Buddhist Altars I Have Made
This video is from Joel Bitton, who has been making butsudans for Soka Gakkai International (SGI) Buddhists for a number of years. Bitton, sixtyish, is a woodworker and musician who graduated from the Berklee College of Music. He lives in Medford, MA.
I don’t know Bitton; I’ve never bought anything from Bitton. He may or may not be a member of SGI-USA. You don’t have to be a member to cater to the needs of a religious organization.
So what is a butsudan? From Wikipedia:
…A butsudan is a wooden cabinet with doors that enclose and protect a gohonzon or religious icon, typically a statue or painting of a Buddha or Bodhisattva, or a “script” mandala scroll. The doors are opened to display the icon during religious observances, and closed before sunset. A butsudan usually contains an array of subsidiary religious items, called butsugu, such as candlesticks, incense burners, bells, and platforms for placing offerings such as fruit, tea or rice. Some Buddhist sects place ihai, memorial tablets for deceased relatives, within or near the butsudan.
That’s what I possess to enshrine my Nichikan Gohonzon, the object of worship in Nichiren Buddhism. When I recite gongyo each morning and evening, I usually have a list of goals on a lower rung of the altar, which usually consists of three levels, near the candles and incense. I also have memorized a number of deceased that I pray for, but more and more, it appears I might have to put together a list of my people, no more than a sheet of paper in a picture frame.
Usually, after several years, a member may want to show his/her devotion to and respect for his/her practice by buying or commissioning a large butsudan or shrine for his/her home. Particularly if that member is now a leader, married, or having meetings in his/her home. Many members have them in their living rooms, or eschew their dining room for a butsudan area, or have them in a special Gohonzon room, which could be a converted extra bedroom.
Previously, SGI members would turn to Japanese stores located near a kaikan (community center) like Nakayama Butsudans and Morning Sun or take advantage of mail order stores. Recently, a few American woodworkers and cabinetmakers, learning about SGI Buddhism, and getting several customers who have asked them to make them butsudans, have begun side businesses in competition with the more established stores. The result is that a member doesn’t have to order a butsudan from Japan; it could be from someone who lives in the next city or in the same state, thus cutting costs and time.
Bitton’s butsudans go from the very utilitarian to the very elaborate. The accompanying music is from jazz great Django Reinhardt, “Please Be Kind.”
Why spotlight a woodworker? Because while there are people still work with their hands, architecture and woodworking critics have noticed a decided drop off in excellence about how American homes are built, how a home is decorated with mouldings and ornaments, and how furniture and other objects are made. The rise and fall of a civilization can be noted by the amount of variation and embellishment on a simple vase.
In other words, people who build don’t seem to put up the houses with a sense of artistry and creativity. They don’t care. They just follow the plans, and that is that. Mindsets like this is why Americans have to import people from out of the country to show them how to be creative. Again, this is another instance of our not developing and cultivating the minds of people already here and showing them that difference and creativity is appreciated.
There is a reason why some people admire Victorian houses or the early homes of Frank Lloyd Wright. There is a reason why some people cannot stand particle board and go for handmade furnishings, furniture made by the Amish or Shakers or even Japanese tansu. It’s not just because they can afford it. They appreciate it.
I appreciate this man’s work. He’s striven for excellence in this field.
So continue to be singular, remarkable, and the best that you can be at what you do, beyond this Labor Day.