Soka Spirit
Beyond Idolatry and Self-Worship

April 01, 2000

By Shin Yatomi
SGI-USA Vice Study Department Leader

The following essay is based on a presentation Mr. Yatomi delivered at the Florida Nature and Culture Center on January 28-30, 2000.


Nichiren Daishonin stresses the individual and direct relationship between each believer and the Gohonzon—the object of devotion in the Buddhism he founded. 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 muster the power of faith” (WND, 1000-01). The 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 an external power that is separate from ourselves, or abilities of others.

At the same time, however, he encourages us to pray for the happiness of others as he, himself, constantly did. For example, to his persecuted followers, the Daishonin writes from exile: “I am praying that, no matter how troubled the 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, 444). While the Daishonin cautions us not to depend on someone else’s prayer, he encourages us to pray for the sake of others. From his seemingly contradictory statements emerges an essential point in the Daishonin’s Buddhism: Our faith must be self-reliant, but not selfish.
Those who become aware of this will naturally reject anyone or anything that tries to interpose itself between themselves and the Gohonzon—be it a figure of religious authority or a benevolent intercessor. Removing such obstacles is only half the step toward establishing a correct relationship with the Gohonzon. Our relationship with the Gohonzon must be individual and direct. But what is the nature of this direct relationship?


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, 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 an external physical manifestation?

We often say that we all have the Buddha nature. However, if we look at this statement closely, we find that it is not as simplistic 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, 4). The Daishonin explains that Buddhas are those awakened to their Buddha nature. Once people become enlightened, however, their Buddha nature no longer remains innate or dormant. It is expressed in their thoughts and actions.

The Buddha nature, once manifested, becomes the “Dharma body,” indicating that it is a concrete part of a person’s being—both physical and spiritual. Manifesting one’s Buddha nature, in this sense, is different from mere intellectual understanding.

We do not know what we have until we experience it. In the parable of “the gem in the robe”1 from the Lotus Sutra, the poor man continues to live in destitution, unaware of a precious gem sewn into the lining of his robe by a friend. As far as this poor man is concerned, the gem does not exist until one day he reunites with his friend and is told of its existence. Similarly, we would not truly “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. For example, someone who can lift only forty pounds, theoretically, may know that they can potentially lift 300 pounds. It is only after working out and developing the strength to actually lift the 300 pounds, that they know for certain. Attainment of the goal is because of belief in one’s potential, even though, at times, there was doubt. The same thing can be said of any substantial challenge or accomplishment in life, and certainly of our Buddhist practice. Although we hear or read that we all have the Buddha nature, all we can do is place our belief in this supreme potential and continue our Buddhist practice. When we break through our doubt and delusion and reveal the great compassion, wisdom and life-force of Buddhahood, we become certain of that potential. At the same time, we become certain that others have it too. The key is to maintain our faith in our Buddha nature.

The Daishonin created the Gohonzon as a physical representation of our innate Buddha nature to establish a concrete reality we can believe in. If the Buddha nature remained an abstract notion, it would be extremely difficult to believe. To experience it, one must believe in it. It is in this context that the physical reality of the Gohonzon serves to enhance our faith. If we had nothing concrete upon which to focus our faith, we might have difficulty directing our practice and efforts toward bringing that nature forth. What we are seeking would not be so clear. The Gohonzon in this sense serves both; as an object of faith and as a concrete reality that encourages us to develop faith in our inherent Buddha nature.

To have faith, we need something to have faith in. Belief only begins to have meaning where there is something to believe in. Those who believe in their potential and aspire for enlightenment are called the “Bodhisattvas of Initial Aspiration.” This aspiration to awaken to and reveal one’s Buddhahood is a starting point in one’s journey toward enlightenment. Practice to the Gohonzon arouses such aspiration for Buddhahood and gives it concrete meaning.


In the course of a day, you may experience many emotions. On your way to work, if an SUV cuts in front of you on the freeway or someone steps on your foot in the subway, you may experience anger. You may think the whole day will turn out to be unpleasant. If you meet your boyfriend or girlfriend for lunch, you may experience tender affection.

Our emotions—or states of being, to be broader—manifest themselves in the context of our relationship with our 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 the context of their complex relations with one another. Nothing happens purely on its own accord. Put simply, this is one of Shakyamuni’s central teachings, “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. No state of being can manifest itself on its own accord. Life expresses a certain condition in response to relationships with others or the environment. Whether or not a particular state of being is manifested depends on the kind of relation we form with our external surroundings.

In this regard, it is important to remember that our state of being, or “life-condition,” is not an automatic response to a certain type of relation or stimulus in our environment. We don’t always react the same way when the same person does the same thing. For example, when something unfortunate happens, it can stimulate us to express courage or despair, depending on the nature of our relationship to it. Similarly, what if there was something in our environment that could stimulate our inner enlightenment or Buddhahood to come forth?

The Daishonin understood this principle and inscribed the Gohonzon as a crystallization, in written form, of the otherwise invisible Buddha nature potential to all human beings. His intention was that it function as a stimulus. He explained that our relationship with this object of devotion is one based on faith: “Muster your faith and pray to this Gohonzon. Then what is there that cannot be achieved?” (WND, 412). From the standpoint of a Buddha, we all have the potential for Buddhahood. The Gohonzon functions as an external cause to help this seed of Buddhahood within us sprout and grow. Nichiren Daishonin compares this growth to new leaves and shoots that come out in the spring rain and eventually bear fruit under the autumn moonlight.2 The Gohonzon is like rain and sunshine for the seed of our Buddhahood.

All people have the potential of Buddhahood—the potential to lead both themselves and others to unshakable happiness. Many, however, lack a relationship to the appropriate external cause to manifest their supreme potential. Instead, influenced by negative surroundings, they are prone to experience negative states of life. Some who are fortunate enough to encounter the Gohonzon, misunderstand its significance and thus fail to form the optimum relationship with it. This is why it is important for us to continue praying to the Gohonzon, and grow in our understanding of its true meaning.


The sixth-century Chinese priest T’ien-t’ai (also called Chih-i) discusses “the fusion of objective reality and subjective wisdom” in one of his major works, 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—the subject. Most of our action requires an object of that action. A musician plays an instrument to create music. An office worker has tasks to perform and projects to complete. In one sense, when our actions and their object are meshed together in harmony, we may expect a positive result. Depending on the nature of an object, however, the value and result of such harmonious interplay will vary. Pulling the trigger on a power drill and pulling the trigger on a gun have vastly different results, even though the action is basically the same. 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 true aspect or reality, the resulting fusion of reality and wisdom calls forth our Buddhahood. In this regard, T’ien-t’ai explains that such fusion is both the cause for and the effect of the attainment of enlightenment.3

The Daishonin 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, 746). To perceive the true nature of all phenomena 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. Regarding this, the Daishonin states: “No other knowledge is purposeful” (WND, 299). Buddhas are not omniscient—they do not have magical powers that allow them to see through walls or into the future. Yet, they are deeply conversant in the ultimate reality of their lives as well as that of others. Whatever they observe, they observe in its true aspect—they comprehend its real nature and the causes and effects it entails.

One of the greatest difficulties in accomplishing such fusion may be that, in this case, the subject (i.e., the observer) becomes one with the object (i.e., the observed). It is difficult because seeing ourselves is perhaps the most difficult challenge in life. At the same time, the attainment of self-knowledge has been one of humanity’s greatest desires throughout history. The German philosopher George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel relates people’s fundamental desire to see themselves and acquire self-knowledge to the production of art:

The universal need for art . . . 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.4

In his lecture on aesthetics, Hegel 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.”5 Although the Gohonzon is not an art object, Hegel’s explanation and example for what he calls humanity’s “universal and absolute need”6 for art give us 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 most precious inside us. What was not us before now becomes an essential reflection of 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 outside us what is within us, we outwardly expand our awareness of self to embrace what was before foreign to us. We thereby reach inwardly to grasp the ultimate self-knowledge of Buddhahood.

It may be said that the Daishonin created the Gohonzon to duplicate externally what is essential within us so that we may fuse with it. This is applying the principle of the fusion of objective reality and subjective wisdom. The Daishonin says: “What then are these two elements of reality and wisdom? They are simply the five characters of Nam-myoho-rengekyo” (WND, 746). By chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo to the Gohonzon with faith in it, this external object ceases to be alien and becomes part of our lives. When this happens, 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.” It must be noted that the Gohonzon becomes such only through our faith and practice. Unless we pray to it with the awareness that Nichiren Daishonin teaches, the Gohonzon remains as a object separate from our lives.


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 making concrete our conception of the Gohonzon. After all, the Gohonzon is our object of devotion, not the object of 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 this analogy, the Daishonin compares our Buddha nature, which is yet to be recognized and revealed, to a caged bird:

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, 887)

The caged bird does not know that it can fly away into freedom. It may be too accustomed to its caged life to realize its 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. The birds in the sky may be compared to the Gohonzon. If the caged bird were to see the birds in the sky as creatures of an essentially different kind, the notion of flying free would never occur. Because it sees the birds in the sky as its own kind, the bird in the cage realizes that it too can fly. To view the Gohonzon as a mysterious entity that transcends our own existence would be as ineffectual as the caged bird failing to identify with the birds in the sky.

The analogy of the caged bird tells us of the importance of an external influence to help us awaken to our inherent Buddha nature and cause it to emerge. It explains the importance of identifying with the Gohonzon rather than alienating it as if it were a god or idol when we pray. Lastly, the cage is not to be taken as a physical cage. It represents instead the bird’s own illusion. It remains real so long as the bird thinks of it as real. Once the bird realizes what it can do with its wings, the cage will disappear.


The Daishonin compares the Gohonzon to a mirror that reflects 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 means 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 “the five characters of Myoho-renge-kyo” and “Nam-myoho-renge- kyo” in this passage refer to the Gohonzon, which embodies Nam-myoho-renge-kyo —the fundamental law of life and the universe.

This analogy of the Gohonzon as a mirror may be the easiest to 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 something to reflect this ultimate truth. If some reject the value of the Gohonzon because they already possess “the Gohonzon within” (i.e., the Buddha nature), it is similar to someone rejecting the value of a mirror, claiming that they already know that they are beautiful. Since they cannot see their own images, their awareness of their beauty is merely an assumption. Without a mirror, our confidence in our appearance may be shattered after a few negative remarks from others. But with the use of a mirror, we can be clear about our own appearance and not have to depend on the opinions of others.

Since we have the Gohonzon in our environment, it is far easier for us to be confident of our Buddha nature within, once 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 we regard it only as a representation of someone else’s enlightenment.


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, 4)

The Daishonin had written this letter in 1255 before he started to inscribe Gohonzon. (He started to inscribe 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 analogy is more practice-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 of our practice. That is because 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 result of our practice. In the present analogy, 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 practice.

In order to reflect the Mystic Law in our lives, we must continue to polish our lives. In other words, although our life may shine like a clear mirror today, it may become tarnished again in few days if we cease our efforts to “polish” it. This is why the Daishonin encourages us to polish our mirror “day and night.” This analogy is important in that it points to the fact that Buddhahood is not a static state that we attain once and for all. Instead, Buddhahood is a dynamic state that needs constant maintenance and enhancement through practice.

The Daishonin also reminds us here that our practice must be rooted in our faith, exhorting us to “arouse deep faith.” At times, we may feel that the mirror of our lives remains tarnished; reflecting no light of truth regardless of 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 and steel. The Daishonin confidently asserts that our lives will shine like a crystal-clear mirror as long as we keep polishing. It may be a gradual process in which one spot at a time begins to shine; but so long as we do not stop, the mirror of our lives will become brilliant with time.


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 whom 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 named Abutsu-bo, “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” (WND, 299). The Gohonzon exists for us to reveal our supreme potential. In this sense, the Gohonzon is a tool of self-reliance and self-empowerment.

Those who worship the Gohonzon like an idol or a god miss the Daishonin’s intent behind its inscription. They assign to it a power of action that in reality rests only with the practitioner. The Gohonzon is not a conscious being that bestows blessings on us. Rather, the Gohonzon allows us to awaken to our Buddha nature. It is our awakening of this enlightened nature and informing our actions with it that give rise to benefit. For this beneficial function, we should cherish and appreciate the Gohonzon.


The opposite extreme from worshipping the Gohonzon as an idol would be an attitude of narcissistic self-worship. Some may reject the Gohonzon as unnecessary because they already have the Buddha nature. Some spiritual paths focus solely on trying to perceive the truth within through introspection or meditation. However, looking only inward without an external standard or “mirror” can cause us to fall into the trap of mistaking an imperfect aspect of our minds for the perfection of Buddhahood. This is the condition that the Lotus Sutra describes of Buddhist practitioners who “suppose they have attained what they have not attained” (LS13, 193). In effect, such people are worshipping a deluded aspect of their own minds.

The Buddha nature remains only as a potential until it is revealed in one’s thoughts, words and actions. The Buddha nature needs to manifest from moment to moment and gradually solidify as the foundation of our day-to-day conduct.

While viewing the Gohonzon or the Buddha as a supernatural power equates to idolatry, viewing Buddhahood as a static state of assumed perfection equates to self-worship. While the Daishonin’s Buddhism declares that all people are Buddhas, the healthy way to view this is as a declaration of a potential that we need to strive to realize. To boldly state that people are Buddhas can give confidence to those who lack confidence in their potential. However, to passively make the assumption “I am a Buddha” while remaining lax in our efforts to bring forth and apply that potential can be a pitfall. To assume that one is a Buddha while others are not is the gravest pitfall of all.

To avoid this, a seeking spirit tempered by humility is key. This simply means to realize that we can continually strengthen Buddhahood as our foundation throughout life, and be diligent in striving to do so.

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, 389-90).

Here the Daishonin stresses the importance of determined efforts to seek and see the Buddha nature within. As a result of such practice, we come to manifest our innate Buddhahood. If we take our own enlightenment as a given, without making real efforts to develop it and behave accordingly, we are simply engaging in self-worship—a narcissistic form of arrogance. This principle applies equally to all practitioners, regardless of their function and status in the Buddhist community or society.


Our worship of the Gohonzon is neither idol-worship 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 kind of positive tension. That is the tension between the practitioner’s current and ideal state of life. On one hand, the Daishonin unequivocally asserts that the Gohonzon exists within our lives, urging us: “Never seek this Gohonzon outside yourself” (WND, 832). On the other hand, he creates the Gohonzon as an external object. The Gohonzon is to be found in reality nowhere but within our lives, but it also exists outside. This seemingly self-contradictory view of the Gohonzon actually guides our practice in an optimum direction—one that is neither idol-worship nor self-worship.

Prayer that is self-disparaging, or views a Buddha as a transcendental being, may be compared to idol-worship. A prayer or attitude based on an inflated sense of self—an assumption that one is already and forever in the state of perfection called Buddhahood— equates to self-worship. It may be said, however, that the seemingly contradictory aspect of the Gohonzon’s external inwardness elevates our approach to Buddhist practice, transcending these two extremes. When we firmly believe in the existence of the Gohonzon (i.e., the Buddha nature) as the foundation of our lives, we have no need to supplicate ourselves to a higher power or authority. On the other hand, the external existence of the Gohonzon and the Daishonin

s teachings regarding it 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 an actual foundation for our thoughts, words and deeds. The external presence of the Gohonzon serves as a goal toward which we must continue to practice and as a reminder that we can forever strengthen our Buddhahood.

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 deeper insight into the meaning of the Gohonzon, we may continue our practice without disparaging ourselves at times of hardship or becoming arrogant at times of success. No matter how hopeless our circumstances may seem, we can gain renewed confidence about our Buddha nature with 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, in this way, allows us to stay on the right course in our practice.

1. 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.
2. 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” (Gosho Zenshu, p. 574).
3. 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.
4. Hegel, G.W.F. Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art. Vol. 1. Trans. T. M. Knox. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998. pp. 31-32.
5. Ibid. p. 31.
6. Ibid. p. 30.