Sunday, 25 September 2022

Interpreting the Gohonzon (Buddhist Object of Veneration)

The object of veneration in Nichiren Buddhism is the Gohonzon, a sacred mandala which practitioners are encouraged to chant in front of twice a day. Nichiren Buddhism originated in Japan in the 13th century and is now practised worldwide, particularly (when outside of Japan) by members of the Soka Gakkai International (SGI). Members of the SGI receive a Gohonzon when they join the organisation. They then enshrine the Gohonzon in a Butsudan (a small cabinet for housing sacred objects) in their homes.

The images on the Gohonzon consist of beautiful Chinese-Japanese calligraphy representing many things, including important deities. Most of the Gods on the Gohonzon refer to ancient Indian Gods, thus in attempting to understand the nature of these deities I have looked to their Roman equivalents. Given that these deities have a shared Indo-European origin this approach seems suitably viable. Using the interpretatio Romana the major deities represented include Dis Pater (top left), Neptune (top right), Venus / Cupid (centre left), Aurora, Diana, Jupiter, Apollo, (middle centre), Vulcan (centre right), Juno (just below the middle), Ceres (lower left), Mars (left of the lower middle), and Mercury (lower right). 

Nichiren wrote that the Gohonzon “was revealed in the last eight years of the fifty that the Buddha preached in this world”, and states that others, such as T’ien-t’ai (a renowned 6th century Chinese Buddhist), “perceived it in their hearts, but for some reason never put it into words”. In a letter to one of his followers Nichiren wrote that the Lotus Sutra:

"A miracle saving Nichiren's life" by Keishu (early 20th century)
“... itself and the commentaries of T’ien-t’ai and Miao-lo [a renowned 8th century Chinese Buddhist] explicitly state that the Gohonzon will appear after 2000 years have elapsed following the Buddha’s passing, in the first 500 years of the Latter Day of the Law … 
I was the first to reveal as the banner of propagation of the Lotus Sutra this great mandala … This mandala is in no way my invention. It is the object of devotion that depicts Shakyamuni Buddha [the original Buddha from northeastern India BCE] ... seated in the treasure tower of Many Treasures Buddha [a celestial Buddha of the east] ...

Thus the five characters of the Lotus Sutra’s title are suspended in the centre, while the four heavenly kings [the Lords who serve the God Shakra / Indra, and protect the four corners of the world] are seated at the four corners of the treasure tower. Shakyamuni, Many Treasures, and the four leaders of the Bodhisattvas of the Earth are side by side at the top ...    

Without exception, all these Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, great sages, and, in general, all the various beings of the two worlds and the eight groups who appear in the Introduction chapter of the Lotus Sutra dwell in this Gohonzon. Illuminated by the light of the five characters of the Mystic Law, they display the dignified attributes that they inherently possess. This is the object of devotion.

This is what is meant when the sutra says “the true aspect of all phenomena” … Therefore, this Gohonzon shall be called the great mandala never before known; it did not appear until more than 2,220 years after the Buddha’s passing. 

A woman who makes offerings to such a Gohonzon invites happiness in this life, and in the next, the Gohonzon will be with her and protect her always. Like a lantern in the dark, like a strong guide and porter on a treacherous mountain path, the Gohonzon will guard and protect you …

Never seek this Gohonzon outside yourself. The Gohonzon exists only within the mortal flesh of us ordinary people who embrace the Lotus Sutra and chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo … 

Since Nichiren’s disciples and lay supporters believe solely in the Lotus Sutra, honestly discarding expedient means ... exactly as the Lotus Sutra teaches, they can enter the treasure tower of the Gohonzon. How reassuring! Make every possible effort for the sake of your next life. What is most important is that, by chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo alone, you can attain Buddhahood … [from a letter written by Nichiren called The Real Aspect of the Gohonzon]”

What is inscribed on the Gohonzon:
  • Centre – nam-myoho-renge-kyo: the ultimate Law permeating all phenomena in the universe, underneath is Nichiren’s name.
  • Extreme top left – Vaishravana / Kubera, God of (mineral) wealth and guardian of the north (interpretatio Romana = Dis Pater). Then going inwards, (1) "those who make offerings will gain good fortune”; (2) Bodhisattva Firmly Established Practices; (3) Bodhisattva Pure Practices; (4) Shakyamuni Buddha.
  • Extreme top right – Dhritarashtra, guardian of the east (interpretatio Romana = Neptune). Then going inwards, (1) "those who vex and trouble will have their heads split into seven pieces"; (2) Bodhisattva Boundless / Limitless Practices; (3) Bodhisattva Superior Practices; (4) Many Treasures Tathagata / Thus Come One (Taho Nyorai), a Buddha who appears at the Ceremony in the Air to bear witness to the truth of Shakyamuni's teachings in the Lotus Sutra.
  • Middle left – Ragaraja Vidyaraja / Wisdom Craving-Filled, a Buddhist deity who is said to purify people's earthly desires and free them from illusions and the sufferings accruing from earthly desires, signifying the principle that "earthly desires are enlightenment" (interpretatio Romana = Venus, or Cupid). Then going inwards, (1) Aruna, God of the morning sky (interpretatio Romana = Aurora); (2) Chandra (interpretatio Romana = Diana); (3) Shakra, also known as Indra (interpretatio Romana = Jupiter), then underneath these three Gods – (1) eight great dragon kings, including the father of the dragon girl who became enlightened, thus proving that it is not only male humans who can become enlightened; (2) Dengyo Daishi, the founder of the Tendai sect in Japan in the early 8th century. Dengyo maintained that all people have the Buddha nature and that the supreme vehicle of Buddhahood expounded in the Lotus Sutra is the true teaching. He was a key figure in upholding the righteousness of the Lotus Sutra in the Middle Day of the Law; (3) then Hariti's 10 daughters, who protect the sutra's votaries.
  • Far right – June 13, 1720, the date this particular Gohonzon was transcribed by Nichikan Shonin (there are multiple versions in existence).
  • Middle right – Achalanatha Vidyaraja / Wisdom King Immovable, a Buddhist deity who serves practitioners by defeating the obstacles and evils that hinder Buddhist practice (interpretatio Romana = Vulcan). It is said that he exudes flames that destroy all karmic hindrances, he signifies that "the sufferings of birth and death are nirvana”. Then going inwards, (1) Surya (interpretatio Romana = Apollo); (2) Mara; (3) Brahma. Then underneath (1) Tendai Daishi (Great Teacher T'ien-t'ai), advocated the supremacy of the Lotus Sutra. He also expounded the theory of "a life-moment possessing 3,000 realms"; (2) Hariti, Mother of Demon Children (interpretatio Romana = Juno).
  • Bottom left – Virudhaka, Great Heavenly King Increase and Growth, guardian of the south (interpretatio Romana = Ceres). Then going inwards, (1) Hachiman, God of war and agriculture (interpretatio Romana = Mars); (2) "I respectfully transcribed this" refers to the high priest who transcribed the Gohonzon; (3) Nichikan (1665-1726), the twenty-sixth high priest of Nichiren Shoshu.
  • Bottom right – Virupaksha, Great Heavenly King Wide-Eyed / Many Eyed (Shiva), guardian of the west (interpretatio Romana = Mercury). Then, going inwards (1) “never in 2,230-some years since the passing of the Buddha has this great mandala appeared in the world”; (2) Tensho Daijin, the Japanese Goddess of the sun.

A rough diagram in English

*“earthly desires are enlightenment”.
** “the suffering of life and death are nirvana”. Note that to the right of this text is the date of the inscribing of this Gohonzon.
*** This is a honorific.


Applying the Interpretatio Romana to the deities on the Gohonzon (caveat: this is an inherently uncertain process, I do this in order to make the deities on the Gohonzon more comprehensible to me but no doubt many will dispute the efficacy of my attempt):
  • Apollo = Surya
  • Aurora = Aruna
  • Ceres = Virudhaka
  • Diana = Chandra
  • Dis Pater = Vaishravana / Kubera
  • Juno = Hariti
  • Jupiter = Indra / Shakra
  • Mars = Hachiman
  • Mercury = Virupaksha (considered to be an aspect of Shiva)
  • Minerva =  unknown, perhaps Many Treasures Tathagata (Taho Nyorai)?
  • Neptune = Dhritarashtra
  • Sol = Tensho Daijin
  • Vesta = unknown, perhaps Achalanatha Vidyaraja (in the Vedic/Hindu pantheon the God that incorporates the domains of both Vesta and Vulcan is one, called Agni)
  • Venus = Ragaraja Vidyaraja 
  • Vulcan = Achalanatha Vidyaraja

SOURCES: and various other sources obtained via google.

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