The Object of Devotion in Buddhism


                         Why a mandala Gohonzon and not a Buddha statue?


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 statue - they used as an object of devotion - scrolls or copies of sutras, combining the statue and sutras, as a way to refer to the Person and the Dharma.  In general, however, the Buddha statue was the common object of veneration 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 to put its principles in practice, and remained idle, 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 sutra (based on chanting the name of the Dharma), and established an Object of Devotion, which represents the life of the Buddha.  This was a shift from focusing on the Person of the Buddha to the Life of the Buddha (who is described in the Lotus Sutra).


In his writings, Nichiren refers to meditation towards a statue of the Buddha - as the practice of the past (the Former and Middle Days of the Law).  In the current period of Buddhism, he taught the chanting towards a new form of Object of Devotion, a Mandala in which the doctrine of the ‘Eternal Buddha’ and ‘Eternal Dharma of the Lotus’ would be the centre of spiritual focus. 


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 Law, which integrates all of the Buddha’s teachings, expounded in the Lotus Sutra (Myoho-Renge-Kyo) - as the final Dharma.  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 first perceived difference in the concept of “Object of Devotion’ between a statue and the mandala - is that the Dharma is directly included in the Mandala, while a statue depicts only the person and appearance of the Buddha.


Another difference is that: in addition to the presence of the Buddha in the mandala, Nichiren also included the Bodhisattva state.  Differently from previously used statue (as object of devotion, in which only the effect of Buddhahood is apparent) - the Gohonzon includes both the Bodhisattva (cause) and Buddha (effect).


Further, Nichiren also included in the Gohonzon the lives of all beings in the ‘Ten Worlds’ - as inseparable from the life of the Buddha.


Schools of Buddhism, which do not consider the Lotus Sutra as the final teaching of the Buddha, still use Shakyamuni’s statue as their object of veneration.

 

The Difference between Shakyamuni’s Statue and Mandala Gohonzon

         

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

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


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

  2. -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, subconsciously we have the same desire to be in harmony with the Law of life, as infused within the Gohonzon.


In a statue, only the aspect of the “Person” is visible, and the aspect of “Law” (or Dharma), is not included - and 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 of Hell, Animality, Anger, Hunger, Tranquility and Joy as well as the higher worlds of Learning, Realisation and Bodhisattva - are all included in the Gohonzon.


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


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 conditions in the Gohonzon, which are transformed to their 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 state of Buddhahood, and not to the process of cause and effect which leads to Buddhahood.


For this reason, a Buddha statue alone it is not an expression of the Lotus Sutra’s central teachings.  Some Nichiren groups - which employ a combination of objects of devotion - realise the importance of adding to the statue of Shakyamuni other (four) statues of the Bodhisattvas - to indicate the  Buddha of the Lotus Sutra, who cannot exist without the Bodhisattvas. The mandala Gohonzon on the other hand expresses the process of Oneness of Cause and Effect, in which a Bodhisattva simultaneously reveals the state of Buddha.


The “inner Gohonzon” and “enshrined Gohonzon”


The Gohonzon may seem an external object to the body: just like the case when we look at a photo of us, and see that it is external to our physical body.  Nevertheless, the photo is ours, and its contents is not separate from our identity and our mind looking at it.  The enshrined Gohonzon has a profound connection with our mind and desires at the deepest level.


In essence, the Gohonzon is an expression of the “Life of Buddha” or the “Buddhanature”.  For this reason 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 to 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” can be illustrated by the example of a pure crystal but which does not shine in the life of individual unless cleared from being obscured by accumulated impurities of past actions (illusion of thoughts, greed, arrogance and  ignorance).  Chanting can clear the accumulated impurities, revealing the original life-energy of the individual: Buddhanature.


Through wholehearted chanting to the enshrined Gohonzon (which embodies the state of the highest clarity of mind and life energy) - the individual’s inner Gohonzon (Buddhanature) resonates and emerges, empowering  the practitioner with clarity and life force.  With enough determination, chanting resonates with the feature of fearlessness, which is embodies in the Life of Buddha (Gohonzon) - leading to further actions for removing the blocking barriers in the practitioner’s life.

___________________________________

Author: Safwan Zabalawi

Homepage