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:
Sometimes you see more unusual shapes, like this one from the famous Ise Grand Shrine (ise jingū 伊勢神宮). A friend gave us this one recently:
This one is a folded piece of white paper with an inscription inside. Plus there is a small thin stick wrapped in a white ribbon.
Like omamori (small charms you can purchase at a temple/shrine), ofuda are said to contain the essence of the Shinto/Buddhist deity in question. In 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 seem most common at Shingon-sect (真言宗) temples based on limited personal experience. You seldom find them in certain other Buddhist sects such as Jodo Shinshu.
Ofuda are much larger than omamori typically. Also, unlike omamori, they are often used as a centerpiece for a home Shinto shrine or kamidana. This is not required. Often, when people buy ofuda, they just put them on display in the house, but for the devout, you can use it as a devotional object in Shinto. You can also use them as a centerpiece for a Buddhist altar too, in some cases.
To confuse matters, some omamori look like ofuda. How can you tell the difference?
- 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 know best.
The important thing is to not enshrine an omamori.
Anyhow, assuming you have an ofuda, the process for enshrining the ofuda is pretty much the same, regardless of Shinto or Buddhism:
- Place the ofuda facing south or west. This means its back is facing north/east. In some websites, south is the preferred direction, but west is fine too.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
But as I said this is all optional. If the only thing you do is place it in a well-lit area on top of a clean folded paper or handkerchief and leave it, that’s enough for most people.
Also, like omamori, they 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!
1 The Earth-Store Bodhisattva Sutra provides a dramatic example of this.