For most people, the word "Buddha" conjures up the image of a statue of an Asian male seated in meditation. It may seem contradictory for a religion that is otherwise considered relatively abstract to give such a central place to images of this kind.
These images, however, are generally not worshipped by Buddhists in the same sense that the Biblical "heathens" are said to have worshipped their idols. Rather, they are symbolic depictions of the sublime qualities possessed by Buddhas and bodhisattvas to which practitioners aspire. Ideally, they function as a kind of mirror to aid practitioners in perceiving the profound dignity of their own lives and in manifesting that dignity in their actions.
For Buddhist practitioners, this is the core challenge, to perceive the life condition of Buddhahood in their own life. In the Buddhism of Nichiren (1222--1282) and the tradition from which it draws, this is called the practice of "observing the mind." The difficulty of achieving this is such that practitioners had traditionally to devote their lives exclusively to meditative practice. Nichiren's contribution was to establish a clear mirror, the Gohonzon, which perfectly reflects the state of Buddhahood inherent in life, and which could thus enable all people, regardless of their circumstances or ability, to draw out and manifest this Buddha nature.
The Gohonzon (lit. "object of devotion") is a scroll containing Chinese and Sanskrit script. Nichiren's use of script rather than images reflects his commitment that this "mirror" be universal, free of the connotations of race and gender inherent in depictions of specific personages. On the scroll are arranged the names of figures from the Buddhist canon that collectively symbolize the various potentialities of life. Down its center is inscribed "Nam-myoho-renge-kyo Nichiren," in bold Chinese characters.
Myoho-renge-kyo is the Japanese version of the title of Shakyamuni's Lotus Sutra (Skt Saddharma-pundarika-sutra). For the tradition within which Nichiren is situated, this sutra is regarded as Shakyamuni's most essential teaching. Nichiren regarded Myoho-renge-kyo itself as the fundamental Law or principle of the universe--of life--to which Shakyamuni was enlightened, the "essence" of Buddhahood. He writes, "Shakyamuni's practices and the virtues he consequently attained are all contained in the five characters of Myoho-renge-kyo."
Nichiren's name below Nam-myoho-renge-kyo on the Gohonzon expresses his conviction that the state of Buddhahood is not an abstract concept but is manifest in the life and behavior of human beings living in the real world.
Nichiren inscribed Gohonzons for his individual followers, and believers today enshrine a printed transcription of the Gohonzon in their homes. The practice of Nichiren Buddhism is to chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, facing the Gohonzon, thereby harmonizing your life with--or calling forth from within--the Buddha nature which it reflects. "Nam," meaning devotion, signifies this intent of summoning or harmonizing with.
The Buddhist view of life is a profoundly holistic one that sees no essential separation between our lives and the life of the universe. When we draw forth the power of wisdom and compassion through prayer, we are drawing forth and directing the same universal wisdom and creative compassion that manifests in everything from the intelligent bonding of molecules to the symbiotic evolution of species, to the decay and formation of galaxies.Ultimately it is belief in their own potential that enables human beings to develop and to advance in the face of difficulties. The Gohonzon is an embodiment of a belief in the unlimited potential of life. The practice associated with it is an expression and actualization of this belief.
As a "mirror," the Gohonzon could be said to perform a dual function. While it reflects and awakens us to the limitless richness and potential of our inner life, it also, in provoking introspection, helps us confront the bare reality of our life at that moment in time.Regardless of our religious beliefs, the success of any effort to guide our life toward fulfillment and value depends largely on an ability to honestly and courageously look within--to both confront the demons of our shadow and to seek out within our own lives those qualities with which we have invested our saints and idols. It seems that now, more than ever, our collective survival depends on our ability to carry this out.