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Gohonzon (ご本尊 or 御本尊) is the general term to denote an 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 Shū and some other Nichiren schools, and the exclusive object of veneration in the Nichiren Shōshū branch and formerly affiliated groups such as Kenshōkai, Shōshinkai and Sōka Gakkai.
Nichiren-school Gohonzons feature traditional kanji characters and two medieval-Sanskrit scripts intended to express Nichiren's inner enlightenment. Most prominent and common to all such Gohonzons is the phrase Nam Myōhō Renge Kyō—the primary Mantra in Nichiren Buddhism—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 Myō-ō 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 Shū 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 Shōshū 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 Shōshū, 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 Shōshū from other branches of Nichiren Buddhism.
The Object of Devotion before the Gohonzon
All schools of Buddhism accept that the Dharma, being the Buddha’s teachings about life, is the path leading to enlightenment. In order to follow the path of the Buddha, practitioners must devote their life to the Buddha’s teaching. To facilitate focus in religious practice, an Object of Devotion embodying the spiritual essence of the Dharma is enshrined. For hundreds of years after the Buddha’s passing the statue of Shakyamuni Buddha was adopted as the object of embodiment of the Dharma. However, while the physical features of the Buddha’s person in a statue are easily observed by practitioners, the spiritual essence of the Dharma was not visible, because of the intangible nature of teachings. To get around this problem, and include the Dharma in the Object of Worship, some schools of Buddhism placed Sutras – indicating the Dharma – before the Buddha’s statue or put copy of the Buddha’s teachings (Sutra) inside statue. Combining Statue and a Sutra indicates the oneness of Person and Dharma, being the principle which leads to enlightenment.
Other forms of objects of worship were also used during prayers such as paintings of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas as well as coloured mandalas. In the view of Nichiren, a Buddhist reformer of 13th century Japan, statues and paintings were convenient for practice in the past period of Buddhist calendar. while in the current era (Latter Day) a mandala manifesting the Oneness of Person and Dharma will appear, named the Gohonzon, or the“Great mandala": “This Gohonzon shall be called the great mandala never before known” 
The essence of the Gohonzon
Nichiren explained  that attaining enlightenment is achieved through awakening to the fact that one’s own life embodies the Dharma. This principle of attaining enlightenment is expressed in the centre of the Gohonzon in bold characters as the Oneness of the Universal Dharma (Nam-Myōhō-Renge-Kyō) and the Human Being (or Person represented by Nichiren, as a factual example). From this perspective, the Gohonzon is an embodiment of the life of the Buddha. In essence, the Gohonzon is a reflection of the enlightened state of life, called also the life of the Buddha, or the Buddha nature. Just as a mirror can reveal one’s physical appearance, the spiritual essence of the Gohonzon triggers the Buddha nature within one’s life. Nichiren explains, however, that only belief in one’s inner Buddha nature can validate the benefit of the Gohonzon.
What constitutes a Gohonzon?
The Gohonzon is based on the Lotus Sutra’s metaphoric description of the Buddha nature through the emergence of the Treasure Tower (The Ceremony of the Air). The basic components  appearing in all of more than 100 available now Gohonzons, inscribed by Nichiren - are the following:
the Eternal Dharma Nam Myōhō Renge Kyō, flanked by Shakyamuni and Many Treasures Buddha and the four Bodhisattvas of the Earth
(Additionally, Gohonzons include two Buddhist deities, inscribed in medieval Sanskrit orthography: the power of Aizen signifying “Earthly desires are enlightenment”, and the power of Fudo, signifying “Sufferings transformed into nirvana”.
Various Buddhist schools use the statue of Shakyamuni Buddha and other statues as Objects of Devotion. Even within some Nichiren schools, statues are used with the Gohonzon. However, all Buddhist schools based on the Lotus Sutra agree that the Object of Devotion is the Eternal Buddha  of the Lotus Sutra. Interpretations of the identity of this Eternal Buddha vary between schools, and most accept that it is simply Shakyamuni Buddha, though Nichiren Shōshū claims it to be Nichiren and SGI view it as the inherent Buddha nature. In his writings, Nichiren explained that the Eternal Buddha appeared together with the Bodhisattvas and the Treasure Tower, and that the Object of Devotion should include all, and not only Shakyamuni Buddha, as he inscribed in the Gohonzon.
Buddha statue and Gohonzon as Objects of Devotion
Each of the Objects of Devotion implies a significant meaning for practitioners. In his letter "The Object of Devotion for Observing the Mind" Nichiren described Shakyamuni’s Buddhahood as that of the harvest (effect) :“Shakyamuni’s, however, is the Buddhism of the harvest, and this is the Buddhism of sowing”. Under the light of this statement, a statue of Shakyamuni represents the "Effect" of Buddhahood. The Gohonzon on the other hand represents the "Cause" for attaining Buddhahood. Another difference is that a statue indicates the aspect of the “person” but does not indicate the "Dharma" - or the Law. The Gohonzon embodies both in the principle of the oneness of the Universal Law (Nam Myōhō Renge Kyō) and the Person (represented by Nichiren).
A third difference between the implication of Statue and Gohonozn is that the Gohonzon manifests the whole spectrum of the states of Mind (called the Ten Worlds of Life), while a statue represents only the world of Shakyamuni's Buddhahood. Nichiren describes the Gohonzon as the object for observing the Ten Worlds: “The observation of the mind means to observe one’s own mind and to find the Ten Worlds within it” 
Just as characters may be used to represent the entirety of the Ten Worlds, there are valid statue arrangements that also represent the entirety of the Ten Worlds. Statue Gohonzon are called Nin-Gohonzon. Nichiren has written on more than one occasion, "Statues or paintings", including in his most important treatise, The True Object of Worship.
Handling and treatment of the Gohonzon
Nichiren Buddhists treat Gohonzon 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. Gohonzon 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 Gohonzon, 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-Myōhō-Renge-Kyō." 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 Buddhahood.
- Honzon, The Object of Worship of Rissho Kosei-Kai, Niwano, Tokyo 1969, p.69,70
- Writings of Nichiren Daishonin WND p. 356
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Gohonzon.|
- Why a mandala Gohonzon as the Object of Veneration?
- Translated and annotated Gohonzon in pdf format
- Techno-Ritualization, the Gohonzon Controversy on the Internet, M. MacWilliams, Online – Heidelberg Journal of Religions in the Internet 2.1 (2006), pp. 91-122