Understanding Ofuda

Hello,

Today is a double-post again. It’s the New Year and many people visit Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines in Japan (and overseas), and often buy something called ofuda (お札). Formally, they are called shinsatsu (神札), but people almost always call them ofuda. Ofuda are typically long, flat tablets made of paper, wood, or a little of both.

Here is a simple ofuda I bought a few years ago at Yushima Tenmangu:

Do It Yourself KamidanaSometimes you see other variations. But usually it is some kind of medium-sized plank. This one we received in 2018 has a typical shape where the top is pointed:

UntitledThis is an example of a Buddhist-style ofuda, with the Sanskrit (bonji) writing at the top and Japanese inscriptions for protection.

Like omamori, ofuda are said to contain the essence of the Shinto or Buddhist deity in question. In the case of Shinto, it is believed that a kami can divide and multiply ad infinitum.

In a Buddhist context, deities can project themselves wherever they are needed.1 So, the ofuda represents a projection of that deity. Ofuda are seen most often at Shingon-sect (真言宗) Buddhist temples based on limited personal experience. You find them less often in certain other Buddhist sects, or in such cases as Jodo Shinshu you don’t find them at all.

Unlike omamori, they are often used as a centerpiece for a home Shinto shrine or kamidana. This is not required, though. Many people will just put them on display in the house, but for the devout, they can be used as a devotional object in Shinto. You can also use them as a centerpiece for a Buddhist altar too, in some cases.

Even Japanese people get confused though on the differences between omamori and ofuda. There are a lot of sites that answer this question. One website explains it like so (apologies if I mistranslated):

  • Ofuda provide protection for the whole household (safety and health at home), or just embody the deity in question.
  • Omamori are for things that are more personal and near-and-dear to the person: protection from car-accidents, success in school, etc. You keep omamori on your person.

If you are not sure, you can ask the temple/shrine you received it from. They would know best.

Anyhow, assuming you have an ofuda, the process for enshrining the ofuda is pretty much the same, regardless of Shinto or Buddhism:

  1. Place the ofuda facing south or east. This means its back is facing north/west. In some websites, south is the preferred direction, but east is fine too.
  2. If you have a kamidana (home Shinto shrine, 神棚) or butsudan (home Buddhist altar, 仏壇) place it in center. If the butsudan already has a central figure (a honzon 本尊), place it to the side and slightly below.
  3. If you don’t have a shrine/altar, you can also do the following:
  • Place it on a high, clean, well-lit area, where people tend to congregate. A bookshelf for example.
  • Place a clean, white sheet of paper, folded in half, underneath it, or a clean white cloth like a handkerchief.
  • Install the ofuda there.

You can offer things like water, a small cup or rice (or any grain, or even breakfast-cereal for us Americans).

When paying respects:

  • In Shinto bow twice, clap twice, think or say something and then bow once more.
  • In Buddhism, put your hands together near your heart and bow. This is called “gassho” (合掌).

But as I said this is all optional. At minimum, place it in a well-lit area on top of a clean folded paper or handkerchief and leave it.

As with omamori, ofuda should be returned yearly if possible for ritual disposal. This is just a courtesy. People sometimes keep ofuda for years and forget to return them. I kept the ofuda above for 3 years because I had no chance to return it. Finally, I took it to a different temple for disposal. But the polite thing is to return them after a year as a gesture of gratitude where possible.

This process of yearly renewal is an important of Japanese religion regardless of whether it’s Buddhism or Shinto.

Anyhow, that’s a brief look at ofuda in Japanese religion. Thanks and happy new year!

P.S. Updated in 2018 for corrections and typos.

1 The Earth-Store Bodhisattva Sutra provides a dramatic example of this.

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Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

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