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Pure Land • Zen
Hōnen • Shinran
Dōgen • Eisai • Ingen
Infinite Life Sutra
Gohonzon (ご本尊 or 御本尊), is the object of devotion in many forms of Japanese Buddhism. In Japanese, go is an honorific prefix indicating respect and honzon means object of fundamental respect, veneration, or devotion. Generically used, gohonzon can refer to any such object of devotion, whether a statue or set of statues, a painted scroll of some sort, or some other object; or the word—then usually capitalized when romanized—may be used specifically to refer to the moji-mandala (文字曼荼羅 "script," or "written with characters" mandala) that is the object of veneration in various Nichiren schools.
In private settings, gohonzons are enshrined in an altar called a butsudan (佛壇 or 仏壇, "Buddha platform") that is considered the "home of the Buddha" by Buddhists.
Moji-mandala of Nichiren schools
The Moji-mandala Gohonzon, or the "Mandala Gohonzon" (曼荼羅御本尊), is the primary object of devotion in Nichiren Shu and some other Nichiren schools, and the exclusive object of veneration in the Nichiren Shoshu branch and formerly affiliated groups such as Sōka Gakkai.
Nichiren-school Gohonzons feature Chinese characters and medieval-Sanskrit script intended to express Nichiren's inner enlightenment. Most prominent and common to all such Gohonzons is the phrase Nam Myoho Renge Kyo written down the center. This is called the daimoku (題目) or shudai (主題, "title"), around which the names of various Buddhas, bodhisattvas, persons of the Two Vehicles, personages representing the Ten Worlds, and Buddhist and indigenous-Japanese deities are arranged hierarchically. The names of deities believed to protect the Buddha land, called the Four Heavenly Kings (Bishamonten, Jikokuten, Kōmokuten, and Zōjōten), further occupy the four corners, and Sanskrit characters depicting Aizen Myō-ō and Fudō Myōō are situated along the left and right outer edges. Each of these names represents some aspect of the Buddha's enlightenment or an important Buddhist concept.
Nichiren-school Gohonzons are initially inscribed in ink on paper and are usually kept in the form of a hanging paper scroll. In some schools, the inscription of Gohonzons intended for long-term enshrinement, such as those in temples, is often transferred to a wooden tablet into which the inscription is carved. The tablets are coated with black urushi and the engraved characters, gilded. Gohonzons are almost always dated and have a dedication, sometimes naming the person for whom or purpose for which they were inscribed or even the person who asked for their inscription.
The first Gohonzons of this sort were inscribed by Nichiren during his exile on Sado Island between late 1271 and early 1274. Which Buddhas', bodhisattvas', and other figures' names appear on a Gohonzon depends on when and for whom Nichiren inscribed it. Gohonzons personally inscribed by Nichiren feature his name, first to the left of the daimoku, but gradually moving to directly underneath the daimoku in his final years.
Gohonzons inscribed by Nichiren's successors differ somewhat depending on the school because of differences in interpretation of the significance of the Gohonzon. For instance, in the Nichiren Shu school, the priest who inscribes a Gohonzon puts his own name underneath the daimoku or the phrase "Nichiren, Zai-Gohan" is written directly below the Gohonzon with "respectfully transcribed by" to the left of the characters for Nichiren, whereas in the Nichiren Shoshu school, "Nichiren" appears directly underneath the daimoku. In this case, the transcribing high priest signs his name, preceded by the words "respectfully transcribed by," to the left of the characters for Nichiren. This is because in Nichiren Shoshu, only the high priest has the authority to inscribe Gohonzons, which are transcriptions of the Dai-Gohonzon, a specific Gohonzon that Nichiren is believed to have inscribed on the 12th day of the tenth month of 1279. The Dai-Gohonzon has Nichiren's signature directly beneath the daimoku and is considered to be the physical embodiment of Nichiren's enlightenment and his life as the True Buddha, as well as the ultimate purpose of his advent in this world. This interpretation of the Gohonzon's significance distinguishes Nichiren Shoshu from other branches of Nichiren Buddhism.
Handling of the Gohonzon
Nichiren Buddhists treat Gohonzons with utmost respect, since most of them consider the Gohonzon to embody the "life" or "life condition" of the Buddha, and they generally avoid touching the Gohonzon except for cleaning. Gohonzons that have become soiled or damaged are returned to temples for ceremonial disposal. Photographing and copying the Gohonzon are also discouraged by certain sects (but not all)—photographing because the resulting copies can be easily desecrated, abused, or misused (e.g., for printing or creating unconsecrated Gohonzons, which are considered by temple-affiliated groups to be powerless to benefit those who venerate them).
Others, including independent (non-sect affiliated) Nichiren Buddhists, cite Nichiren's own admonition about the Gohonzon: "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(u)-myoho-renge-kyo." For them, the paper Gohonzon is a visual representation of the "Ceremony in the Air" described in the Lotus Sutra, and serves as a means of focusing on their own innate Buddahood.