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 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 common 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 taught to put its principles in practice, and thus it 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 practice of 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.

  1.          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 appearance of a specific Buddha.

  1.         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 practice (as object of devotion, in which only the effect of Buddhahood is apparent) - the Gohonzon includes both the Bodhisattva (cause) and Buddha (effect).

  1.        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 Universal 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, we express our  desire to be in harmony with the Law of life, as infused within the Gohonzon, to make 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 in effect.

  1. 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 and 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).

As Soka literature explains:

                                                “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

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 enable transformation of our life conditions into 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 personal 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 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”

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 the photo 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 is also the image reflection of our life 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 a potential state of life-force existing in one’s own psychological make up.  It is one’s Buddhanature existing deep in one’s subconsciousness.

This field of energy and wisdom is that what we aim for to access through our chanting.  It is a field of mind which is, however, 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.

The only condition for chanting to the Gohonzon set by Nichiren - is wholeheartedness.  Sincere desire for inner harmony and compassion - activates the connection between the enshrined Gohonzon (which embodies the highest state of life) - and one’s inner Gohonzon (Buddhanature).  This wholehearted connection with the Life of Buddha results in a spiritual resonance empowering  the practitioner with clarity of insight and life force, destroying all obstacles of fear, immaturity and worries - and opening the mind for creating value for self&others.


Author: Safwan Zabalawi (Darshams)

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