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Gohonzon inscribed by Nichiren in 1280. The central characters are the title of the Lotus Sūtra.[1]

Gohonzon is a generic term for a venerated religious object in Japanese Buddhism. It may take the form of a scroll or statuary. In Nichiren Buddhism, it refers to the hanging calligraphic paper mandala inscribed by Nichiren to which devotional chanting is directed.[2][3][4]

Linguistically, the root "honzon" signifies a main object of devotion or worship[5] and "go" is an honorific prefix.[6] Nichiren groups translate "Gohonzon" different ways: "object of devotion" (Soka Gakkai),[7] "object of worship" (Nichiren Shoshu),[8] or "Supreme Venerable" (Nichiren-shū).[9] It has also been translated as "the Great Mandala."[10]

Paper scroll Gohonzon are sometimes known as Kakejiku Gohonzon or moji-mandara (文字曼荼羅 "script mandala" or "mandala written with characters"). Butsuzo Gohonzon are statuary.[citation needed] The Gohonzon is often enshrined within a butsudan.[11]

In Nichiren Buddhism[edit]

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. It is the exclusive object of veneration in the schools that follow the lineage of Nikko such as Kenshōkai, Nichiren Shōshū, Shōshinkai, and Soka Gakkai.[citation needed]


Nichiren himself attached the greatest importance to his inscription of the Gohonzon and claimed this as a pivotal moment in his life.[12] He stated that by using sumi ink to inscribe it he was acting like a "lion king."[13] Nichiren's calligraphy shifted over the years he inscribed Gohonzon.[14][15][16] Details of the composition of the Gohonzon are clear from the approximately 125 inscribed in Nichiren's own hand, dating from 1271 to 1282, that are extant.[17][18]:364 For example, a Gohonzon he inscribed in July 1273 was inscribed on a piece of silk 2.5 ft by 5.5 ft.[19] Copies of the original Gohonzon have been made by others[20] and can be found in varying sizes. A "Joju Gohonzon" is inscribed for a specific person or organization, an "Okatagi Gohonzon" is generic and produced through a wood block process, and there are also small pocket-sized "Omamori" Gohonzon.[21] Nichiren Shoshu's Dai-Gohonzon is transcribed on camphor wood.[22]

The Gohonzon could be described through its significance and the literal meaning of its calligraphy.


Yampolsky describes Nichiren's Gohonzon as a mandala, a concretized object that Nichiren inscribed to transmit what he regarded as the essence of the Lotus Sutra.[23] It is also described as a depiction of the Ceremony in the Air in the 11th Chapter of the Lotus Sutra, "The Emergence of the Treasure Tower.[24]"[25] It is the first of the "three great secret laws" of Nichiren Buddhism, the others being the title (Nam Myoho Renge Kyo and the platform of ordination or place of worship.[26] Ellwood and Pilgrim describe it as a "mandala of the cosmos as perceived inwardly by Nichiren."[27] Anesaki describes it as "a physical embodiment of the truth of cosmic existence as realized in the all-comprehensive conception of 'mutual participation, and illuminated by the all-enlightening power of the Truth.'"[28] According to Stone, "By having faith in the daimoku and chanting it before this object of worship, [Nichiren taught] one could in effect enter the mandala and participate in the enlightened reality that it depicts."[29]

The Gohonzon has also been described in more colloquial terms. Nichiren himself referred to it as "the banner of propagation"[30] and "a cluster of blessings."[31] Josei Toda quipped the Gohonzon simply as "a happiness-producing machine."[32] Daisaku Ikeda refers to it as a mirror that reflects one's inner life.[33]

Literal Meaning of the Calligraphy[edit]

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.

— Nichiren, The True Aspect of the Gohonzon" [34]

The Gohonzon is written in traditional kanji characters with the addition of two Siddhaṃ scripts. Although exclusive to the other Buddhist sects of his contemporaneous society, Nichiren was highly inclusive of Vedic and Chinese traditions, viewing them as precursors of his own teachings[35] and personages from these traditions are present on the Gohonzon.

Most prominent to all such Gohonzon is the phrase Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō—the primary mantra in Nichiren Buddhism—written down the center in bold calligraphy.[36] This is called the daimoku (題目) or shudai (主題, "title"). Right below, also in bold, Nichiren writes his name followed by his seal. This signifies Nichiren's conviction that his life had manifested the essence of the Lotus Sutra.[37]

On the top row can be found the names of Shakyamuni and Prabhutaratna Buddhas and the four leaders of the Bodhisattvas of the Earth.[38] 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. Within this frame are the names of various Buddhas, bodhisattvas, historical and mythological figures in Buddhism, personages representing the Ten spiritual realms (the Ten Worlds), and deities drawn from Vedic, Chinese, and Japanese traditions are arranged hierarchically. Each of these names represents some aspect of the Buddha's enlightenment or an important Buddhist concept.[39][40]


Research has documented that Nichiren inscribed 740 Gohonzon.[41] He began inscribing Gohonzon immediately before and during his exile on Sado between late 1271 and early 1274. This follows the attempted and failed execution of him at Tatsunokuchi Beach in 1271. In various letters he referred to this event as his "casting off the transient and revealing the true" (Jpn hosshaku-kempon), at which time he claimed to have discarded his transient status and revealed his essential identity as the Buddha of the Latter Day of the Law.[42] According to Ikeda, Nichiren's intent in manifesting the Gohonzon was to allow people to connect directly with the Law so they, too, could discard the transient and reveal their essential enlightened selves.[43]:103

The first extant Gohonzon was inscribed by Nichiren on October 9, 1271 before his transport to Sado Island. Stone describes it as embryonic in form. On July 8, 1273 Nichiren inscribed a Gohonzon in its full form with the inscription "Nichiren inscribes this for the first time."[44]

Early photograph of the Dai-Gohonzon at Taisekiji. Printed in Kumada Ijō's book Nichiren Shōnin in 1913.[45]

During his exile in Sado Island (1271-1274) Nichiren wrote two treatises explaining the significance of the object of devotion from the theoretical perspectives of the person (The Opening of the Eyes) and the law (The Object of Devotion for Observing the Mind).[46]:109[47]:111 Nichiren wrote additional letters to his followers bestowing Gohonzon to them and further explaining their significance: "Letter to Misawa," "Reply to Kyo'o," "The Real Aspect of the Gohonzon," and "On the Treasure Tower."[48]


Nichiren Shoshu claims that the Dai Gohonzon at its head temple is superior to all other Gohonzon. This contention is disputed by others.[49] In 1991 the Soka Gakkai was excommunicated by Nichiren Shoshu and thereby lost its source of Gohonzon. In 1993 the Soka Gakkai began to confer to new members a copy of a Gohonzon inscribed by Nichimoku Shonin, the 26th chief abbot of Taisekiji.[50]

There is also a controversy about the function and efficacy of Gohonzon that are now available for purchase or downloadable printing on various websites.[51]

Non-Nichiren Gohonzon and Honzon[edit]

An example of Butsuzo Gohonzon in the Pure Land tradition featuring Amida Buddha.

The terms Honzon and Gohonzon are often used interchangeably and with some confusion. In the Rissho Kosei Kai members receive and practice to a "Daigohonzon" enshrined in their homes; the scroll consists of an image of Shakyamuni[52][53] At the Rissho Kosei-kai headquarters there is a Gohonzon that is a statue of Shakyamuni.[54]

The Jōdo Shinshū school of Pure Land Buddhism, under Honen and Shinran the use of "honzon" became more prevalent; they took the form of inscriptions of the sect's mantra Namu Amida Buddha, other phrases, images of the Buddha, statuary, and even representations of the founder.[55] Rennyo thought the written mantra was more appropriate than a statue but did not ascribe particular powers to it as do Nichiren's followers to their Gohonzon.[56]

In Mikkyō practices such as in Shingon Buddhism, the term refers to refers to the divinity honored in a rite but later came to represent the formal object of worship.[57] The tutelary figure's role is similar to that of the yidam in Tibetan Buddhism.[citation needed] Tutelary deities in Vajrayana Buddhism, including Mikkyō, Tangmi and Tibetan Buddhism, are crucial to many religious practices. In the famous Goma fire ritual ceremony, the fire itself while it is being consumed and animated is also considered a temporary Gohonzon.[citation needed]


  1. ^ Stone, Jacqueline Ilyse (2003). Original Enlightenment and the Transformation of Medieval Japanese Buddhism. University of Hawaii Press. p. 277. ISBN 978-0-8248-2771-7. 
  2. ^ Turner, Bryan S.; Salemink, Oscar (2014). Routledge Handbook of Religions in Asia. Routledge. p. 381. ISBN 9781317636465. What distinguishes Nichiren from other forms of Japanese Buddhism (Zen being one of these) is, among other things, the centrality of the Gohonzon, an object of devotion. The term "gohonzon" can be used generically to refer to any object that is venerated but in the Nichiren tradition, there is an immediate, initial meaning that "gohonzon" has. It refers to Nichiren's moji-Mandala Gohonzon, a hanging paper scroll with Buddhist phrases written in ink in both kanji and Sanskrit, and usually with the Nam(u) Myoho Renge Kyo, the central mantra of Nichiren Buddhism. It translates to 'To devote oneself to the Wonderful Law of the Lotus Sutra.' 
  3. ^ http://www.rk-world.org/(S(owuk1kwav5sbfeshnwzpljmp))/news_archive_show.aspx?archiveid=1562
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  8. ^ "An Introduction to True Buddhism" (PDF). p. 3. 
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  12. ^ Anesaki 2010, p. 86
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  14. ^ Hirota, Raido. "What is the Gohonzon?" (PDF). Udumbara Foundation. 
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  23. ^ Nichiren (1990). Yampolsky, Philip B, ed. Selected writings of Nichiren. New York: Columbia University Press. p. 148. ISBN 9780231072601. Nam-myoho-renge-kyo appears in the center of the Treasure Tower with the Buddhas Shakyamuni and Taho seated to the right and left and the four Bodhisattvas of the Earth, led by Jogyo, flank them. 
  24. ^ Stone 2003, p. 281
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  27. ^ Ellwood, Robert; Pilgrim, Richard (2016). Japanese Religion: A Cultural Perspective. Routledge. ISBN 1315507110. mandala of the cosmos as perceived inwardly by Nichiren, with the daimoku as the sounds or words of power aligned to its central reality and the Lotus Sutra as its consummate spiritual text. Containing no pictorial image, the gohonzon suggests the overriding importance of word or sound in Nichiren Buddhism. 
  28. ^ Anesaki, Masaharu (1906). Nichiren: The Prophet (1916). Cambridge: Harvard University Press. p. 81. ISBN 9780674730786. 
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  37. ^ Buswell, Robert E.; Lopez, Donald S. (2013). The Princeton dictionary of Buddhism. Princeton: Princeton University Press. p. 2017. ISBN 9781400848058. 
  38. ^ Gebert, Andrew (2016). "Soka Gakkai". Religion: Oxford Research Encyclopedias. Oxford University. Retrieved 14 May 2017. Later in his career, Nichiren took the theoretical developments of T’ien T’ai Buddhism and gave them visual expression as a mandala, or Gohonzon, in which exemplars of the various conditions of life, from Hell to Buddhahood, are represented by their names written in Sino-Japanese characters. As Nichiren described in a letter written to a female follower in 1277: “It is the object of devotion that depicts Shakyamuni Buddha, the World-Honored One, seated in the treasure tower of Many Treasures Buddha, and the Buddhas who were Shakyamuni’s emanations as perfectly as a print matches its woodblock. Thus the five characters of the Lotus Sutra’s title [myō hō ren ge kyō] are suspended in the center, while the four heavenly kings 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.” Nichiren then describes the representatives of other states of life, including deluded, destructive ones, represented in the Gohonzon and states that, “Illuminated by the light of the five characters of the Mystic Law, they display the dignified attributes that they inherently possess.” 
  39. ^ Stone, 2003, 277-278
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  49. ^ Lopez, Donald J. (2016). The Lotus Sutra: A Biography. Princeton University Press. pp. 189–90. ISBN 1400883342. Nichiren Shoshu asserts that it is superior to all other gohonzon. The other Nichiren sects either reject the claim that it is superior to the many other gohonzon that were made by Nichiren himself or completely reject that authenticity of the Taisekiji gohonzon, saying that there is no evidence to support the claim that it was made by Nichiren. 
  50. ^ McLaughlin, Levi (2012). Prohl, Inken; Nelson, John, eds. Soka Gakkai in Japan. Leiden: Brill. p. 301. ISBN 9789004234369. 
  51. ^ MacWilliams, Mark (2006). "Techno-ritualization: The Gohonzon Controversy on the Internet" (PDF). Heidelberg Journal of Religions in the Internet 2.1 (Online). 2 (1). 
  52. ^ Dharma World, Volume 12. Kosei Publishing Company. 1985. 
  53. ^ Guthrie, Stewart (1988). A Japanese new religion: Risshō Kōsei-kai in a mountain hamlet. Ann Arbor: Center for Japanese Studies, the University of Michigan. p. 120. 
  54. ^ Guthrie 1988|page=136|URL=http://quod.lib.umich.edu/c/cjs/0914393.0001.001/150/--japanese-new-religion-rissho-kosei-kai-in-a-mountain-hamlet?rgn=full+text;view=image;q1=gohonzon
  55. ^ Blum, edited by Mark L.; Yasutomi, Shinʼya (2005). Rennyo and the Roots of Modern Japanese Buddhism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, USA. ISBN 9780195350999. 
  56. ^ Foard, James; Solomon, Michael; Payne, Richard Karl (1996). The pure land tradition : history and development. Berkeley, Calif.: Regents of the Univ. of Calif. p. 137. ISBN 9780895810922. 
  57. ^ Bogel, Cynthea J. (2009). With a Single Glance: Buddhist Icon and Early Mikkyō Vision. University of Washington Press. p. 197. ISBN 9780295989204. University of Washington Press, 2009 

Further reading[edit]