By observing our enlightened minds as they are reflected in the Gohonzon, we become aware of our potential
I can remember the first time I saw a Gohonzon. It was on the same morning when I was first told about Nam-myoho-renge-kyo and at the end of the conversation I was shown a paper scroll in a wooden cabinet in my friend's living room. At first I had no idea what the characters were that I was looking at. I just saw black script, which I would later discover were mostly classical Chinese calligraphy on white paper with an attractive backing. In time, as I learned more I would discover the meaning of these characters - not in the sense of being able to read them, but in terms of their impact on my life.
The Gohonzon is important because it is a graphic expression of the eternal Law of the universe which, if we embrace it, enables us to reveal our enlightened potential from the depths of our own lives. What follows is a brief introduction to this fascinating and enlightening object.
Nichiren Daishonin first taught about Nam-myoho-renge-kyo on 28 April 1253 and he explained that this is the fundamental teaching which enables us here and now to reveal our inherent Buddhahood. In time, while ordinary people started to chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo and become his followers, because of the reaction of both the government authorities and the other Buddhist schools at the time, Nichiren Daishonin was persecuted and attempts were made to prevent him sharing this empowering and transformative teaching.
The most serious incident happened on the night of 12 September 1271 when he was taken to be executed. We now describe the events on Tatsunokuchi Beach as the moment when Nichiren Daishonin 'cast off his transient identity as an ordinary person and revealed his true identity as the Buddha of limitless joy from time without beginning.' The execution did not, however, take place and instead Nichiren Daishonin was exiled to Sado Island, a bleak and desolate place in the North Japan Sea. Soon after the events at Tatsunokuchi, Nichiren Daishonin started to inscribe the Gohonzon so that, should he not return from exile, it would be possible for his followers to have a representation of the eternal life-state of Buddhahood which is in all of us. Nichiren Daishonin wished to make the eternal Law accessible to all people. As it turned out, he was reprieved in 1274 and able to return to the mainland of Japan.
The first Gohonzon were quite simple, but included the Law of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, Nichiren Daishonin's name and two expressions of transformation.1 In time, the form of the Gohonzon would develop to represent the Ceremony in the Air described in the Lotus Sutra when Shakyamuni Buddha, seated in the Treasure Tower of Many Treasures Buddha, entrusted the Law to those who would propagate it in the future. Nichiren Daishonin inscribed a number of Gohonzon, and later many transcriptions would be made of the Gohonzon that Nichiren Daishonin inscribed. The Gohonzon we bestow in the SGI is a transcription made by Nichikan in 1720.
In one letter Nichiren Daishonin wrote: 'I, Nichiren, have inscribed my life in sumi ink, so believe in the Gohonzon with your whole heart. The Buddha's will is the Lotus Sutra, but the soul of Nichiren is nothing other than Nam-myoho-renge-kyo.' (WND-1, p. 412) Through his study, his practice and his faith, Nichiren Daishonin was able to reveal the Law that enables us to reveal exactly the same life-condition as the Buddha. His main concern was that his followers might lose awareness of the existence of this life-condition in their own lives. Using the blueprint of the Ceremony in the Air, he was able to express the Law as representing the Treasure Tower at the heart of the ceremony, and show this as something existing in all of us.
While other religions may suggest that the supreme being or the ultimate reality is outside a human life, Nichiren Buddhism makes it clear that the Law resides within our own lives. After the process of 'casting off the transient and revealing the true' mentioned above, Nichiren Daishonin was able to put on paper the enlightened life he had experienced, identical to the universal life described in the Lotus Sutra in the Ceremony in the Air. Nichiren Daishonin used script (rather than a sculpted or visual image) because writing is an expression of the heart and mind, and so from his enlightened perspective his writing was able to express his Buddhahood. Words carry out the function of the Buddha and lead people to reveal their own enlightened selves.
As we chant, with the Gohonzon as our focus, we are reminded that the source of our enlightened potential is within our own lives, and we can draw it out and see it in our actions. The Gohonzon has been called 'a certificate of guarantee' from Nichiren Daishonin to assure us that the Nam-myoho-renge-kyo that we chant will, without doubt, draw out our Buddhahood.2
Nichiren Daishonin himself described the Gohonzon as 'the object of devotion for observing the mind' meaning that with this object we are able to see all of the ten worlds working in our lives, including the enlightened world of Buddhahood, Because the Gohonzon represents in bold calligraphy down its middle the eternal Law which is the cause for all people to reveal Buddhahood in their lives, it enables us to connect with the Law and reveal this life-state from within our own lives.
The word 'mindfulness' has become very popular recently, leaving its Buddhist roots and entering secular usage. In Nichiren Buddhism, the thing for us to bear in mind is that we have Buddhahood in our lives and can reveal it by embracing the Law. We then not only become mindful of our Buddhahood, but we see it working in our actions as we behave more wisely, compassionately and courageously for the happiness of ourselves and others. By observing our enlightened minds as they are reflected in the Gohonzon, we become aware of our potential.
Our practice then is to chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, the name of the Buddha nature inherent in all life, and as we do this we look at a representation of the Mystic Law to which all Buddhas are enlightened. Nichiren Daishonin wrote:
When we revere Myoho-renge-kyo inherent in our own life as the object of devotion, the Buddha nature within us is summoned forth and manifested by our chanting of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. This is what is meant by Buddha. (WND-1, p. 887)
SGI President Daisaku Ikeda says of this passage:
To chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo is to praise most highly the Gohonzon that Nichiren Daishonin manifested. At the same time it is to praise the Gohonzon in our own lives and to praise the world of Buddhahood within us. When the life of the world of Buddhahood is praised in this fashion, it becomes manifest... It is we who are calling forth our Buddhahood, and it is our Buddhahood that is being called forth.3
Nichiren Daishonin called the Gohonzon 'the banner of propagation'.4 He meant that if the teaching of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo was to be universally known and practised, then it would be necessary that representations of the Gohonzon should also be available to people who understood the heart of his teachings and are committed to contributing to the movement for kosen-rufu.
Second president of the Soka Gakkai, Josei Toda, would sometimes refer to the Gohonzon as a machine for producing happiness. By this he meant that people bring their sufferings, their problems and desires and chant about them in front of the Gohonzon. Through the process of raising our life-condition and revealing our enlightened life, we are able to see our lives from the Buddha's perspective. This means that we view our desires and problems differently and are able to change from seeking relative happiness to revealing the joy of our absolute happiness from within. We also recognise that true happiness is not found in small, personal and often selfish desires, but rather in broad, encompassing determinations for the happiness of the wider world.
I deeply appreciate the fact that I can bring anything that is on my mind to the Gohonzon. There is something wonderfully liberating in feeling that the time that I am chanting is a conversation between my life and the life of the Buddha. As I continue to chant worries and concerns lighten and determinations for a better world deepen. I recognise how fortunate we are to have met this wonderful philosophy and to have, every day, the opportunity to be reminded of the enlightened life within us all.
This short article can only be a brief introduction to this important topic. A good starting point for further reading could be The World of Nichiren Daishonin's Writings, (volume two) where President Ikeda dedicates three chapters to explaining the Gohonzon. Here is an extract to conclude:
This Gohonzon, like the treasure tower ceremony itself, makes it possible for the world of Buddhahood to become manifest in the life of each person and in the land as a whole. When we of the Latter Day of the Law, with the Gohonzon as our clear mirror, believe that this same expansive cosmos of life exists within us, we can open and reveal in our lives that vast and boundless condition. We can thereby fundamentally eliminate all suffering and build eternal, indestructible happiness.5
1. Aizen represents the principle that 'earthly desires can be transformed into
enlightenment' and Fudo represents the principle that'the sufferings of life and
death can be transformed into nirvana'.They are the two non-Chinese characters
on the Gohonzon; Aizen is half way down the left hand side, and Fudo half
way down the right hand side. They are written in Siddham, a Sanskrit form of orthography.
- On a European Study Course the late Mr Katsuji Saito, then head of the SGI
Study Department, called the Gohonzon 'a certificate of guarantee from Nichiren
- Daisaku Ikeda, et al, The World of Nichiren Daishonin's Writings (SGI-Malaysia,
2004) vol. 2, p. 147.
- 'How wondrous it is that, around two hundred years and more into the Latter Day
of the Law, I was the first to reveal as the banner of propagation of the Lotus
Sutra this great mandala that even those such as Nagarjuna and Vasubandhu,
T'ien-t'ai and Miao-Lo were unable to express.' (WND-1, p. 831)
- Daisaku Ikeda, et al, The World of Nichiren Daishonin's Writings (SGI-Malaysia,
2004) vol. 2, p. 183.