Gohonzon | Object of Worship | Nichiren

Gohonzon inscribed by Nichiren just before his death in 1280.
Gohonzon inscribed by Nichiren just before his death in 1280.

1. Gohonzon

Gohonzon is a generic term for a venerated religious object in Japanese Buddhism. It may take the form of a scroll or statuary.

This article focuses on the mainstream use within Nichiren Buddhism, referring to the calligraphic paper mandala inscribed by the 13th Japanese Buddhist priest Nichiren (1222-1282) to which devotional chanting is directed.

Linguistically, the root word Honzon derives from ancient word “Konpon—Sogyo” signifies devotional object of respect or worship and GO is an honorific prefix.

Varying Nichiren groups accord their own meanings to the Gohonzon in different ways, signifying their treatment of the object:

  1. Object of DevotionSōka Gakkai
  2. Object of WorshipNichiren Shōshū
  3. The Great Mandala, Venerated SupremeNichiren-shū sects

Paper scroll Gohonzon are sometimes known as Kakejiku Gohonzon or Moji—Mandala (script mandala).

The Gohonzon is often enshrined within an Altar shrine called Butsudan.

2. Description

Nichiren himself attached the greatest importance to his inscription of the Gohonzon and claimed this as a pivotal moment in his life:

He stated that by using sumi ink to inscribe it he was acting like a lion king.

Nichiren's calligraphy shifted over the years he inscribed Gohonzon:

Details of the composition of the Gohonzon are clear from the approximately 120-125 inscribed in Nichiren's own hand, dating from 1271-1282 years, that are extant.

For example, a Gohonzon he inscribed in July 1273 was inscribed on a piece of silk 2.5 ft. by 5.5 ft. Copies of the original Gohonzon have been made by others and can be found in varying sizes.

A Joju Gohonzon is inscribed for a specific person or organization, while an Okatagi Gohonzon is generic and produced through a wood block process.

Nichiren and his successors also inscribed smaller Omamori Gohonzon that are carried on the person.

3. Opinions on its significance

Some describe Nichiren's Gohonzon as a Maṇḍala, a concretized object that Nichiren inscribed to transmit what he regarded as the essence of the Lotus Sūtra.

It is also described as a depiction of the Ceremony in the Air in the 11th Chapter of the Lotus Sūtra, The Emergence of the Treasure Tower.

It is the 1st of the 3 great secret laws of Nichiren Buddhism:

  1. Gohonzon
  2. Nam Myōhō Renge Kyō (chant)
  3. The place of worship.

Some describe it as a Maṇḍala of the cosmos as perceived inwardly by Nichiren.

Some describe it as a physical embodiment of the truth of cosmic existence.

By having faith in the Daimoku and chanting it before this object of worship, Nichiren taught one could in effect enter the Maṇḍala and participate in the Enlightened reality that it depicts.

The founder Nichiren referred to Gohonzon as the banner of propagation and a cluster of blessings.

4. Calligraphic meanings

Without exception, all these Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, great sages, and, in general, all the various beings of the 2 worlds and the 8 groups who appear in the “Introduction” chapter of the Lotus Sūtra dwell in this Gohonzon.

Illuminated by the light of the 5 characters of the Mystic Law, they display the dignified attributes that they inherently possess. This is the object of devotion.

— Nichiren, The True Aspect of the Gohonzon

A Nichiren Gohonzon is usually written in traditional Kanji characters with the addition of 2 Siddhaṁ scripts.

Although exclusive to the other Buddhist sects of his contemporaneous society, Nichiren was highly inclusive of Vedic and Chinese traditions, viewing them as precursors of his own teachings and personages from these traditions are present on the Gohonzon.

Most prominent to all such Gohonzon is the phrase Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō—the primary mantra in Nichiren Buddhism—written down the centre in bold calligraphy. This is called the Daimoku (title).

Right below, also in bold, Nichiren writes his name followed by his seal. This signifies Nichiren's conviction that his life had manifested the essence of the Lotus Sūtra.

On the top row of Gohonzon can be found the names of Śākyamuni Buddha and Prabhūtaratna and the 4 leaders of the Bodhisattvas of the Earth.

The names of deities believed to protect the Buddha Land, called the Four Heavenly Kings, further occupy the 4 corners, they are:

  1. Bishamonten (Vaiśravaṇa),
  2. Jikokuten (Dhṛtarāṣṭra),
  3. Kōmokuten (Virūpākṣa)
  4. Zōjōten (Virūḍhaka)

and Sanskrit characters depicting Aizen Myōō (Rāgarāja) and Fudō Myōō (Acala) are situated along the left and right outer edges.

Within this frame are the names of various Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, historical and mythological figures in Buddhism, personages representing the 10 realms, and deities drawn from Vedic, Chinese, and Japanese traditions are arranged hierarchically.

Each of these names represents some aspect of the Buddha's enlightenment or an important Buddhist concept.

5. History

Research has documented that Nichiren inscribed 740 Gohonzon.

He began inscribing Gohonzon immediately before and during his exile on Sado between late 1271 and early 1274. This followed the attempted and failed execution of him at Tatsunokuchi Beach in 1271.

In various letters he referred to this event as his casting off the transient and revealing the true, at which time he claimed to have discarded his transient status and revealed his essential identity as the Buddha of the Latter Day of the Law.

According to Ikeda, Nichiren's intent in manifesting the Gohonzon was to allow people to connect directly with the Law so they, too, could discard the transient and reveal their essential enlightened selves.

The 1st extant Gohonzon was inscribed by Nichiren on 12 October 1271 before his transport to Sado Island. This was embryonic in form.

On 8 July 1273, Nichiren inscribed a Gohonzon in its full form with the inscription Nichiren inscribes this for the first time.

During his exile in Sado Island (1271-1274) Nichiren wrote 2 treatises explaining the significance of the object of devotion from the theoretical perspectives of the person (The Opening of the Eyes) and the law (The Object of Devotion for Observing the Mind).

Nichiren wrote additional letters to his followers bestowing Gohonzon to them and further explaining their significance: Letter to Misawa, Reply to Kyo'o, The Real Aspect of the Gohonzon, and On the Treasure Tower.

6. Gohonzon issue of Sōka Gakkai

The Nichiren Shōshū religion claims that the original Dai Gohonzon maṇḍala at its Head Temple is the original source of power that is transcribed by the High Priests of Nichiren Shōshū.

All Gohonzons loaned by Nichiren Shōshū are copied from the Dai Gohonzon, including the ones currently used both by Sōka Gakkai and Kenshokai for their services.

In 28 November 1991, the Sōka Gakkai was expelled by Nichiren Shōshū and thereby lost its source of Gohonzon.

By September 1993, the Sōka Gakkai began to manufacture their own version and artistic format used today for current members.

A Gohonzon transcribed by Nichikan Shōnin, the 26th chief abbot of Taiseki-ji temple was selected through one of the dissident breakaway priest who provided the woodblock copy when he sided with President Daisaku Ikeda.

The Gohonzon used today by Sōka Gakkai was copied and transcribed from the Dai Gohonzon in July 1720 by Nichikan Shōnin (1665—1726), the 26th High Priest of Nichiren Shōshū.

Another Gohonzon in possession of the Sōka Gakkai is the wooden copy manufactured in 1974 transcribed from the Dai Gohonzon by 64th High Priest Nissho Shonin,

previously enshrined in Osaka, and now enshrined in the main SGI headquarters of “Daiseido Hall” in Shinjuku, Tokyo, Japan.

Former Sōka Gakkai President Jōsei Toda described the Gohonzon simply as a happiness-producing machine, a means for harmonizing with universal life force.

Current President of Sōka Gakkai International Daisaku Ikeda refers to it as a mirror that reflects one's inner life.

7. Inscriptions

The following inscriptions are found in the Gohonzon transcribed by 26th High Priest Nichikan Shōnin, as is the mainstream format also transcribed by the Successive High Priests of Nichiren Shōshū:

Nichiren Daishōnin:

Never in 2 230-some years since the passing of the Buddha has this great Maṇḍala appeared in the world.

Nichikan Shonin:

The 13th day of the 6th month in the 5th year of Kyōhō, cyclical sign kanoe-ne.

There are also 2 inscriptions from Miao-lo’s commentary “Hokke Mongu”, The Annotations on “The Words and Phrases of the Lotus Sūtra”:

Those who make offerings will gain good fortune surpassing the 10 honourable titles of the Buddha

Those who vex and trouble the practitioners of the Law will have their heads split into 7 pieces.

The Sōka Gakkai organization maintains that only the Gohonzon conferred by their leadership brings both personal happiness and Kōsen-rufu, claiming that they possess the true mandate of Nichiren for widespread propagation.

By contrast, Nichiren Shōshū Hokkekō members often omit the honorific term “GO” when referring to Gohonzons used outside their religion,

most especially against the Sōka Gakkai variant either as a pejorative derision or refusal to acknowledge the implied sacred nature of the Gohonzon outside their sectarian beliefs,

often citing them as either fake and lacking the “Kaigen-shū” (Eye-opening) ceremony prescribed to animate a Gohonzon for its spiritual efficacy:

The lesser value of “Honzon” is used by Nichiren Shōshū members instead.

8. Outside of Nichiren Buddhism

The terms Honzon and Gohonzon are often used interchangeably and with some confusion.

In the Japanese Risshō Kōsei Kai organization, members receive and practice to a Daigohonzon enshrined in their homes;

the scroll consists of an image of Gautama Buddha. At the Risshō Kōsei Kai headquarters there is a Gohonzon that is a statue of Śākyamuni.

In the Jōdo Shinshū school of Pure Land Buddhism, under Hōnen and Shinran, the use of Honzon became more prevalent;

they took the form of inscriptions of the sect's mantra Namu Amida Buddha, other phrases, images of the Buddha, statuary, and even representations of the founder.

Rennyo thought the written mantra was more appropriate than a statue but did not ascribe particular powers to it as do Nichiren's followers to their Gohonzon.

In Mikkyō practices such as in Shingon Buddhism, the term Honzon refers to the divinity honoured in a rite but later came to represent the formal object of worship.

The tutelary figure's role is similar to that of the yidam in Tibetan Buddhism.

Tutelary deities in Vajrayāna, including Mikkyō, Chinese Esoteric Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism, are crucial to many religious practices.

In the famous Goma fire ritual ceremony, the fire itself while it is being consumed and animated is also considered a temporary Gohonzon.