How Do I Get A Gohonzon?
I am frequently asked by folks, especially those transitioning from other Nichiren denominations, how they can get a Gohonzon in Nichiren Shu. So, I am taking this opportunity to try to answer this question as best as I am able. Hopefully you will find this helpful as you learn more about practicing the Lotus Sutra correctly.
Let me state that this short article represents only a brief answer to this question and not an in-depth exploration of the deep philosophical understanding of the Gohonzon.
First I think it is important to clarify some terms, terms that have acquired various incorrect and misleading interpretations. The fist term I will talk about is Mandala, which is actually what most people mean when they ask about receiving a Gohonzon. Next I’ll talk a little about what the Gohonzon is and means. Then I’ll go over some of my personal policy regarding conferring the Mandala Gohonzon.
Mandala is the term used to describe the physical representation of the Gohonzon on a scroll or piece of paper, though mandalas can exist in many different forms, such as sand mandalas, earth mandalas and so forth. The Mandala inscribed by Nichiren onto paper was his attempt to make the representation of the Eternal Buddha concrete and accessable to people who could not otherwise afford statues. The paper mandala also permits the easy transportability of the Gohonzon, which is especially useful in this day of modern transience. Mandalas exist in many forms and represent many things, however in Nichiren Shu we are primarily focused on the Mandala Gohonzon.
So what is the Gohonzon? It might be useful here to talk about what the word gohonzon means in the Japanese language. ‘Go’ is an honorific that is frequently appended to a word to elevate or honor the word. It really has no direct translation, though it could be compared to putting ‘great’ in front of a word. Yet there is another honorific for great, tai or dai, so we can not say it exactly means great. I am not sure we have anything quite like it in English. ‘Honzon’ means object of veneration or object of devotion, roughly speaking. Here in America the term Gohonzon has taken on an exclusive meaning that does not exist in Japan. To say Gohonzon or Honzon in Japanese would not really be communicating anything specific. Different denominations of Buddhism all have a Honzon or Gohonzon.
Nichiren established the Gohonzon as:
Suspended in the sky above the Eternal Buddha Sakyamuni’s Saha World is a stupa of treasures, in which Sakyamuni Buddha and the Buddha of Many Treasures sit to the left and right of Myo-ho-ren-ge-kyo. They are waited on by four bodhisattvas such as Jogyo (Superior Practice) representing the original disciples of the Eternal Buddha called out from underground. Four more bodhisattvas including Manjusri and Maitreya, take lower seats as followers, other great and minor bodhisattvas – those converted by the Buddha in the theoretical section and those who came from other lands – resemble numerous people sitting on the ground and looking up at court nobles. Also lined up on the ground are Buddhas in manifestation (funjin Buddhas) who gathered together from all the worlds in the universe in praise of the Buddha’s preaching, representing provisional Buddhas in their respective lands.
The most venerable scene such as this was not revealed anywhere else by Sakyamuni Buddha during more than fifty years of His preaching in this life.
(Kanjin Honzon-sho, Writing of Nichiren Shonin Doctrine 2, page 149)
The Gohonzon is merely a physical representation of this essential teaching yet the actualization of the truth of the Gohonzon occurs within us.
In Nichiren Shu there are several ways to represent this great event and teaching one of which is the inscription of the paper mandala, others include statues.
Understanding where the Gohonzon resides is key and primary in Nichiren Shu, and this does not depend upon having a paper scroll or a collection of statues. It depends upon internalizing the truth and the teaching of the Lotus Sutra and the persona realization of the truth of the Eternal Buddha Sakyamuni. Again this is not dependant upon possessing a scroll.
In many ways dependence upon having a scroll or statues is I believe an indication of lack of understanding of the Lotus Sutra. In some ways I think it indicates that there is still a belief that the Lotus Sutra is a 3000 year old document taught by a historical person Sakyamuni, which is somehow magically updated by the presence of a scroll or statues. Our belief in the Lotus Sutra should be taking us deeper into an ongoing present relationship with the eternal nature of the truth of the teaching of the Eternal Buddha. We are not merely people practicing the Lotus Sutra in some time after the existence of Sakyamuni but instead we are the original disciples of the Eternal Buddha. As Nichiren says there are those lined up on the ground gazing up as if looking at court nobles and there are those sitting to the left and right attending to the Eternal Buddha. Which are we? Which way to do we practice? Which way do we view ourselves?
The real Gohonzon for Nichiren believers exists no place other than in our relationship with the Eternal Buddha. In some ways the realization that you don’t need a Gohonzon is a first step in getting one.
Here at this temple I place taking of vows to uphold the teachings of the Eternal Buddha to be the most important. The taking of vows precedes the receipt of a Gohonzon. Receiving a Gohonzon is secondary to a persons commitment to study, practice and faith.
As for how does one go about being allowed to take vows, the process begins with establishing a relationship with me as the priest of this temple, should you decide this is where you would like to practice or if I am the person you wish to practice with. Any person is free to approach any priest they desire and then begin the relationship with them. I do not have a hard and fast rule for length of time, though it certainly would be at least six months maybe more. Beyond that engaging in a personal discussion directly and personally with me is the best way to proceed forward.
I hope this brief article helps in answering questions about receiving a Mandala Gohonzon from Myosho-ji.