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Buddhist Study

The Gohonzon

Victor Golden

This article is adapted from the booklet An Introduction to Buddhism, which serves as the study material for the SGI-USA Introductory Exam being administered throughout the nation on Sept. 29.

A famous passage from the writings of Nichiren Daishonin states, “I, Nichiren, have inscribed my life in sumi ink, so believe in the Gohonzon with your whole heart” (“Reply to Kyo’o,” The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, p. 412).

Honzon is a Japanese word meaning “object of fundamental respect or devotion.” The prefix go means “worthy of honor.” While Nam-myoho-renge-kyo is the ultimate Law of the universe, the Gohonzon is its graphic expression. As we chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, focusing on the Gohonzon, we activate within us the power of this Law.

While we have an object of devotion, most religions have an object of worship. In many, it is a supreme being or god. Various schools of Buddhism have traditionally revered the Buddha and the Buddha’s teachings. The concept of the Buddha and the content of the teachings, however, have differed from school to school. Nichiren taught that people who view the Buddha or the Law as separate from themselves cannot realize their full potential.

A Clear Mirror of Life

In contrast to worshiping the Buddha or Law as externals, the Great Teacher T’ien-t’ai of China, basing his teaching on the Lotus Sutra, set forth a meditative discipline for attaining enlightenment that recognized the potential for Buddhahood in all people. He called this “observing the mind.”

The Daishonin established a teaching and practice to directly awaken the innate enlightened nature in any human being—the practice of chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. Enlightenment, more than just a state of mind, encompasses the totality of our mental, spiritual and physical being, as well as our behavior. Introspection alone, as in T’ien-t’ai’s teachings, is inadequate for attaining enlightenment. Nichiren inscribed the Gohonzon to serve as a mirror to reflect our innate enlightened nature and cause it to permeate every aspect of our lives.

With faith in the power of the Mystic Law that the Gohonzon embodies, we chant to reveal the power of our own enlightened wisdom and vow to put it to use for the good of ourselves and others. Nichiren, emphasizing the nature of the Gohonzon’s power, writes: “Never seek this Gohonzon outside yourself. The Gohonzon exists only within the mortal flesh of us ordinary people who embrace the Lotus Sutra and chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo” (“The Real Aspect of the Gohonzon,” WND-1, 832).

The Treasure Tower

“The Emergence of the Treasure Tower” chapter of the Lotus Sutra describes a gigantic tower adorned with precious treasures emerging from beneath the earth and hovering in the air. The Daishonin explains that this tower is a metaphor for the magnitude of the human potential—the grandeur of the Buddha nature within all people (see “On the Treasure Tower,” WND-1, 299). Next, the sutra describes the Ceremony in the Air—a vast assembly of Buddhas, bodhisattvas and beings of every description, gathering from all corners of the cosmos. The Buddha employs special powers to raise the entire assembly into the air before the treasure tower. He then begins preaching his teaching.

Nichiren chose to depict on the Gohonzon, in written form, key elements of this Ceremony in the Air. Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, representing the treasure tower, is inscribed down the center of the Gohonzon. Rather than a painted or sculpted image, which could not sufficiently capture the totality of a Buddha, Nichiren employed written characters on the Gohonzon to communicate the state of oneness with the Mystic Law that he realized in his own life.

“Through our daily practice of reciting the sutra and chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, we can join the eternal Ceremony in the Air here and now,” writes SGI President Ikeda. He continues: “We can cause the treasure tower to shine within us and to shine within our daily activities and lives. That is the wonder of the Gohonzon. A magnificent cosmos of life opens to us, and reality becomes a world of value creation” (June 2003 Living Buddhism, p. 32).

The Gohonzon Exists in Faith

Nichiren inscribed the Gohonzon so that anyone can believe in and activate his or her Buddha nature. Just having the Gohonzon, however, will not ensure this. Both faith and practice are essential to unlocking our powerful Buddha nature. Nichiren says: “This Gohonzon also is found only in the two characters for faith. This is what the sutra means when it states that one can ‘gain entrance through faith alone’ . . . What is most important is that, by chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo alone, you can attain Buddhahood. It will no doubt depend on the strength of your faith. To have faith is the basis of Buddhism” (“The Real Aspect of the Gohonzon,” WND-1, 832).

The Banner of Propagation

The Daishonin also says, “I was the first to reveal as the banner of propagation of the Lotus Sutra this great mandala” (“The Real Aspect of the Gohonzon,” WND-1, 831).

Today, the SGI has embraced the Gohonzon as Nichiren truly intended—as a “banner of propagation” of the Buddhist teaching that can lead humankind to peace and happiness. For that reason, members who chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo to the Gohonzon and exert themselves in SGI activities to spread the Law achieve remarkable growth, benefit and victory in their lives. (Adapted from An Introduction to Buddhism, second edition, pp. 31–35)

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