Beyond Idolatry and Self-worship: A Perspective on the Object of Devotion

Published by

Posted on October 02, 2012

Beyond Idolatry and Self-worship:A Perspective on the Object of Devotion in Nichiren Daishonin’s Buddhism

The following essay is based on Shin Yatomi’s presentation at the Soka Spirit Conference held at the Florida Nature and Culture Center on January 28–30, 2000.
I. Introduction: No intermediary is necessary
Priests in most religions are respected for their expertise and piety. Lay believers, on the other hand, are assumed to possess less understanding and expected to follow the priests’ guidance in the matters of spirituality and salvation. Even today the word layman, besides indicating a person of the laity, alludes to a person who is less skilled or educated, and both meanings of the word date back to the fifteenth century.[1] Since priests are to set examples that lay believers are to follow, the corruption of the priesthood becomes a matter of great concern for the laity. About one hundred years after Nichiren Daishonin’s death when Taiseki-ji (the head temple of Nichiren Shoshu) was bitterly divided in a squabble over property, Geoffrey Chaucer satirized corrupt priests and wrote of the absurdity of “a shiten shepherde and clene sheep (filthy priest and pure-hearted laity).”[2]
The behavioral aspect of cleric corruption, however, usually becomes obvious when examined closely. What is more threatening to the integrity of religion is the corruption of its teaching. Doctrinal distortion may be glaring on one hand, but when it is cloaked in religious authority and couched in priests’ pious words, it can be very subtle and believable. The fundamental teaching of the Daishonin is to chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo with faith to the object of devotion called the Gohonzon as he states: “Muster your faith and pray to this Gohonzon” (The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, p. 412).
In our practice to the Gohonzon, the Daishonin also stresses our individual and direct relationship with the Gohonzon. In this regard, he writes to one believer: “No matter how earnestly Nichiren prays for you, if you lack faith, it will be like trying to set fire to wet tinder. Spur yourself to master the power of faith” (WND-1, 1000-01). Daishonin makes it clear that each practitioner’s relationship with the Gohonzon must be without any sort of intermediary. To derive the ultimate benefit of Buddhism, we cannot depend on someone else’s prayer—not even the Daishonin’s—although he encourages us to pray for the happiness of others as he himself constantly did.
For example, reversing the intent of the simile in the previous passage, the Daishonin writes from his exile to his persecuted followers: “I am praying that, no matter how troubled times may become, the Lotus Sutra and the ten demon daughters will protect all of you, praying as earnestly as though to produce fire from damp wood, or to obtain water from parched ground” (WND-1, 444). The Daishonin cautions us not to depend on someone else’s prayer and at the same time encourages us to pray for the sake of others through his own example. From these seemingly contradictory statements emerges the essential point of the Daishonin’s Buddhism: Our faith must be self-reliant but not selfish.
When this fundamental teaching about faith and the Gohonzon is distorted, we have cause for great concern. Furthermore, if such corruption of the Daishonin’s basic doctrine goes unchecked too long, the essence of the Daishonin’s Buddhism will be lost. The Nichiren Shoshu priesthood is attempting to alter this basic teaching about the Gohonzon. It claims: “If one has correct faith following the guidance of the High Priest, then benefit will result. However, even if one possesses a traditional Gohonzon, if the person worshipping it slanders the High Priest of the conferral of the lifeblood of the Law, . . . there will be no benefit.”[3] The senior executive priests also assert: “The Daishonin, who is the true Buddha, the Dai-Gohonzon of the high sanctuary, and the successive high priests are to be respected as one and the same in their inner identity.”[4] Put simply, from the perspective of Nichiren Shoshu, no matter how earnestly people pray to the Gohonzon, unless they follow the high priest, they cannot receive any benefit, let alone attain Buddhahood. Nichiren Shoshu priests are spiritual kin to the fourteenth-century English friars who claim: “Our prayers are more effectual and we see more secret things of Christ than lay believers although they were kings” (“Oure orisons been moore effectueel, / And moore we seen of Cristes secree thynges, / Than burel folk, although they weren kynges.”)[5] In Nichiren Shoshu’s doctrinal scheme, one’s prayer to the Gohonzon is secondary to one’s obedience to the high priest. Temple members appear to pray to the Gohonzon but in the innermost reality of their consciousness they are praying through the high priest, if not to the high priest.
Those who become aware of the priesthood’s distortion of the Daishonin’s teaching will naturally reject any intermediary between them and the Gohonzon—be it a high priest or anyone else. But removing such an obstacle that has inserted itself between practitioners and the Gohonzon is only a half step toward establishing a correct relationship with the Gohonzon. In other words, when we pray, we might as well ask ourselves how we should view the Gohonzon. There is not a single passage in the Daishonin’s entire writings that we must pray to the Gohonzon through the high priest no matter how skillfully the priesthood may attempt to misconstrue them. Our relationship with the Gohonzon must be individual and direct. But what kind of relationship is it beyond the absence of any intermediary?
II. Why is the Gohonzon out there?
When we chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, we are praying to the Gohonzon whether or not we are in its physical presence. When second Soka Gakkai President Josei Toda was imprisoned for his opposition to the military regime during World War II, no doubt in his heart he was chanting to the Gohonzon although physically he was chanting to a blank wall. If we should find someone who practices the Daishonin’s Buddhism without knowing of the Gohonzon, it can only be described unfortunate. But we are fortunate enough to know the existence of the Gohonzon although our various circumstances may sometimes force us to practice without its physical presence. In this sense, the issue of whether to practice in the physical presence of the Gohonzon is secondary to the issue of what kind of relationship we should form with the object of devotion or of how we should view its role in our practice. For we practice to the Gohonzon in the reality of our consciousness whether we are in its physical presence or not.
1. ‘The Buddha nature’
To shed light on the nature of our relationship with the Gohonzon, it is important to consider why the Daishonin inscribed it in the first place. The Daishonin admonishes us: “Never seek this Gohonzon outside yourself” (WND-1, 832). The Gohonzon depicts the Daishonin’s enlightened life and thereby represents the innate Buddhahood of all people. So when the Daishonin says that the Gohonzon exists within us, he refers to our Buddha nature. If we already possess the Buddha nature, why do we need its physical representation outside to manifest it from within?
We often say that we all have the Buddha nature. But if we look at this statement closely, we find that it is not as simple as it seems. The Daishonin explains the subtle difference between the Buddha and unenlightened people as follows: “When deluded, one is called an ordinary being, but when enlightened, one is called a Buddha” (WND-1, 4). Here the Daishonin explains that Buddhas are those awakened to their Buddha nature. Once people became enlightened to their Buddha nature, however, it is no longer innate or dormant; it is manifested in their spirit and action. The Buddha nature, once manifested, is called the “Dharma body.” Put simply, it is no longer a nature or potential; it is a concrete part of their being. Knowing of one’s Buddha nature, in this sense, is to manifest it, which is different from mere intellectual understanding. So we can explain the difference between Buddhas (i.e., “enlightened people”) and unenlightened people as follows: While unenlightened people are unaware of their Buddha nature, Buddhas know its existence through manifesting it.
We do not know what we have until we experience it. To illustrate, in the parable of “the gem in the robe” from the Lotus Sutra,[6] the poor man continues to live in destitution, unaware of the gem sewn in his robe by his friend. As far as this poor man is concerned, the gem does not exist until one day he reunites with his friend and was told of its existence. We would not know that we have the Buddha nature until we become Buddhas. In this sense, the statement that all people have the Buddha nature is made from the standpoint of a Buddha. Suppose Albert Einstein says to undergraduate physics majors: “You all have a potential to be a great scientist.” But if the students are struggling to pass a course on elementary physics, it is hard for them to believe such a promise let alone becoming aware of their potential. It would be easy for someone who just received a doctorate degree to realize that he had the potential to become a Ph.D. all along. He achieved his goal because he continued to believe in his potential although he was at times doubtful about his future. The same can be said of our Buddhist practice. Although we hear or read that we all have the Buddha nature, all we can do is believe in our supreme potential and continue our Buddhist practice. When we break through our doubt and delusion and reveal the great compassion and wisdom of Buddhahood, we realize that we all along had the potential. The key is to maintain our faith in our Buddha nature.
One of the reasons why the Daishonin created the Gohonzon as the physical representation of our innate Buddha nature is to establish the existence of the Buddha nature as a concrete reality in which we can believe in. If the Buddha nature remains an abstract notion, it would be extremely difficult to believe in it since its existence can be understood only through one’s subjective experience. So the physical reality of the Gohonzon encourages our faith in it. If nothing concrete exists besides our vague intellectual idea of the Buddha nature, the desire to believe in such a thing would be extremely difficult. The Gohonzon in this sense both provides the object of our faith as the concrete reality of our innate Buddha nature and encourages us to arouse faith in our Buddha nature.
To have faith, we need a thing to believe in. And because there is a thing to believe in, we begin to have a desire to believe in it. Those who begin aspiring for their enlightenment are called the “Bodhisattvas of Initial Aspiration.” This aspiration to awaken to and reveal one’s Buddhahood is a starting point of one’s journey toward enlightenment as well as a milepost along the way. The Gohonzon helps us arouse such aspiration for Buddhahood and gives it a concrete meaning.
2. The Concept of ‘Dependent Origination’
In the course of a day, we may experience many emotions. On our way to work, if an SUV cuts in front of us on the freeway or someone steps on our foot in the subway, we may experience anger. We may think the whole day will turn out to be unpleasant. But if we meet our boyfriend or girlfriend for lunch, we may experience tender affection. Our emotions—or state of being to be broader—manifest themselves in their relationships with the environment. We cannot just get angry for the sake of getting angry; we need something to be angry about. We cannot just smile; we need a reason to smile.
All phenomena arise in their complex relations with one another; nothing happens purely on its own accord. Put simply, this is one of Shakyamuni’s central teachings called “dependent origination.” Within our lives we have a potential (or cause) for various states of being: joy and sorrow, love and hate, hope and despair, and so on. Each state of being cannot manifest itself on its own accord. The cause of one state must form a certain relation with something else to be manifested. Whether or not a particular state of being is manifested depends upon what kind of relation one forms with his or her external surroundings.
In this regard, it is important to keep in mind that our state of being is not an automatic response to a certain type of thing that happens in our environment. What decides our state of being depends on what kind of relationship we form with the environment. When something unfortunate happens, sickness or accident for example, depending on what kind of relation we create with the incident, we may manifest courage to surmount the obstacle or despair to be defeated by it.
Likewise we must form a certain relationship with something outside us in order to manifest our Buddha nature—the supreme state of existence that we have not experienced and, therefore, of which we are unaware. The Daishonin understood this need and inscribed the Gohonzon as a physical representation of our otherwise invisible Buddha nature. And he explained that our relationship with this object of devotion is one based on faith. From the standpoint of a Buddha, we all have the Buddha nature, that is, the potential of Buddhahood. The Gohonzon functions as an external cause to help this seed of Buddhahood within us sprout and grow just like new leaves and shoots come out in the spring rain and they eventually bear fruit under the autumn moonlight.[7] The Gohonzon is like rain and sunshine for the seed of Buddhahood within us. People all have the potential of Buddhahood, that is, the potential to lead both themselves and others to unshakable happiness. Many, however, lack the appropriate external cause to manifest their supreme potential and are instead influenced by negative surroundings and experience negative life-conditions. Moreover, some of those who are fortunate enough to encounter the Gohonzon misunderstand its significance and thus only form a negative relationship with it. This is why it is important for us not only to continue praying to the Gohonzon, but also to grow in our understanding of its true meaning.
3. ‘The Fusion of Objective Reality and Subjective Wisdom’
The sixth-century Chinese teacher T’ien-t’ai (also called Chih-i) discusses the concept of the fusion of objective reality and subjective wisdom in one of his major works titled The Words and Phrases of the Lotus Sutra. Here “objective reality” refers to the truth of a thing in and of itself, and “subjective wisdom” to the understanding of an observer, that is, the subject. Most of our action requires an object for that action. A piano player plays a piano to create music. Or an office worker devotes his efforts to his work. In one sense, when our action and its object are meshed together in harmony, we may expect a positive result. Depending on the content of an object, however, the value and result of such fusion may vary. In the Buddhist concept of the fusion of objective reality and subjective wisdom, the object particularly refers to the true aspect of all phenomena that is also the ultimate reality of one’s life. When our subjective wisdom correctly perceives this truth, the resulting fusion of reality and wisdom manifests itself as our revelation of Buddhahood. In this regard, T’ien-t’ai explains that such fusion is the cause for and the effect of the attainment of enlightenment.[8]
The Daishonin also explains: “Reality means the true nature of all phenomena, and wisdom means the illuminating and manifesting of this true nature….When this reality and wisdom are fused, one attains Buddhahood in one’s present form” (WND-1, 746). To perceive “the true nature of all phenomena” here does not indicate that someone intellectually understands all things in the universe. Rather, it means that someone understands the ultimate truth of his or her life. The fusion of objective reality and subjective wisdom, therefore, indicates the attainment of ultimate self-knowledge.
One of the greatest difficulties in accomplishing such fusion may be that in this case, the subject (i.e., the observer) becomes the object (i.e., the observed). It’s just difficult to see ourselves. But, at the same time, the attainment of self-knowledge has been one of humanity’s greatest desires throughout history. Relating people’s fundamental desire to see themselves and acquire self-knowledge to the production of art, the German philosopher George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel states in his lectures on aesthetics:
The universal need for art, that is to say, is man’s rational need to lift the inner and outer world into his spiritual consciousness as an object in which he recognizes again his own self. The need for this spiritual freedom he satisfies, on the one hand, within by making what is within him explicit to himself, but correspondingly by giving outward reality to this his explicit self, and thus in this duplication of himself by bringing what is in him into sight and knowledge for himself and others. This is the free rationality of man in which all acting and knowing, as well as art too, have their basis and necessary origin.[9]
In his lecture, Hegel also talks about a boy who “throws stones into the river and now marvels at the circles drawn in the water as an effect in which he gains an intuition of something that is his own doing.”[10] Although the Gohonzon is not an art object, Hegel’s explanation and example for humanity’s “universal and absolute need”[11] for art give us an insight into the reason why the Daishonin inscribed the Gohonzon.
The Daishonin created the Gohonzon as an external object. So our first reaction to it may be that “This is not me.” But through our prayer and understanding of what the Daishonin intended the Gohonzon to be, we come to realize that it is the extension of what is inside us. What was not us before now becomes us just like the boy who sees himself in the ripples on the water. As Hegel suggests, we need an external object to observe what is within us. By recognizing what is within us outside us, we expand our self-consciousness outwardly to embrace what was before foreign to us as well as inwardly to reach into the recess of our lives and grasp the ultimate self-knowledge of Buddhahood. Hegel explains that such expansion of self-consciousness leads to less restriction and thus more freedom and views this process toward freedom as the destiny of what he calls Geist or the Spirit.[12]
In light of the concept of the fusion of objective reality and subjective wisdom, it may be said that the Daishonin created the Gohonzon to duplicate externally what is within us so that we may fuse ourselves with it. The Daishonin says: “What then are these two elements of reality and wisdom? They are simply the five characters of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo” (WND-1, 746). By chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo to the Gohonzon with faith in it, this external object ceases to be an alien thing and becomes our lives that embody their supreme potential of Buddhahood. Needless to say, when the Gohonzon is transformed from an external thing into our lives, we see and manifest the Buddha nature within us. This is why the Gohonzon is sometimes called the entity of the fusion of reality and wisdom, but it must be noted that the Gohonzon becomes such only through our faith and practice. Unless we pray to it as Nichiren Daishonin teaches, the Gohonzon remains as a thing external to and alienated from our lives.
III. The Daishonin’s Analogies of the Gohonzon
In his writings, Nichiren Daishonin uses various analogies to explain the role of the Gohonzon in our practice. Those analogies are the excellent tools for us to bring somewhat abstract ideas of the Gohonzon into our immediate perceptible reality. After all, the Gohonzon is our object of devotion, not the object of our endless theoretical analysis, although our understanding of its significance is crucial. The Daishonin’s frequent use of analogies to communicate the importance of the Gohonzon to his disciples seems to confirm this point. In the following, some of those analogies are discussed briefly.
1. Our innate Buddhahood as a caged bird
The Daishonin compares our Buddha nature, which is yet to be recognized and revealed, to a caged bird. He states:
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.” To illustrate, when a caged bird sings, birds who are flying in the sky are thereby summoned and gather around, and when the birds flying in the sky gather around, the bird in the cage strives to get out. When with our mouths we chant the Mystic Law, our Buddha nature, being summoned, will invariably emerge. (WND-1, 887)
The caged bird does not know that he can fly away into freedom. He may be too accustomed to his caged life to realize his restriction. This caged bird, in a sense, is a metaphor for our lives when we are limited by our own ignorance of the Buddha nature. But when the caged bird sings, the birds in the sky gather around. Sometime it is difficult to believe that we have the source of infinite courage, hope and wisdom within our lives to overcome whatever obstacle we may face. But when we bring forth faith in our Buddha nature despite our circumstances and chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo to the Gohonzon, our strength wells forth once again to challenge our obstacle.
Having faith in our Buddha nature regardless of our hardship is to “revere Myoho-renge-kyo inherent in our own life as the object of devotion.” No matter how miserable we may appear, there must be something within us that is infinitely worthy of respect. When we pray to the Gohonzon with such confidence in our Buddha nature, we reveal ourselves as Buddhas, unleashing our supreme potential to its full play.
The birds in the sky gathering around the cage may be interpreted as us seeing the Gohonzon not as an alien thing but as the true aspect of our lives. If the caged bird sees the birds in the sky as some creatures of an essentially different kind, the notion of flying would never occur to his mind. Precisely because he sees the birds in the sky as his own kind, he realizes that he too can fly. To view the Gohonzon, therefore, as some sort of a mysterious entity that transcends our existence would be as foolish as the caged bird failing to identify with the birds in the sky.
The analogy of the caged bird tells us of the necessity of the external object (i.e. the birds in the sky) to awaken to our inherent Buddha nature. More importantly it explains the importance of identifying with the Gohonzon rather than alienating it as a god or idol when we pray. Lastly it must be pointed out that the cage is not a real cage. It is the bird’s own illusion. It remains real so long as he thinks of it as real. Once he realizes what he can do with his wings, the cage will disappear.
2. The Gohonzon is like a mirror
The Daishonin compares the Gohonzon to a mirror to reflect our innate Buddha nature. For example, he states: “The mirror of the Lotus Sutra reflects not only people’s figures but their heart as well” (GZ, 1521). Here the Lotus Sutra refers to the Lotus Sutra of the Latter Day, that is, the Gohonzon. He also states: “The five characters of Myoho-renge-kyo mirror all things without a single exception….Nam-myoho-renge-kyo is a mirror to reflect one’s own image” (GZ, 724). Again in this passage, “the five characters of Myoho-renge-kyo” and “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo” refer to the Gohonzon, which embodies Nam-myoho-renge-kyo—the fundamental law of life and of the universe.
This analogy of the Gohonzon as a mirror may be one of the best analogies of the Gohonzon that we can appreciate through our daily experience. To see our own face, we need a mirror. Likewise, to perceive the supreme potential of Buddhahood within, we need an external object to reflect this ultimate truth of our lives. If some reject the value of the Gohonzon since they already possess “the Gohonzon within” (i.e., the Buddha nature), it would be as foolish as for others to reject the value of a mirror claiming that they already know that they are beautiful. Since they have never seen their own images, their awareness of their beauty is not rooted in its concrete reality; it is an abstraction of what they think beauty is. If such people are exposed to a few negative remarks about their appearance, their confidence may be utterly destroyed. Since we have the Gohonzon as a concrete reality that we can see and touch, it is greatly easier for us to believe in the existence of our Buddha nature within as long as we believe in the Gohonzon as the reflected image of our supreme potential. After all, if we don’t believe in what is reflected in the mirror as our own image, the mirror serves no purpose. Likewise the Gohonzon becomes useless if those who practice to it think of it as the representation of someone else’s enlightenment.
Incidentally, the Daishonin carefully balances out the concreteness of the Gohonzon with its universality. The Gohonzon is concrete in the sense that it is a physical object. But it is not a pictorial image of the Daishonin or any specific person. If the Gohonzon took such a form, it would be dangerously easy to view the Gohonzon as a depiction of someone else’s life. If the Gohonzon were rendered as the Daishonin’s image, we may respect it, but we would not identify with it. For we simply don’t look like a thirteenth-century Japanese monk.
The Daishonin instead created the Gohonzon in characters to depict the concrete imagery of the ‘Treasure Tower’ from the Lotus Sutra, which symbolizes our innate Buddhahood. Characters can signify universal abstract ideas besides concrete things and images. The Gohonzon, in terms of its medium and motif, is a hybrid between characters and imagery. Judging from the way the Daishonin chose to inscribe the Gohonzon, it may be safe to assume that he intended it to be both universal and concrete as characters and imagery are to our minds.
He also used the words and personages of India, China and Japan to depict the Gohonzon.[13] According to the worldview held in medieval Japan, those three countries mostly constituted the entirety of the civilized world. In other words, the Daishonin probably wished to make the Gohonzon universal in its language and content as well. The Gohonzon, in this sense, is intended to be viewed by each person as his or her personal supreme reality and at the same time as the universal truth for all people.
3. We are like a mirror
In “On Attaining Buddhahood in This Lifetime,” the Daishonin reverses the simile of the Gohonzon as a mirror. Instead, he compares our lives to a mirror:
When deluded, one is called an ordinary being, but when enlightened, one is called a Buddha. This is similar to a tarnished mirror that will shine like a jewel when polished. A mind now clouded by the illusions of the innate darkness of life is like a tarnished mirror, but when polished, it is sure to become like a clear mirror, reflecting the essential nature of phenomena and the true aspect of reality. Arouse deep faith, and diligently polish your mirror day and night. How should you polish it? Only by chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. (WND-1, 4)
The Daishonin had written this letter in 1255 before he started to inscribe the Gohonzon. (He started to inscribe the Gohonzon after the Tatsunokuchi Persecution in 1271. The previous analogies are all mentioned in the Daishonin’s writings after 1271.) The basic principle of attaining Buddhahood illustrated in this analogy, however, is certainly applicable to our practice with the Gohonzon.
Compared to the previous analogy of the Gohonzon as a mirror, this one is more practiced-oriented. In the previous analogy, we see the reflection of our innate Buddha nature on the Gohonzon. The Gohonzon, from this perspective, serves as the goal or result of our practice since the innate Buddha nature, though clearly reflected on the Gohonzon, is yet to be revealed from within. So the previous analogy stresses the importance of our faith in the goal or result of our practice. In the present analogy of our lives as a mirror, however, the Gohonzon—which is not directly mentioned but indicated by “the essential nature of phenomena and the true aspect of reality”—functions more or less as the starting point of our practice. The Gohonzon as the embodiment of the Mystic Law permeating the universe is out there to be reflected in the microcosm of our lives within. It is up to our constant “polishing” whether or not our lives reflect the life-giving universal truth of the Mystic Law. In this sense, this analogy emphasizes the importance of our consistent practice.
In order to reflect the Mystic Law in our lives, we must continue to polish our lives. In other words, although our lives shine like a clear mirror today, in few days, it will become tarnished again if we stop our efforts. This is why the Daishonin encourages us to polish our mirror “day and night.” This analogy is important in that it points out the fact that Buddhahood is not a static state that we attain once and for all. According to this analogy, Buddhahood is a dynamic state that needs to be kept up constantly by our practice.
Although this analogy stresses our assiduous practice in this way, the Daishonin also reminds us that our practice must be rooted in faith as he exhorts us: “Arouse deep faith.” At times we may feel that the mirror of our lives remains tarnished, reflecting no light of truth, no matter how hard we polish it. It may be difficult to believe in the potential of our mirror especially when faced with hardship. During the Daishonin’s time, mirrors were made of polished metal alloys such as bronze, nickel and steel. In this analogy, the Daishonin seems to encourage us not to give up our efforts to polish our lives, thinking somehow it is made of wood or dirt. The Daishonin confidently asserts that our lives will shine like a crystal-clear mirror as long as we keep polishing them. Maybe one spot at a time, but unless we stop our efforts, the mirror of our lives will become spotless in time.
IV. Conclusion: Beyond Idol- and Self-worship
1. Beyond our dependency on the external
The more closely we consider why the Daishonin inscribed the Gohonzon, the clearer it becomes that he did not intend the Gohonzon to be an idol. The Gohonzon is not the image of a god from which we beg blessings. Down the center of the Gohonzon is written “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo Nichiren,” which means that the Daishonin was awakened to the Mystic Law. The Daishonin’s enlightenment, however, is not limited to him alone. As he writes to one elderly disciple: “The daimoku of the Lotus Sutra is the treasure tower, and the treasure tower is Nam-myoho-renge-kyo….Abutsu-bo is therefore the treasure tower itself, and the treasure tower is Abutsu-bo himself. No other knowledge is purposeful” (WND-1, 299). The Gohonzon is there for us to reveal our supreme potential. In this sense, the Gohonzon is symbolic of self-reliance and self-empowerment.
Those who worship the Gohonzon like an idol not only miss the Daishonin’s intent behind his inscription, but also twist the image of a Buddha into a transcendental being who would graciously save us as long as we are obedient. Sometimes the Gohonzon is described to possess the powers of the Buddha and the Law. The power of the Buddha refers to the Buddha’s ability to save all living beings, and the power of the Law to the beneficial workings of the Mystic Law to protect and nourish all living beings. Metaphorically we receive those powers from the Gohonzon in response to our powers of faith and practice in the sense that the Gohonzon represents the Buddha’s enlightenment to the Mystic Law. In reality, however, we bring forth the powers of the Buddha and the Law from within our lives through our faith and practice.
The Gohonzon is not a conscious being that bestows blessings on us as the priesthood sometimes suggests by describing the Gohonzon as “the living Nichiren Daishonin himself” or “the living Buddha endowed with profound mercy.”[14] We do not receive anything—physical or spiritual—from the Gohonzon; rather, the Gohonzon allows us to awaken to our Buddha nature, thereby revealing itself as an extension of our lives’ supreme essence. For this beneficial working the Gohonzon should be cherished and appreciated. Furthermore, in this function of the Gohonzon is felt the Daishonin’s immense compassion for all people.
The spiritual aspect of the Gohonzon is not its inherent quality. Nor does it stem from the high priest’s mysterious consecration. Rather each practitioner endows the Gohonzon with spirituality through his or her faith. The Daishonin explains: “I, Nichiren, have inscribed my life in sumi ink, so believe in the Gohonzon with your whole heart” (WND-1, 412). For those who understand and share the Daishonin’s passion to save humanity lying behind his inscription of the Gohonzon as expressed in this passage, the Gohonzon ceases to be merely a piece of paper and becomes the embodiment of the Daishonin’s compassion. And this is fundamentally different from an idol whose spirituality is externalized from a believer.
2. Beyond our self-satisfaction
The opposite extreme from worshipping the Gohonzon as an idol may be the attitude of narcissistic self-worship. Some may reject the Gohonzon as unnecessary because they already have the Buddha nature. Or still others may think of the Gohonzon as proof of their already perfected state of being. In effect such people are worshipping their own deluded selves. As long as the Buddha nature remains as a potential, it still needs to be revealed in one’s spirit and action. From moment to moment the Buddha nature needs to be manifest and solidified as the foundation of our daily living. For this purpose we must practice.
While idol-worship indicates the view of a Buddha as a supernatural being, self-worship may be associated with the view of Buddhahood as a static state of self-deceiving perfection. The Daishonin points out the danger of self-worship as follows: “‘Single-mindedly desiring to see the Buddha’ may be read as follows: single-mindedly observing the Buddha, concentrating one’s mind on seeing the Buddha, and when looking at one’s own mind, perceiving that it is the Buddha….The Buddha wrote that one should become the master of one’s mind rather than let one’s mind master oneself” (WND-1, 389–90). Here the Daishonin stresses the importance of our resolute efforts to seek and see the Buddha nature within. As a result of such practice, we come to realize our innate Buddhahood. If we assume the existence of the Buddha nature only intellectually without making real efforts to reveal it and behave accordingly, we are mistaking our limited self-satisfaction for the attainment of Buddhahood. The Daishonin admonishes us not to fall into such illusion, urging each of us never to “let one’s mind master oneself.” In this sense, self-worship amounts to enslaving oneself to one’s narcissistic arrogance.
3. A Buddha as a person of eternal progress
Our worship of the Gohonzon is neither idol- nor self-worship. The Daishonin’s creation of the Gohonzon as an external object that reflects the Buddha nature within the lives of all people creates a sense of positive tension in the mind of a practitioner. On one hand, the Daishonin unequivocally asserts that the Gohonzon exists within our lives, urging us: “Never seek this Gohonzon outside yourself” (WND-1, 832). On the other hand, he creates the Gohonzon as an external object. The Gohonzon is nowhere but within our lives, but it exists outside. This seemingly self-contradicting view of the Gohonzon actually guides our practice in a direction that is neither idol- nor self-worship.
Idol-worship may result from practitioners’ self-disparagement as well as their view of a Buddha as a transcendental being, and self-worship seems to have its root in practitioners’ arrogant view of the inflated self and their view of Buddhahood as a state of perfection to be attained once and for all. It may be said, however, that the oxymoronic aspect of the Gohonzon’sexternal inwardness elevates our approach to Buddhist practice beyond idol- and self-worship. When we firmly believe in the existence of the Gohonzon (i.e., the Buddha nature) as the foundation of our lives, we need neither to think of ourselves as a helpless creature that needs external salvation nor to view a Buddha as someone beyond our reach. The external existence of the Gohonzon, on the other hand, discourages the arrogance of self-worship. Although the Buddha nature exists as a potential for Buddhahood within our lives, it needs to be cultivated and nurtured into the actual foundation of our thought and deed. The external presence of the Gohonzon serves as a goal toward which we must continue to practice and as a reminder that we can strengthen our Buddhahood ever more.
From the external reality of the Gohonzon emerges the view of a Buddha as a person of eternal progress. In this sense, attaining Buddhahood is a continuous process of self-improvement. With a deeper insight into the meaning of the Gohonzon, we may continue our practice without disparaging ourselves in times of hardship or becoming arrogant in times of success. No matter how hopeless our circumstances may seem, we can gain renewed confidence in our Buddha nature from a correct view of the Gohonzon. Although things are going smoothly for us, when we pray to the Gohonzon in accord with the Daishonin’s intent, we will be reminded that we should further strive to practice for ourselves and work for the happiness of others. The proper view of the Gohonzon allows us not only to see any corruption of the Daishonin’s teaching whenever and wherever it occurs, but also to stay on the right course in our practice. ·

[1] The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. Today we casually use the word layman meaning “less skilled or educated” in the context such as “I’m a layman in computers.” The continued usage of the word in this sense, however, may suggest how deeply ingrained the supposed superiority of the priesthood over the laity is in our collective psyche if the language is to express our understanding of the self and the world.
[2] “A filthy priest and pure-hearted lay believers.” Line 504 from “General Prologue” to The Canterbury TalesThe Riverside Chaucer. 3rd ed. Ed. Larry D. Benson. Boston: Houghton, 1987. p. 31.
[3] The Nichiren Shoshu Doctrinal Research Committee. Refuting the Soka Gakkai’s “Counterfeit Object of Worship”: 100 Questions and Answers. West Hollywood, CA: Nichiren Shoshu Temple, 1996. p. 15.
[4] The letter sent to the Soka Gakkai from the senior executive priests dated on Sep. 6, 1991. Trans. by Shin Yatomi.
[5] “Our prayers are more effectual and we see more secret things of Christ than lay believers although they were kings.” Chaucer, Geoffrey. Lines 1870 to 1872 from “The Summoner’s Tale” in The Canterbury TalesThe Riverside Chaucer. 3rd ed. Ed. Larry D. Benson. Boston: Houghton, 1987. p. 131.
[6] This parable is contained in the sutra’s eighth or “Prophecy of Enlightenment for Five Hundred Disciples” chapter.The Lotus Sutra. Trans. Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993. pp. 150-51.
[7] This analogy is based on the Daishonin’s explanation of the importance of an external cause in “The Ultimate Teaching Affirmed by All Buddhas of Past, Present and Future” (WND-2, 861).
[8] T’ien-t’ai. The Words and Phrases of the Lotus Sutra, vol. 9. Quoted in Bukkyo Tetsugaku Daijiten (Dictionary of Buddhist Philosophy), Tokyo: Seikyo Press, 1985. p. 327.
[9] Hegel, G.W.F. Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art. Vol. 1. Trans. T. M. Knox. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998. pp. 31-32.
[10] Ibid. p. 31.
[11] Ibid. p. 30.
[12] Inwood, Michael. A Hegel Dictionary. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1992. pp. 110-12, pp. 274-77.
[13] For the meaning of each inscription on the Gohonzon, go to  or see the “Diagram of the Gohonzon Transcribed by High Priest Nichikan” and “Further Explanation” in Living Buddhism, November 1997, pp. 16-17, pp. 19-24.

[14] The Nichiren Shoshu Doctrinal Research Committee. Refuting the Soka Gakkai’s “Counterfeit Object of Worship”: 100 Questions and Answers. West Hollywood, CA: Nichiren Shoshu Temple, 1996. p. 6.