Lotus Buddhism / FAQ / The difference between the Gohonzon and a statue as Objects of Devotions

The Object of Devotion in Buddhism
Why a mandala Gohonzon
and not a Buddha statue?

Safwan Darshams

After Shakyamuni Buddha passed away, his followers aspired to follow the example of his life - the life of a role model of wisdom and compassion. Aiming for transforming their life through following the Buddha-way, it was necessary for his disciples to direct their spiritual focus towards an ‘object of devotion to the Buddha and to the Dharma’ (the ultimate teachings of the Buddha).

It was not difficult for the Buddha’s disciples to depict the person of the Buddha in form of painting or statue, but it was not easy to depict the Dharma or the teachings.  Some traditions added to the statue they used as an object of devotion - scrolls or copies of sutras, combining in this way the statue and sutras, as a way to refer to the Person and the Dharma.  In general, however, the Buddha statue was the dominant object of veneration and focus in Buddhism.

In the final years of his life, the Buddha expounded the Lotus Sutra, in which he referred to the Dharma of the Lotus, as integrating all of his previous teachings.  The Lotus Sutra gained acknowledgement within Mahayana schools, but there was no way of practicing it, and thus it remained idle, a mere text of poetry in the libraries of Mahayana temples. 

According to pre-Lotus sutras, the period of time known as the Latter Day of the Law - will witness the decline of provisional Buddhism, a belief contrasted with the text of the Lotus Sutra, predicting its widespread practice in the future.  Nichiren, a reformer of Buddhism in 13th century Japan, established a way for practicing of the Lotus Sutra (based on chanting the phrase encoding the Dharma it taught), and established an Object of Devotion: a mandala, which represents the life of Buddhahood, the essential goal of Mahayana Buddhism.

The mandala signifies a shift from focusing on the “Person of the Buddha” (which statues imply) - to the “Life of the Buddha” (as described in the Lotus Sutra).

In his writings, Nichiren explained that the practice of meditation towards a statue of the Buddha - was relevant to the conditions of the past (the Former and Middle Days of the Law).  For this current period of Buddhism, he taught the practice of Chanting towards a Mandala. Nichiren practice focuses on the doctrine of the ‘Eternal Buddha’ and ‘Eternal Dharma’ -  which neither meditation nor statues referred to in the past.

The Mandala Gohonzon: The Life of Buddha (as the Object of Devotion)

After 20 years of studying and practicing in various schools of Buddhism, Nichiren declared (1253) the teaching, which integrates all of the Buddha’s teachings, encoded by the Sutra’s words (Myoho-Renge-Kyo).  It took him a further 20 years to prepare his followers for the Object of Devotion: a mandala Gohonzon, he first inscribed during his exile to Sado island (1273).

Nichiren referred to the Gohonzon (Object of fundamental respect and devotion), as the embodiment of the Life of Buddha of the Lotus Sutra, which is also identified as the Buddhanature in all beings.

The life of the ‘Eternal Buddha of the Lotus Sutra’ was depicted in a grand celebration of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and other beings, called the ‘Ceremony in the Air’.  Nichiren extracted that doctrine from the Sutra as the basis for inscribing the Object of Devotion, in which the Dharma (Namu-Myoho-Renge-Kyo) is central, surrounded by Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.

The Gohonzon as a map: P. Ikeda gives a simple explanation of the Mandala Gohonzon, as a map:

      “A map is just paper.  But if we trust in the map and use it, we will arrive at out intended   

       destination.  The Gohonzon is the Object of Devotion for bringing forth a great state of life        

       so that we can become genuinely happy”.

The Difference between Shakyamuni’s Statue and Mandala Gohonzon

1.  The Gohonzon manifests the Principle of Attaining Buddhahood, which is the

Oneness of a Person’s life with the Universal Law. This principle is depicted in bold characters at the centre of the mandala Gohonzon as:

  • the Universal Law (Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo), and

  • the Person (individual human being - represented by Nichiren). 

The practice of chanting to the Gohonzon is an action of directing one’s Personal life (as an individual) - to be in harmonious fusion (Namu) with the Universal Law (Myohorengekyo).

Even if we do not know the meaning of the characters in the Gohonzon, we express our desire to be in harmony with the Law of life, as infused within the Gohonzon, to activate our Buddhanature - making our own life: a life of enlightenment.

In a statue, only the aspect of the “Person” is visible, while the aspect of “Law” (or Dharma), is not included - and therefore, the principle of attaining Buddhahood (The oneness of Person and Law) is not included.

2. The Ten Worlds: The mandala Gohonzon embodies in its inscription the whole

spectrum of the Mind, or; all of theTen Worlds of life.  This signifies the teaching that the Nine Worlds of sufferings are the (Cause) leading to the World of Buddhahood (Effect).

The Lower Worlds (Hell, Animality, Anger, Hunger, Tranquility and Joy) as well as the higher worlds (Learning, Realisation, Bodhisattva and Buddha) - are all included in the Gohonzon.  This indicates that the life of Buddha includes all states of our daily life.

A statue - on the other hand - manifests only one of the Ten Worlds: that of Shakyamuni’s Buddhahood, without depicting the Nine Worlds of daily life in which the practitioner dwells.  Focus on a statue of Shakyamuni can lead practitioners to an implication of ‘externalising Buddhahood’, as the statue does not include the practitioner’s own states of mind (in the lower worlds):

“And when you chant, you should do so sincerely and honestly, following the feelings in your heart without restraint, just as a baby instinctively seeks its mother’s milk. There is no need to be stoically formal when you chant; there is no need for pretense.

If you are suffering, then take that suffering to the Gohonzon; if you feel sad, then take your sadness to the Gohonzon”. (D. Ikeda, article on Friendship)

Because all of the Ten Worlds exist in the Gohonzon, there is always a direct connection between the practitioner and the Gohonzon.  Even in situations when one experiences low life conditions, chanting to the Gohonzon provides a relevant connection between the life states of the practitioner and the life condition of the Gohonzon (which enables transformation of our life condition into its enlightened nature through the power of the Dharma).

Nichiren explains the significance of the inclusion of all of the Ten Worlds in the Object of Devotion in the first introduction of his letter: The Object of Devotion for Observing the Mind.

3. The Oneness of Cause and Effect: The Object of Devotion encapsulates the teaching of the simultaneity of cause (Bodhisattva practice) and effect (Buddhahood), as expounded in the Lotus Sutra.  Nichiren regarded the “Bodhisattva World” as equally essential in the Object of Devotion as the “World of Buddha”.  For this reason, he included the “Bodhisattvas” in the Gohonzon as inseparable from the “Buddhas” and from the “Treasure Tower”- signifying the Law.

A statue - as an object of devotion - refers to Shakyamuni’s personal state of Buddhahood, and not to the process of cause and effect which leads to Buddhahood.

For this reason, a Buddha statue alone is not an expression of the Lotus Sutra’s central teachings of oneness of Cause and Effect.  The presence of the Bodhisattva (cause) is necessary in the Object of Devotion.

Various Nichiren temple groups employ a statue of Shakyamuni as their Object of Devotion.  (Nichiren Shu scholars realise that Shakyamuni statue alone - as an Object of Devotion - is not proper, because Shakyamuni of the Lotus Sutra was inseparable from the Four Bodhisattvas.  For this reason they recommend adding to the statue of Shakyamuni other four statues of the Bodhisattvas).

The mandala Gohonzon - without the necessity of adding any statue - on the other hand expresses the process of Oneness of Cause and Effect, in which a Bodhisattva simultaneously reveals the state of Buddha - already depicted in the Mandala.

The “inner Gohonzon” and “enshrined Gohonzon”

Just like the case when we look at a photo of us, and see that the photo as external to our physical body, so we do when we perceive the physical mandala as external to our body.  Nevertheless, the photo is not separate from our person, it shows our appearance, identity, and its essence is not external to us.

The enshrined Gohonzon is the image reflection of our mind of enlightenment.

The enshrined Gohonzon has a profound connection with our mind and desires at their deepest level, because the Gohonzon is an embodiment of the “Life of Buddha” or the “Buddhanature”. 

Because the Gohonzon encodes the Life of Buddha, then it is possible to view the Gohonzon from the perspective of “life-force of Buddha” or the “life-energy” of Buddhahood, characterised by fearlessness, compassion and wisdom. 

“Josei Toda often said: “The Gohonzon represents the strongest concentration of the

universal life force. When we connect to the Gohonzon in our lives, our life force also gains

that same strength”. The New Human Revolution, vol.25, Ch.2, Shared Struggle 19.

The enshrined Gohonzon can be viewed as a reference reflecting the life-energy of the “Buddha state”.  It expresses the highest possible level of life an individual can attain (that of wisdom, compassion and courageous action).

According to Buddhism, each person possesses this level of life-energy (as a potential state of own Buddhanature or inner Gohonzon).  One’s “inner Gohonzon” is the potential power of Buddhanature, a state of life-energy existing in one’s subconsciousness.

This field of inner Gohonzon is usually obscured by accumulated impurities of negative thoughts and weaknesses (illusion of thoughts, greed, arrogance and ignorance).  Chanting the phrase which encodes the Buddhanature activates one’s Buddhanature, clearing all accumulated impurities, enabling the conscious mind access to inner energy of the state of enlightenment.

Nichiren set only one condition for chanting to the Gohonzon: that is wholeheartedness. 

Wholeheartedness in one’s desire to reveal the best of one’s state of life, the Buddhanature, results in a spiritual resonance empowering the practitioner with clarity of insight and life force, destroying all obstacles of fear and worries - and opening the mind for creating value for self&others.