When you learn Nichiren Buddhism, you’ll find the Gohonzon – an elegant paper scroll inscribed with Chinese and Sanskrit characters that’s seen as the key to unlocking your infinite potential. But it’s far more than just a beautiful work of art; it’s a map to enlightenment, a mirror reflecting your innermost reality, and a catalyst for personal transformation.
Nichiren Buddhists revere the Gohonzon as the embodiment of the Mystic Law – the ultimate truth of life and the universe. But don’t mistake it for an external deity or a magical charm; it’s a powerful tool that, when engaged with, helps you tap into your inherent Buddha nature – the enlightened wisdom and compassion that exist within us all.
What is the Gohonzon in Nichiren Buddhism?
The Gohonzon is a central object of reverence in Nichiren Buddhism, a Japanese school of Buddhism founded by the 13th century monk, Nichiren Daishonin. It embodies the essence of the Lotus Sutra and the universal law of cause and effect as expounded in Nichiren Buddhism.
The term “Gohonzon” is composed of two Japanese words: “go,” an honorific prefix, and “honzon,” which can be translated as “main object of devotion” or “object of fundamental respect.” Thus, the Gohonzon, as the main object of devotion, plays an indispensable role in the practice of Nichiren Buddhism.
The Gohonzon is typically inscribed on a paper scroll and features Chinese and Sanskrit characters arranged in a specific configuration. At its center, the Gohonzon enshrines the title of the Lotus Sutra, “Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo“, which is held to represent the law of the universe and the Buddha-nature inherent in all beings. Surrounding this central inscription are the names of Buddhist deities, protective forces, historical figures from the Lotus Sutra, and representations of the ten states of life, all of which signify various aspects of life and the universe as explained in Nichiren’s teachings.
You must to note that the Gohonzon is not regarded as an external deity or a magical charm, but rather as a mirror reflecting one’s own Buddha nature. Nichiren Buddhists chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo to the Gohonzon, an action understood as the cause to bring forth the Buddha state from within their life and to manifest wisdom, courage, compassion and life force. The Gohonzon thus serves as a focal point for this practice, reminding practitioners of their inherent potential for enlightenment.
Additionally, the Gohonzon reflects the principle of the “oneness of person and law,” which suggests that the Buddha and the law (Dharma) he expounds are inseparable. This principle is integral to Nichiren Buddhism and provides a theoretical foundation for the veneration of the Gohonzon.
Nichiren inscribed the first Gohonzon for his disciples to use as a focus of devotion after he had elucidated his interpretation of the Lotus Sutra. Subsequently, the high priests of the Nichiren sect have continued the tradition of inscribing Gohonzons for the members of their school. The Nichiren Shoshu and Soka Gakkai International (SGI), two prominent organizations within the Nichiren tradition, have different views on the lineage and authority of the Gohonzon, reflecting the diversity within the tradition itself.
What are the symbols and inscriptions on the Gohonzon?
The Gohonzon in Nichiren Buddhism filled with an array of symbols, characters, and inscriptions that each carry significant meanings within the context of this tradition.
The primary inscription at the center of the Gohonzon is the title of the Lotus Sutra, written as “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo,” accompanied by the name of Nichiren. “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo” encapsulates the essence of the Lotus Sutra, representing the law of the universe and the potential for enlightenment inherent in all life. Nichiren’s name placed alongside this inscription signifies the oneness of the person (Nichiren) and the Law (Nam-myoho-renge-kyo), a fundamental principle in Nichiren Buddhism.
Surrounding this central inscription are the names of various figures, both historical and mythical. These figures are typically drawn from the Lotus Sutra and the wider Buddhist pantheon, each symbolizing different elements of Buddhist philosophy and cosmology. The placement of these names is not random; rather, it reflects a specific arrangement known as the “ceremony in the air,” a significant event described in the Lotus Sutra where all the Buddhas, bodhisattvas, and deities gathered to hear Shakyamuni Buddha expound the Law.
Key figures inscribed on the Gohonzon include:
- Bodhisattvas of the Earth: Led by Bodhisattva Superior Practices (Jogyo in Japanese), these bodhisattvas represent the enlightened beings who embrace and propagate the Lotus Sutra in the Latter Day of the Law, the current age according to Buddhist cosmology.
- Four Heavenly Kings: Representing the protective deities of Buddhism, their inclusion on the Gohonzon symbolizes the protective functions of the universe.
- Bodhisattva Universal Worthy (Fugen) and Bodhisattva Manjushri (Monju): As embodiments of practice and wisdom, respectively, their names on the Gohonzon illustrate the unity of practice and wisdom.
- Taho Buddha (Many Treasures) and Shakyamuni Buddha: These two Buddhas, who appear together in the Lotus Sutra, symbolize the eternal nature of Buddhahood.
- Devadatta and the Dragon King’s daughter: As figures who represent the possibility of attaining enlightenment despite apparent obstacles—Devadatta being a villain, and the Dragon King’s daughter, a female—they manifest the universality of Buddha nature.
- Shoten Zenjin (Buddhist gods): They represent the protective functions of life and the universe that support practitioners.
The Gohonzon also includes Sanskrit seed syllables associated with various Buddhas and bodhisattvas, further signifying the unity of all Buddhas and the universality of the Law.
Each inscription on the Gohonzon carries a distinct symbolic meaning, together forming a cosmogram that encapsulates the teachings of the Lotus Sutra as interpreted by Nichiren. This detailed, symbolic schema serves to mirror the life state of Buddhahood, aiming to awaken practitioners to the inherent Buddha nature within their own lives.
How does the Gohonzon benefit practitioners in Nichiren Buddhism?
The Gohonzon, as the primary object of veneration in Nichiren Buddhism, serves multiple functions that are considered beneficial to practitioners. According to Nichiren Daishonin’s teachings, the Gohonzon embodies the fundamental law of life, and chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo to the Gohonzon allows individuals to tap into their Buddha nature and manifest their innate potential for enlightenment.
Activating Buddha-nature: Nichiren Buddhists believe that all individuals inherently possess Buddha nature, the potential for enlightenment. By chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo to the Gohonzon, practitioners can activate this innate potential, leading to the cultivation of wisdom, compassion, courage and life force.
Fostering self-reflection: The Gohonzon is often described as a mirror that reflects the inner life state of the individual. Engaging in practice before the Gohonzon encourages self-reflection and self-awareness, enabling individuals to confront and transform their inner obstacles or sufferings, known as “Buddhist demons.”
Enabling human revolution: Nichiren Buddhism emphasizes the concept of “human revolution,” a process of inner transformation that leads to a profound shift in the individual’s values, behavior and outlook on life. Through consistent practice to the Gohonzon, individuals can make this human revolution, enhancing their capacity to overcome challenges and contribute to society.
Actualizing mystic law: The Gohonzon embodies the Mystic Law, the ultimate reality or law of life and the universe according to Nichiren’s teachings. Practicing to the Gohonzon allows individuals to attune their lives to this Mystic Law, leading to harmony and fulfillment.
Promoting peace and happiness: As practitioners cultivate their Buddha nature and align their lives with the Mystic Law, they can experience a deep and enduring sense of happiness, which in Nichiren Buddhism is not merely personal satisfaction but an indestructible joy that persists regardless of life’s circumstances. Moreover, the practice promotes peace and harmony in society through the principle of “establishing the correct teaching for the peace of the land,” which holds that societal peace is achieved by individuals embracing the correct philosophy of life.
Building community: Lastly, the Gohonzon serves as a shared focal point for Nichiren Buddhist communities worldwide, fostering a sense of unity and shared commitment among practitioners. In group gatherings known as discussion meetings, individuals come together to chant before the Gohonzon, share experiences, and encourage one another in their practice and human revolution.
The benefits of the Gohonzon for practitioners in Nichiren Buddhism are manifold, ranging from individual self-actualization and happiness to community building and societal peace. It should be noted, however, that the Gohonzon itself is not viewed as a source of supernatural power or grace; rather, its value lies in its role as a tool enabling individuals to bring forth their inherent potential and wisdom.
Nichiren Shoshu and Soka Gakkai have different views on Gohonzon
Nichiren Shoshu and Soka Gakkai International (SGI) are two major organizations within Nichiren Buddhism, and indeed, they hold differing views regarding the Gohonzon, which is a central object of devotion in this tradition. These differences primarily revolve around matters of lineage, legitimacy, and the role of the priesthood.
Nichiren Shoshu: Nichiren Shoshu is a sect of Nichiren Buddhism that traces its lineage back to Nichiren himself through successive High Priests. In Nichiren Shoshu, the Gohonzon inscribed by Nichiren Daishonin is regarded as the fundamental object of devotion. Members of Nichiren Shoshu are bestowed a transcription of the original Gohonzon, which they enshrine in their homes for daily practice. According to Nichiren Shoshu doctrine, these transcriptions are inscribed by the successive High Priests who are believed to inherit the “Living Essence of the Law” from Nichiren. Hence, the High Priest is seen as indispensable in the practice of Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism.
Soka Gakkai International (SGI): Soka Gakkai is a lay Buddhist organization that originated within Nichiren Shoshu but separated from the priesthood in 1991. This split was a result of doctrinal disputes and disagreements over the role of the priesthood and the laity. Post this separation, Soka Gakkai no longer recognizes the authority of the Nichiren Shoshu High Priest, emphasizing instead the direct relationship between individual practitioners and the Gohonzon. Soka Gakkai members receive a replica of the Gohonzon inscribed by the organization’s third president, Daisaku Ikeda, for their personal practice. According to SGI doctrine, the Gohonzon is a tool to help individuals reveal their innate Buddha nature, and faith, practice, and study are the crucial elements for enlightenment, rather than reliance on a priestly figure.
Despite these differences, both groups fundamentally adhere to Nichiren Daishonin’s teachings and the practice of chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo to the Gohonzon, underlining the shared core within this diverse tradition.
You can reference more:
- Who is Nichiren Daishonin: https://www.nichirenshoshu.or.jp/eng/daishonin.html
- The Lotus Sutra: https://www.bdk.or.jp/document/dgtl-dl/dBET_T0262_LotusSutra_2007.pdf