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 Buddhist 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 remained the apparent focus, and was considered as the object of veneration in Buddhism.


In the final years of his life, the Buddha expounded the Lotus Sutra, in which he declared the Dharma of the Lotus, a teaching,which integrates and completes iall 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 for hundreds of years.  The text of the Lotus Sutra, predicts its widespread practice in the future, and this prediction came to manifestation in 13th century Japan through the efforts of Nichiren, a reformer of Buddhism.

Nichiren established a path for practicing of the Lotus Sutra, based on verbal chanting of the phrase  NamMyohoRengeKyo - which encodes the teachings of the sutra.  As an object of aspiration for enlightenment, Nichiren taught that it is the Life of the Buddha ( and not the statue of the person of the Buddha)  - that should be the object of devotion.  This perspective constituted 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, (The Latter Day of the Law) the practice of attaining enlightenment takes then a new form: chanting instead of silent meditation, and a mandala representing the Life of Buddhahood instead of a statue of the person of the Buddha. 

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) his practice of chanting the name of the Law of Life: (Myoho-Renge-Kyo) - expounded in the Lotus Sutra.  Then it took him a further 20 years to prepare his followers for focusing their practice of chanting on the Object of Devotion: a mandala he called the Gohonzon.  The first mandala Gohonzon he inscribed was during his exile to Sado island (1273).

The Gohonzon means: the object of fundamental respect and devotion.  It is a scroll bearing various characters, which meaning embody of the Life of Buddha of the Lotus Sutra.  The concept of the Life of the Buddha is also identified as the Buddhanature in all living beings.

The Lotus Sutra describes the life of the Buddha as a celebration or ceremony of eternal Buddhahood, called the ‘Ceremony in the Air’.  Nichiren depicted in his mandala the image of the ceremony (of Eternal Buddhahood) in form of characters, and depicted the principle of attaining Buddhahood in the central part of the mandala as the oneness of the Dharma or Law of life (Namu-Myoho-Renge-Kyo) and the human being (Nichiren).

When we look at a statue, we first see the person of the Buddha, while when we look at the Gohonzon we first see the Dharma or the Law that is the origin of the Buddha’s enlightenment.

The name of the Buddha is included in the mandala Gohonzon - but in addition to this reference to Buddhahood, Nichiren also included the Bodhisattva state.  The Bodhisattva state is the cause , while the Buddha state is the effect.  The Gohonzon includes both the Bodhisattva (cause) and Buddha (effect).

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


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 fusion (Namu) with the Universal Law (Myohorengekyo).

Even if we do not know the meaning of the characters in the Gohonzon, we subconsciously possess the desire for enlightenment, which is to be in harmony with the Law of life.  This means that there is a reflection in our mind having the same desire for enlightenment as what the Gohonzon, represents: the life of enlightenment.   The Gohonzon shows the principle of how to make this desire for enlightenment manifests in reality.

On the other hand, in a statue of the Buddha only the aspect of the “Person” is visible, while the aspect of “Law” (or Dharma), is not included - and thus, 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 not separate from the World of Buddhahood. 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 creates a gap between the practitioner’s state of life in the lower worlds - and the world indicated by the statue, being Buddhahood.  There is no connection visible between the lower worlds of life and the world of the statue.

This can lead practitioners to an implication of ‘externalising Buddhahood’, because the statue 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.  This connection implies the possibility of transformation of the lower worlds into their enlightened nature.

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, whose existence is inseparable from 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 (or that the cause is inseparable from its effect).

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, it mirrors our inner Buddhanature.

In essence, the Gohonzon is an expression of the “Life of Buddha”.  The Life of Buddha is the highest state of existence, and as such it is possible to view the Gohonzon from the perspective of “life-force of Buddha” or the “life-energy” (of the life of Buddhahood, characterized 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 one’s life 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.

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.  ___________________________________

Author: Safwan Darshams

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