Table of Contents
Definition Gohonzon of this Buddhism Gohonzon of the Gakkai Eye Openings History Links and more information What the Gohonzon is and what it isn't. Evolution of Nichiren's view Evolution of Fuji School View Pandora's Box Links and Footnotes
A Gohonzon is an "Go" or "honored honzon" or honored mandala. For more on what a mandala is visit: honzon.html
The Gohonzon of Nichiren Buddhism is the "Daimoku" as Honzon and consists of a central inscription of the Odaimoku (Namu Myoho Renge Kyo) with the founders signature (Nichiren) or name (for Gohonzon created subsequent to his demise) and (if needed) the authors signature nearby. There are always the characters for "Fudo" and "Aizen" (using the sanscrit) on either side of the Odaimoku and usually also characters representing the 10 worlds, Shakyamuni, Taho Buddha, and the four heavenly kings.
I give a general definition of honzon at this page:honzon.html#def. But this definition doesn't get into detail on what that definition means. Nichiren at various times said epistemically related things about the Gohonzon. Josei Toda said:
The natural power of human beings is very weak. No matter how hard one tries to live one's own life in one's own way, in the end one is easily influenced by others and by external factors.... I believe that to make one's life its strongest, most brilliant and happiest, there is no way but to live the Buddhism of ichinen sanzen [a single life-moment possesses three thousand realms] and the mutual possession of the ten worlds. This is the ultimate philosophy that Nichiren Daishonin delivered to the vast universe more than seven hundred years ago. He perceived people's ignorance of this profound principle and bestowed upon them the gem of ichinen sanzen so that they could attain the state of happiness. This gem of ichinen sanzen is nothing other than the Dai-Gohonzon that he inscribed.... (Buddhism in Action, vol.7, pp. 107-08)
History of the Gohonzon
The Gakkai's doctrines on the Gohonzon were originally derived from those of Nichiren Shoshu. These in turn derive from Nichiren Daishonin's teachings. His teachings, in turn derive from the Tendai Tradition and have some "esoteric" influences. Jacqueline Stone recounts how Nichiren's very first Gohonzon was inscribed for the sake of a "new Buddha."
Nichiren describes the Gohonzon variously in several Gosho
In the Gosho http://www.sgi-usa.org/buddhism/library/Nichiren/Gosho/4BoddhisattvasObjectWorship.htmhe writes:
In your letter you asked:"You have told me that an object of worship should be made of Lord Shakyamuni of the essential teaching, flanked by the four Bodhisattvas of the Earth who have attended him since he attained enlightenment in the remote past. But when is such an object of worship to be established?"
And answers:Having had doubts about the matter, I consulted the passages of the Lotus Sutra, and they reveal why this object of worship has never before appeared. The sutra clearly states that it should not be established before the predicted age of conflict in the Latter Day of the Law.
and:Now that we have entered the Latter Day, an object of worship should be made of the true Buddha flanked by his original attendants..."
Nichiren, in the http://www.sgi-usa.org/buddhism/library/Nichiren/Gosho/TrueObjectWorship.htm writes:
The true object of worship is described in the ceremony of the transmission as follows:In the air above the saha world [which the Buddha of the essential teaching identified as the pure and eternal land], Nam-myoho-renge-kyo appears in the center of the Treasure Tower with Shakyamuni and Taho Buddhas seated to the right and left, and the Four Bodhisattvas of the Earth, led by Jogyo, flank them. Around them are Monju, Miroku and the other followers of the Four Bodhisattvas. All the other bodhisattvas, whether they are disciples of the Buddha of the theoretical teaching or of the Buddhas of the other worlds, take their seats further below, like commoners kneeling on the ground in the presence of nobles and high ministers. The Buddhas who gathered from the other worlds in the ten directions of the universe all remain on the ground, showing that they are only manifestations of the eternal Buddha and that their lands are transient, not eternal and unchanging.
In the Kaimoku Sho he blasts the other sects of Buddhism:
Nevertheless, the sects of Buddhism other than Tendai have gone astray concerning the true object of worship. The Kusha, Jojitsu and Ritsu sects take as their object of worship the Shakyamuni Buddha who eliminated illusions and attained the way by practicing thirty-four kinds of spiritual purification.29 This is comparable to a situation in which the heir apparent of the supreme ruler of a state mistakenly believes himself to be the son of a commoner. The four sects of Kegon, Shingon, Sanron and Hosso are all Mahayana schools of Buddhism. Among them the Hosso and Sanron sects honor a Buddha who is comparable to the Buddha of the superior manifested body. This is like the heir of the supreme ruler supposing that his father was a member of the warrior class. The Kegon and Shingon sects look down upon Shakyamuni Buddha and declare the Buddha Vairochana and the Buddha Mahavairochana to be their respective objects of worship. This is like the heir looking down upon his own father, the supreme ruler, and paying honor to one who is of obscure origin simply because that person pretends to be the sovereign who abides by the principles of righteousness. The Pure Land sect considers itself to be most closely related to the Buddha Amida, who is an emanation of Shakyamuni, and abandons Shakyamuni himself who is the lord of teachings. The Zen sect behaves like a person of low birth who makes much of his small achievements and despises his father and mother. Thus the Zen sect looks down upon both the Buddha and the sutras. All of these sects are misled concerning the true object of worship. They are like the people who lived in the age before the Three Sovereigns of ancient China and did not know who their own fathers were. In that respect, the people of that time were no different from birds and beasts.
People from various quarters have been confused by these passages, thinking that it referred either to Nichiren himself or to images of Shakyamuni Buddha. Yet the Kaimoku Sho is clear that the Object of Worship should not be the "Dhuta" Shakyamuni, and the Kanjin No Honzon sho is clear that it should be the "Shakyamuni of the Juryo Chapter." The Buddha that Nichiren refers to here is special. He is also referred to as the "Honbutsu" or "original Buddha" and it is from this image of Shakyamuni teaching eternally established in the "Lifespan Chapter" of the Lotus Sutra that both the image of the Gohonzon is derived from, and that the concept of the inherent Buddhahood(see page truebuddha.html) of common mortals is derived. While statuary configurations may be adequate, and for the practitioner may help him "visualize" the ultimate truth, without the correct understanding of what the "Gohonzon" is, they are misleading. That is why Nikko Shonin rebuked Niko Shonin for wanting to use statuary in this manner (see niko.html), and that is why Nichiren Shoshu and the Gakkai have been more or less "to the point" on this matter. Nichiren Shu understands this theoretically, but many members don't understand it with their heart and so statues of all the Buddhas appear in their temples everywhere.
And Nichiren has left us even more clues on what he wanted us to worship as the Gohonzon. Nichiren Shoshu explains that when he talks about the "Shakyamuni of the Juryo Chapter, he is referring to the Gohonzon as the general principle of person. However, he also refers to the Gohonzon in terms of "Law" or Dharma. And he explicitly states that people should not worship statues of Shakyamuni or Taho, but should place their trust in the Odaimoku as "object of worship" in the Honzon Mondo Sho. He says:
- In this age of degeneration of the Dharma (Mappo Period), which object of worship should one select?
- The Odaimoku of the Lotus Sutra (Hokekyo) should be the object of worship.
One scholar describes the Gohonzon as the "Odaimoku" as Honzon, or the image of the Odaimoku. Any description of the Gohonzon shows that it is precisely a depiction of the Dharma of True Buddhism, the Odaimoku. Nichiren believed, as many religions do, that sounds and words could embody the meaning of a thing. The Daimoku embodies the essence or "heart" of the Lotus Sutra in a "melodious sound." Likewise the Dai-Gohonzon (used in it's general sense rather than as directed to any particular manifestation) is the essential "Dharma" or teaching of the Juryo Chapter of the Lotus Sutra. For him that is embodied in the Odaimoku. The focus on this Odaimoku is the essence of what it means to practice to the Gohonzon.
The Honzon mondo Sho continues on to say:
What part of the Lotus Sutra and whose interpretation is it based on?
Chapter X 'Preachers of the Dharma' of the Lotus Sutra states:"Medicine King! Erect a stupa of the seven treasures in any place where this sutra is expounded, read, recited or copied or in any place where a copy of this sutra exists! The stupa should be tall, spacious and adorned. You need not enshrine my ashes in the stupa. Why not? It is because it will contain my perfect body."
Chapter 'The Nature of Tathagata' of the Nirvana Sutra (Nehangyo) explains:
"Kasho! The teacher of buddhas is Dharma. Buddhas therefore profoundly revere and venerate the Dharma. Since the Dharma is eternal, all buddhas are eternal."
"Tendai-daishi's (Grand Master T'ien-t'ai) document, _Penitance for One's Sins by Meditation on the Truth Expounded in the Lotus Sutra (Hokke-zanmai Zengi)_ states:"Establish a respectable altar in the temple and enshrine the Lotus Sutra there. There is no need to display figures of buddhas or any other sutras or enshrine Shakyamuni Buddha's ashes. Only the Lotus Sutra is necessary."
Nichiren describes the Odaimoku as the "heart of the Lotus Sutra." If it is the heart of the Lotus Sutra then the Calligraphic Gohonzon is also the "heart of the Lotus Sutra." This is the derivation for the doctrine that the Gohonzon is the "Lotus Sutra" of Mappo. Because just as sound-words can embody the thing they name, so does the calligraphic representation of a thing embody it's essence.
In the Honzon Mondo Sho, Nichiren goes on to say:
Morover, there are two kinds of meditation in 'Hangyo-hanza-zanmai', one of 'Shishu-zanmai'. One is 'Hodo-zanmai (Vaipulya meditation)', which considers the seven buddhas and eight bodhisattvas as the object of worship. The second is 'Hokke-zanmai', which considers Shakyamuni Buddha and Taho Buddha of the Lotus Sutra as the object of worship. Judging from what 'Hokke-zanmai-Sengi' states, however, the truth is that the Lotus Sutra should be the object of worship. Although Fukusanzo's work _The Ritual Manual Through Wisdom and Insight of the Lotus Sutra_ is based on the teaching of Chapter XI 'Apparition of the Jeweled Stupa' of the Lotus Sutra, it states that Shakyamuni Buddha and Taho Buddha are the objects of worship, but this is contrary to the real intention of the Lotus Sutra. As mentioned earlier, the Odaimoku is the Sacred Object that is worshipped by the buddhas from the ten directions as well as Shakyamuni Buddha and Taho Buddha. The true object of worship for the followers of the Lotus Sutra is thus the Odaimoku of the Lotus Sutra.
Nichiren is making the equation between the Buddha and the Dharma. The "two kinds of meditation" refer to two different ways of looking at the same thing. While we look at the jeweled stupa and see Shakyamuni and Taho Seated there, they are looking at the Odaimoku itself within their hearts. It is by achieving "Fusion of Dharma and person" that we can manifest our own enlightenment. He makes it even more explicit in this next passage:
Question: If that is the case, why do you maintain that the object of worship is the Odaimoku rather than Shakyamuni Buddha?
Answer: As can be observed from the interpretation of the sutras mentioned earlier, it is not based on my personal, arbitrary opinion. Shakyamuni Buddha and Tendai-daishi (Grand Master T'ien-t'ai) held the Lotus Sutra as their object of worship. Although I appeared in this world after them, I, also, chose the Lotus Sutra as the object of worship. The Lotus Sutra is the parent of Shakyamuni Buddha and at the same time, the Lotus Sutra is the eyes of the other Buddhas. Shakyamuni Buddha, Dainichi Nyorai, and buddhas from the ten directions were all born from the Lotus Sutra. So it is quite natural that their true parents should be considered as the object of worship.
So for Nichiren the Shakyamuni of the Juryo Chapter and the Odaimoku were terms that were interchangeable. Nichiren Shoshu resolved the apparant discrepancy between his admonitions to worship "Shakyamuni of the Juryo Chapter" and the admonition in the Honzon Mondo Sho to worship the Odaimoku, by developing the notion of "oneness of person and law." And their reasoning is solidly grounded if you examine carefully the 4 Gosho I have just quoted from. The "most sublime image" is the Gohonzon that he granted to his disciples.
Passages such as these are also the origin of the concept of "Nichiren as "true Buddha" but Nichiren himself clearly saw the "True Buddha" as the eternally inherent teaching of the Juryo Chapter.
Soon after declaring true Buddhism, Nichiren made drawings of two visions he had had, in the first months of 1254, of the "living forms" of the esoteric deities Aizen Myodo and Fudo Myoo. These deities would appear on Nichiren's mandala (Gohonzon), written in the Siddham, (medieval Sanskrit Orthography). An inscription following these drawings says that he conferred on a "new Buddha" (i.e., a disciple initiate) a transmission he had received as twenty-third in a direct line from Mahavairocana.3
Obviously, Nichiren transmitted much of his teachings in the form of "oral teachings" such as these, and so later ages should not be dismayed that his followers have depended on these traditions, nor that their interpretation of them have become so widely disparate
During his early writings, one can see much of original enlightenment thinking, largely used to undermine and refute the teachings of Honen. Honen had made a distinction between "self-power" (Jiriki) and "other power" (tariki), and between this impure world (edo) and the pure land (jodo). Nichiren writes:
The Lotus Sutra establishes self-power (jiriki) but is not self-power. Since the "self" encompasses all beings in the ten realms, one's own person from the outset contains the Buddha realm of both oneself and of all beings. Thus one does not now become a Buddha for the first time. [The Sutra] also establishes Other-Power, but is not Other-power. Since the Buddha who is "other" is contained within us ordinary Worldlings, this Buddha naturally manifests himself as identical to ourselves.4
He also says:
The originally enlightened Buddha of the perfect teaching abides in this world. If one abandons this land, toward what other land should one aspire?... The practitioner who believes in the Lotus and Nirvana sutras should not seek another place, for wherever one has faith in this sutra is precisely the pure land...For people of this day to aspire to the Western Pure land is to aspire to a land of rubble5
Thus we see that even at this early stage Nichiren was teaching the importance of faith in the "lotus Sutra" and was increasingly identifying that with his calligraphic mandala which he treated as part of his way of "transmitting" his teachings. Thus we can think of the mandala as a transmission of the content of his enlightenment to the meaning of the Lotus Sutra. He doesn't seem to have regarded himself so much as "being" the true Buddha, but that he regarded that achieving enlightenment was a function of living as a "votary of the sutra." The Gohonzon idealized that view.
Nikko Shonin seems to have felt that the Gohonzon should be the primary object of worship. And the primary difference between the Nichiren Shu School and the Gakkai/NST is in the exclusive valuation of the Calligraphic Gohonzon that is followed by the Gakkai/NST. This valuation developed in tandem with the valuation of Nichiren, first as a Buddha and then later as the "True Buddha." It didn't arrive "full blown" until the arrival of Nichiu Shonin as 9th High Priest of the Taisekiji lineage. This doctrine is an expression of the need that Nichiren Buddhism has to define itself in relationship with the mainstream of Buddhism and of Nichiren Buddhism specifically, and Buddhism definately, to provide a comprehensible "Honzon" and representation of this "Honzon." I happen to believe that exclusive use of the Calligraphic Gohonzon is the best (correct) practice, but I also believe that using statues is not necessarilly bad, once one fully understands what the Gohonzon is and isn't (See honzon.html).
For Nichiren Shoshu and related "Fuji School" believers, all Gohonzon are reproductions of the "Dai-Gohonzon" which in turn is a representation of the eternal Buddha which itself is the union of "Dharma"(law-Ho), "Person"(nin), and the place of practice (Eagle Peak/Gridrakruta/Ceremony in the Air). Nichiren Shoshu Gohonzon are reproductions of a specific Dai-Gohonzon made of camphor wood, which their oral traditions say was the one bequeathed to the world by Nichiren upon Nikko and thereupon each of its high priests in turn.
The Gakkai uses a Gohonzon inscribed by Nichikan Shonin who was the 26th HP of Nichiren Shoshu. Nichiren Shoshu uses a Gohonzon inscribed by the current high priest Nikken Shonin. Some of us (such as myself) still have Gohonzon inscribed by Nittatsu Shonin, who was his predecessor. Nichiren Shoshu also claims that all it's Gohonzon should be spiritually tied to one particular Gohonzon (kechimyaku), the "Dai-Gohonzon". For more on that follow this link: daigoh.html". For more on the Nichiren Shoshu Doctrine on the Gohonzon see this page: nshonzon.html along with my comments.
These influences are most apparent when one is talking about the Gohonzon. One of the ceremonies involved in the use of any "honzon" or mandala is the "eye opening ceremony" which basically involves using the Odaimoku and the Lotus Sutra to "open the eyes" of the image. Before the split with Nichiren Shoshu the Gakkai taught that Gohonzon not connected to the true teachings were capable of being "infested with demons."
Nichiren taught that the "eye opening" was necessary to give an image the "clear and far reaching voice" property of the Buddha. I don't know if he included the Gohonzon in this admonition because he was mostly talking about statues and paintings. He put it in the way that any image can already possess the other 31 properties, but only someone who knows the "heart of the Lotus Sutra" could call forth this 32nd property. My reading of his writing causes me to believe that it is the invoking of the Daimoku itself that calls forth the "clear and far ranging voice." This is because he says that the heart of the Lotus Sutra is described various times as the Daimoku and sometimes as Nichiren himself. So it seems to me that everytime we chant daimoku we are opening the eyes of ourselves and the world, and that is what makes any "Gohonzon" work. He taught that only a priest who understands the "heart of the Lotus Sutra" could do so. To me the logic is that, since that heart is the odaimoku itself, it is anyone who is actually chanting whose honzon are "awake" with the "clear and far ranging voice." That property is missing from objects no one chants to and present even if no formal "eye opening ceremony" has been performed in any object the daimoku is chanted to. Thus the sun and the moon can serve as objects of worship, and so can a blank wall if necessary. Our imaginations do the rest. It is traditional to have a priest or qualified layman do an eye opening ceremony for ceremonial reasons and to honor the traditions involved, but there is no legitimate theoretical reason why any Gohonzon shouldn't be a fine image to use as object of meditation.
There are people in Nichiren Shoshu and Nichiren Shu who argue that the ceremony is necessary and that ordinary people cannot perform an eye opening ceremony because they don't understand the "heart of the Lotus Sutra. However, I don't believe that that is necessarilly true. One thing usually has nothing to do with the other. There are probably laypeople with a better understanding of the "heart" of the Lotus Sutra than any priest, and conversely a priest who isn't chanting doesn't have the "heart of the Lotus Sutra" in his heart. Indeed, it seems to me that the "eye-opening" is more necessary to the believer than the image, and each time we chant our "images" need to be "eye-opened" in reality and not just in ceremony. How many "eye opened" images are gathering dust or being worshipped in a superstitious or incorrect manner world wide? We in the Gakkai maintain that it is the practice of chanting the Daimoku to the gohonzon by believers that opens the eyes of the Gohonzon. Since the Gohonzon is a representation of something that is really non-corporeal and difficult to fathom (the Buddha and the Buddha's wisdom), it is the believers "clear and far ranging voice" that really connects to it.
The Gakkai when it makes this assertion opens a bit of a pandoras box since if their Gohonzon need merely to be "authorized" and don't need an eye opening ceremony, then what is to prevent people from using "unauthorized" Gohonzon, and where is the line between an "authorized" and an "unauthorized" Gohonzon?
This subject may be a "pandoras" box, but the hope content of this "box" is that maybe people will finally understand the concept of "honzon," mistakes about which, are at the heart of centuries of religious conflict. This difficult subject is not just a cause of controversy within Nichiren Buddhism. For more follow this link:honzon.html.
Dr. Stone wrote on the Object of Worship "Honzon" on this page: drstoneow.html
Don Ross maintains an entire website devoted to this subject and so it might pay (unless you buy the arguments about demon infested Gohonzon) to follow this link to his website: http://www.crosswinds.net/~campross/home.html. Or to see the controversy at work see this post: Don Ross on Independent Gohonzon
More information (and background) from the Gakkai perspective
NST | SGI-USA | back to index
For more of Dr. Stone on the "Object of worship" visit this link:
- For more on the Gohonzon visit:
- For more discussion of the Fuji School, Dai-Gohonzon, visit:
- Dai Gohonzon page
- Controversy about Sho Hondo
When the Gakkai was forced to issue Gohonzon of it's own this opened a "pandora's Box" of controversies and acrimony. This is because the Gakkai had always followed slavishly the exclusivist doctrines of Nichiren Shoshu about the Gohonzon. Worst it had use the fear-based admonishments of their sacredness and the consequences of "slandering" the Gohonzon, to enforce these views. That prior view entended that the only valid Gohonzon was that that was based on the Dai-Gohonzon. Gohonzon in general were only valid objects of worship if they had a proper eye-opening by the appropriate priests and even more importantly were connected to this "Dai-Gohonzon" through a sort of mystical "Kechimyaku." In this prior view, the Gohonzon held by a rebel, a heretic, or a person from a different sect, was not only "worthless" but positively "demon infested." The Gakkai had so targeted Gohonzon belonging to other schools. Explaining how that could be still true about "other" Gohonzon while not being true about "their Gohonzon" in view of the High Priest's "excommunication" and insistance that the Gakkai could only linked to the Dai-Gohonzon through them was only the beginning of a difficult situation of cognitive dissonance between the conditions the Gakkai was confronted with and the predispositions of most members.
Links and footnotes
- The quote from Toda comes from this page:http://www.sgi-usa.org/buddhism/library/Nichiren/Gohonzon/index.html
- The quotes from the Gosho come from SGI/Will Kallender's website and from the Honmon Butsuryu Shu website. Both of these can be reached through my page:http://www.geocities.com/chris_holte/Buddhism/Gosho/index.html
- This comes from Doctor Stone's Book "Original Enlightenment and the Transformation of Medieval Japanese Buddhism" on page 247.
- Ibid; This comes from the work the "Ichidai Shogyo Tai" which is otherwise untranslated. This early work of Nichiren's was written in 1258 and declares the Lotus Sutra to be the ultimate teaching of the Buddha and his life purpose. Nichiren identifies the Daimoku with the principle of Ichinen Sanzen.
- Ibid; This comes from the work the "Shogo Koka Ron" which also is otherwise untranslated.