When I visit a temple member’s house, sometimes I see an Obutsudan, which is a small Buddhist altar. The members usually maintain it, and they offer beautiful flowers, candlelight and incense to the Buddha when they place their hands together in their house. When I see it, I’m certain that the family takes good care of the Obutsudan (Family small Buddha altar). Sometimes they ask me about how to take care of it, and they often ask what offerings they should prepare to the Buddha.
So what is an offering? We usually offer flowers, candlelight and incense. And we also offer fruit
and Manju (Japanese sweet buns) when we hold a Buddhist service. I shouldn’t forget that in Japanese Buddhist temples, we also offer white rice to Amida Buddha when we do morning Buddhist service every day. The Toronto Buddhist Church also offers white rice at every Sunday service. We call the white rice for the Buddha “Obuppan” in Japanese.
I grew up in the family temple; my father woke up at 5:30 a.m. every morning to do the morning Buddhist service. He always prepared and offered the Obuppan in front of the Amida Buddha statue. When we finished the morning service, we received and ate the rice. When I ate breakfast, my mother always gave me the Obuppan, but the rice smelled of incense and it was a little bit dry. To be honest, I didn’t like it when I was a child, but my father said that the rice was very special for us because we were receiving Buddha’s leftovers. He seemed so happy to receive and eat Obuppan.
What I want to say is that he always thought we received everything from Amida-Buddha. He never believed that he was giving the rice to the Buddha. In his view, we always received it with respect from the Buddha.
One day, I spoke about offerings and my experiences to the temple members. One member asked me if he could offer cereal and milk to his Obutsudan instead of white rice. I didn’t expect the question. I asked him the reason. He said it was because he usually eats cereal, not rice. What answer could I give him? I know many people don’t eat rice every morning in Canada or they may not have a rice cooker. When I think about it, I can’t say that members have to offer only white rice to the Obutsudan. Japanese people have always valued white rice. Today many Japanese people eat white rice in the morning, and they traditionally have been offering white rice to the Obutsudan. However, a long time ago, they usually ate grains of millet or wheat because white rice was too expensive for them. But even though they didn’t eat white rice, they still offered it to the Buddha. They fully respected Buddha, so they always took care of their Obutsudan first.
When we offer white rice, we have to wash and steam it. I know the process takes time, while offering cereal is so much easier. But if you look up to Amida Buddha, you don’t have to think that just because you are eating something, you have to give it to the Buddha. So getting back to the member’s question. If he had a treasured memory of cereal or truly valued the cereal, I might say “Yes” to him, but if he is only giving his leftovers to the Buddha, I must say “No.”
I would like to share one more of my experiences in Japan. When I worked as a Buddhist minister in Japan my sensei and I visited members’ homes every month to do a monthly memorial service. Almost every member offered white rice to their Obutsudans, but one family always offered white rice and a pudding with a spoon. I didn’t give much thought to it at first, but after one service I talked with my sensei about the family. He told me that they had lost their 5- year-old son a long time ago. Their boy loved pudding which is why the mother always prepared and offered the pudding to the Obutsudan when they held his memorial service. The next month, when I visited the family’s home again to do the boy’s memorial service, the mother told me about the treasured memories of her son. When she placed her hands together, she always thought of his gentle smile.
In Jodo Shinshu, we do Gassho to Amida-Buddha not to our loved ones who passed away, but if the person has an opportunity to encounter Amida Buddha’s great compassion for us, I thought we could show them our gratitude to them in our Gassho. The mother greatly appreciated her son because her son allowed her an opportunity to do Gassho to Amida- Buddha. Then she placed her hands together and said “Namo Amida Butsu” in front of the Obutsudan.
After I talked with her, I thought that the offering represented such a loving heart to her son and a very respectful mind to Amida-Buddha. I think you can offer white rice, bread or cereal. But please think about whether your offering shows your respect to the Obutsudan first.
Rev. Yoshimichi Ouchi