirits of the departed. Sit a few moments more, head bowed, and think on the ancestors to whom you owe your existence. My grandmother, mother or other family member usually sat beside me.

I knew the ritual by heart: light candle, use flame to light two sticks of incense, extinguish flames by wafting hands (it’s disrespectful to blow them out).

Then we’d open our eyes, sit back and talk. Obāchan might point out to my younger uncle Ryōji – who’d died suddenly at 28 – how much I’d grown lately, or tell him how I’d performed in my exams. I might ‘show’ the ancestors a picture I’d drawn, or tell them about school camp. Sometimes we’d replace the water in the altar cup with fresh tea, or put a morsel of something delicious on a little dish as an offering. The suspension of disbelief allows for the comfort of talking to someone you loved and lost.

My mother died too soon. I took her cremated remains from London, where we’d been living, back to Tokyo for interment in the family tomb. Big Uncle organised everything. He asked our temple priest for permission to set aside some of her ashes for me in a small urn ‘so I wouldn’t be lonely’. He provided everything I needed for an altar of my own, including a butsudan made of red lacquer lined with gold leaf, just big enough to hold my mother’s o-ihai spirit tablet. This way, I could continue paying my respects to her and my ancestors wherever I ended up in the world.

My butsudan sits on top of a Korean-style cabinet in my study in Adelaide, just like the one Erika, the protagonist in my novel The Things She Owned, has in her London flat. A photo of my smiling mother sits next to her o-ihai tablet, alongside others of Obāchan and my uncles. My beloved Big Uncle died sixteen years ago.

Sometimes I feel the ache of displacement that comes from living in a culture alien to the one I was born into, as if half of myself has been left behind somewhere. There’s the grief that never completely fades after people or places you loved are gone. But I’ll open my butsudan each morning, fill the teacup, and offer incense. I’ll tap the o-rin to alert my ancestors’ spirits and call my mother by her spirit name. I suspend disbelief and talk to her, to Obāchan or my uncles, about how the world has changed beyond their recognition, for good and for ill. I tell them I’m glad they’re not living in our current Coronatopia; they suffered enough as civilians during WW2 (my grandfather didn’t fight, my uncles were children), though their subsequent resilience might have served them well. Their creativity and sense of humour would have, too. We’d have had fun in lockdown together.

Each morning I step with unashamed nostalgia through the portal of my butsudan to meet lost loved ones and revisit the old places, the Tokyo of my childhood, to my native country that won’t quite accept me as one of its own. It only takes a few minutes. But afterwards, I’ll step back out into the present, fortified, to face the future as it rolls ever onwards.

Katherine Tamiko Arguile’s debut novel The Things She Owned (Affirm Press) is out now.

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