I’m writing this on my way back from watching a friend of mine receive her Gohonzon. Receiving Gohonzon is to my form of Buddhism as Confirmation is to Christians. You might have been chanting for a while (I’ve know people receive after three months and others after seven years; I took just under two), it’s an act of commitment (not a binding legal one) akin to getting married. It’s like getting married to your highest wisdom and potential and making a promise to work together, through good times and the inevitable bad ones, no matter what.
Gohonzon receiving ceremonies really are like weddings in that I tend to well up during them and afterwards there is sometimes cake. I’ve been lobbying for Pimms as well but that hasn’t caught on yet.
Anyway, that’s the receiving ceremony. But what is it you are actually receiving? A scroll, written in classical Chinese, modeled on the original one made by Nichiren Daishonin, the monk who spread the practice of chanting Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo.
He lived a remarkable life. At the time (12th C Japan) the country was divided into parishes and if you were a peasant you were forced to support the temple of that parish, regardless of what form of Buddhism the temple may belong to. Imagine you were Church of England and you got a letter from the government one day saying that due to your post-code you were required to become a Jehovah’s Witness. Like that. Additionally, these temples and their different sects of Buddhism encouraged the locals to donate to support the monks there, on the promise that, if the peasants kept their heads down in this life, they would be rewarded with Enlightenment in one of their future lives (or if you were of low social status you might come back rich. Or if you were a woman you might be fortunate enough to come back as man.) There was no sense that people could achieve enlightenment in their current life or that there was any point in changing the world they lived in, or that people are equally wonderful regardless of social rank or gender.
The Daishonin stood up against all that and taught people that they already had all the wisdom in the Universe in their lives and that by having faith in their own potential and that of others, they could reveal it. And the key to developing that faith was chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. Obviously, this rattled a few cages. It rattled the cages of everyone who had something to gain by persuading people not to fight for a better world now, but to put up with their poverty and injustice. It annoyed everyone who was kept very comfortably and in positions of great power, by the donations and worship they received. It vexed everyone whose political position depended on the support of powerful Temples and Priests.
Unsurprisingly this pissed off loads of powerful people and as a result they heaped persecutions on the Daishonin, including repeatedly trying to kill him, and finally they exiled him, despite already frail health, to a freezing inhospitable island, full of other exiles, most of whom were ardently opposed to his beliefs. It was practically a death sentence.
Remarkably, his faith kept him alive through these various persecutions, sometimes miraculously. Finally, living in a barely-standing shack in the middle of a field where the locals left their dead to be eaten by birds and worms, starving and ill, he remained unbeaten in spirit. And he knew that this was because he was revealing the great potential inherent in his life, tapping that energy we all have access to.
Up until then many sects prayed to statues of Buddha. The original intention may have been to reflect that they too could manifest the qualities of the Buddha, but over time that got lost and it became, ‘Oh please help me Buddha, because you are way more amazing than I could ever be, and I am rubbish and incapable without your help.’ Which is exactly the opposite of what the Buddha would have wanted.
So the Daishonin, in his freezing shack, wondered what object could people pray to; what would be the ‘ultimate object of devotion’, which, when chanted at, would connect people in to their own immense power, rather than seeking salvation from some external force. So he made the Gohonzon; he wrote Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo, representing all the amazing power of the Universe, down the middle, and around it he wrote the names of Gods and Demons representing all the different aspects of life, positive and negative. The Gohonzon was a diagram, showing the truth of our lives; that, amidst the varied realities of our lives, the heart of our being, is this amazing capacity of wisdom, courage and compassion.
In that sense the Gohonzon is a mirror which shows us back our highest potential. Crucially, it is not in itself magic, or able to sort out our problems for us. The Daishonin warned ‘Never search for the Gohonzon outside yourself.’
The respect we show the Gohonzon, then, is the respect we show to our own highest potential. So we keep it in special box, we don’t take photos of it, we make offerings of fruit, incense, water and greenery (I’m using cacti because my greenery kept becoming brownery), we keep the area dusted, etc. We are offering those things to ourselves; they are metaphors which have meaning because we imbue them with meaning. On those days when I can’t believe in my own potential, when I want to curl up and for the world to leave me alone, the act of caring for and respecting the object which represents my higher self enables me to reveal the self-respect which I would otherwise struggle to muster.
And then when you chant, with the Gohonzon reflecting back the truth of your life, then you can start, sometimes painfully, to see the things you can change, the ways you can grow.
So, this would be most inspiring object and I’m very grateful to my younger self for deciding to make that commitment. It’s been an eventful marriage so far, which has required a great deal of work, but one I’m very glad I entered into.