On Copying the Gohonzon

Is it wrong to copy the Gohonzon

Oh boy, where do I start on this one? This topic has fuelled no end of internet flame wars due to people’s inability to step outside of their particular dogma. I think the argument is complex and based on several issues;

  • What is the Gohonzon, specifically
  • How can we disrespect the Gohonzon
  • Who has the right to copy Gohonzon
  • Will a copied Gohonzon work?

I chanted at some length over this issue. It probes at the very heart of Nichiren Buddhism and the nature of the Gohonzon.

What is the Gohonzon

I’m going to assume that the readers knows the superficial answer already, but I’ll repeat myself for the sake of clarity. The Gohonzon is the paper scroll that we chant to in our daily practice. The Gohonzon is the mandala Nichiren inscribed for all humanity. The Gohonzon is the clear mirror, in which we can view the reality of our own entity. The Gohonzon’s properties to help us view our Buddhahood are no different from a mirror’s ability to show us our reflection. It has no intrinsic power of its own beyond this facility.

The Gohonzon is NOT an occult talisman, lucky charm or other item of witchcraft of voodoo. The Dai Gohonzon in Japan holds no more power to reflect my Buddhahood than the copy (and it is a copy, let’s not forget that) in my Butsudan from the SGI.

In terms of the Threefold Truth, the Gohonzon’s appearance is the beautiful paper scroll printed with Nichiren’s inscriptions – the nature of the Gohonzon is to connect us with our Buddhahood and our Ichinen Sanzen when we chant before it with firm faith in the power of Nam Myoho Renge Kyo.

The Gohonzon is nothing more than this. If you disagree with any of the above, then you had better stop reading, because you won’t like the rest of what I have to say.

How can we disrespect the Gohonzon?

I’m not entirely sure how you can disrespect a piece of parchment or paper, but even if you could, is this the same as slander?

If a person fails to have faith but instead slanders this sutra, immediately he will destroy all the seeds for becoming a Buddha in this world… …When his life comes to an end he will enter the Avichi hell

These are Shakyamuni’s words from the Lotus Sutra. They apply to the Lotus Sutra, not the Gohonzon that elucidates the Ceremony in the Air and our devotion to the Lotus Sutra. How can these words apply to the Gohonzon created by Nichiren more than 2000 years after Shakyamuni’s passing?

The Lotus Sutra and the Gohonzon are a teaching and a concept respectively – they are not the impermanent object we attach ourselves to in the butsudan, they are essentially emptiness – non existense.

While it is possible to slander a teaching or a concept, you cannot slander a bit of paper. What you can do is upset a lot of people’s ego’s by allowing them to witness you disrespect a sacred object. We’ve all seen this occur (thinking of the anti-islamic Mohammad cartoons). By publicly desecrating a Gohonzon you can cause massive negative Karma, I’m sure, but I don’t think you will irrevocably scorch your seeds of Buddhahood!

I’ll recount a story I heard from a reliable friend. Someone who had come to the UK seeking asylum (his life was under threat in his home country) took up the practice while in the UK. During his stay he suffered health problems, but ultimately lost his fight to stay here and was due to be deported. In the period before he was finally ejected from the UK, he was sharing a tiny room with another deportee. It was so tiny that every night they had to pack all of their daytime kit away to make room for their sleeping mats.

So this guy was unrolling his Gohonzon every day, chanting to it, rolling it back up again to go to sleep. Now at some point he recounted to his leader how tough things were, and that he was having to roll up his Gohonzon every day. His leader looked at him with incredulity, berated him for disrespecting his Gohonzon and instructed him to hand the Gohonzon to the Chapter leader for safe keeping!

So there is this guy, fighting for his life, and now chanting to a blank spot on the wall. If this doesn’t demonstrate an utter lack of compassion, then I don’t know what does. My friend told him to get his Gohonzon back, pin it to the wall, and chant to it for all he was bloody worth! Today, I’m glad to say the gentleman seeking asylum is now settled as a UK resident despite the dogmatic reaction of one SGI leader.

Which way do you burn your incense sticks in front of the Gohonzon, left to right? Do you ever turn your back on the Gohonzon when in a discussion meeting (hard if it’s a small room!)? Do you have any pictures on the wall above the Gohonzon? This is all superstitious nonsense.

A Gohonzon is manifest impermanence! Show it the same respect you would a picture of a loved one, but don’t start imbuing it with juju powers.

Who has the right to copy Gohonzon

In many ways, this is tied up with whether you believe the Heritage of the Law is embodied in the High Priest of the Nichiren Shoshu priesthood, or not. I don’t. In fact, if Nichiren himself actually made this clear then I wouldn’t be practicing his Buddhism. To interpose a priest class between humanity and enlightenment is so utterly against the Dharma as to be non Buddhist!

So, who should be able to copy and confer Gohonzon? Nichiren Shoshu? The SGI? Fred Bloggs with his $50 inkjet printer? All three, I believe. Did Nichiren ever imagine there would be seven billion people on earth? Nichiren would use every means at his disposal to support the bodhisattva’s of the earth – he certainly wouldn’t cut off those with a seeking spirit. The reason that the power to copy and confer Gohonzon has been so closely controlled is, well, CONTROL!

There are now so many historical Gohonzons available on the web, the choice is bewildering. This situation isn’t going to change. I would argue that this situation is the manifest effect of the causes made by a priesthood that decided to keep the Gohonzon from the world. The people who uploaded the Gohonzons to the internet didn’t do so with devilment in their hearts. They did it in the genuine hope to inform others, generate interest, and assist the practice of lay believers in Nichiren’s Buddhism.

If I visited another practitioner, and found a different Gohonzon in their butsudan, I wouldn’t dream of questioning their choice! Why would a lovingly made home made Gohonzon be any less effective than the somewhat economic scroll from the SGI? Arguably, the only thing you are going to miss out on by doing it all on your own is guidance and support from others. Although internet forums have largely nullified that argument, there is still no replacement in my view for a good group discussion meeting.

I also don’t see any evidence of the Gohonzons available on the web being desecrated. Come to think of it – the Lotus Sutra has been available in so many different formats for so many years, and yet I don’t see people burning it in the street, or otherwise trying to disrespect it. No, the whole motive behind dissuading people from copying the Gohonzon is CONTROL.

The question of whether to photograph or video someone else’s personal Gohonzon is a more personal one. Clearly, a Gohonzon that is actively used becomes a deeply personal thing, and I would respect the owner’s wishes, and would expect other’s to respect mine where photography is concerned.

Personally, if a member of my family wanted a picture of me with my Gohonzon, I wouldn’t refuse – it is respectful, and it would be mean to refuse. However, if we were having a party, I wouldn’t want a photo of people who are worse for wear grinning inanely in front of an open butsudan. Not because of any occult, juju retribution – it would just feel like I am taking the piss out of something I care about.

Will a copied Gohonzon work?

So now we get down to the real nub of the issue. This “one true Buddhism” stuff really gets tiresome. I mean, haven’t Nichiren Buddhist movements learnt anything from the disaster of Churchianity? I just watched a Youtube video of an Anti-SGI Japanese guy ranting on about the quality of the paper, and the printing method used – sadly, this chap is as deadly serious as he is deluded.

So, to answer the question, Yes! Why wouldn’t your home made Gohonzon work? It is paper, and ink, and it presents the correct image to your eye – just like the Nikken Gohonzon, just like the SGI Gohonzon. What’s missing (apart from any priesthood voodoo juju)?

My Gohonzon is better than your Gohonzon. My dad is bigger than your dad. The delusion of people who come up with this stuff is beyond me in so many ways I can’t begin to explain. I’m aware of SGI members who discarded their Nikken (Priesthood) Gohonzon for the SGI’s Nichikan one. There can only be three reasons for doing this

  1. The member thinks Nikken is a slanderer, and so doesn’t want to be reminded of him when chanting (the member’s own desires and ego are causing the distraction).
  2. The member thinks the Gohonzon won’t work in some way because nasty evil Nikken created it (the member is deluded by voodoo juju).
  3. The member thinks the Gohonzon won’t work in some way because Nikken made technical errors (I’ll rule this one out as it’s pretty clear the Nikken Gohonzon is not a cock up).

How do you know, for a fact, that the guy who created your copy of the Gohonzon (regardles of your flavour of Nichiren Buddhism) didn’t have some deep dark secret? Maybe he had just been to the toilet and didn’t wash his hands? Maybe the guy who made the guillotine to trim it is a murderous psychopath. Maybe the iron the guillotine came from was fired by coal mined by child slaves? What I’m saying is, provided the pictograph of the Gohonzon is accurate enough to perceive the characters, then this is all that matters. Nothing is free from the Ten Worlds, remember? Even your Gohonzon!

A popular analogy is to consider a piece of music that moves the heart of all humanity. The sheet music itself could be transcribed any anyone, even the most evil human being alive, and yet when this music is placed before an orchestra the end result is the same – the music will still move people’s hearts.

I’ll take a Nikken Gohonzon, and I’ll chant to it, and I will pray for Nikken to remember that the Dai Gohonzon he is babysitting is the property of ALL HUMANITY. When one places the dogma of the priesthood, the SGI, or the Lotus Sutra itself above compassion for humankind, then one is on the path to ignorance and fundamental darkness.

If Nichiren could have seen me when I started to practice, he would have known my genuine intent. I read Vol 1 of WND and a boat load of other material, and chanted every day. I was totally averse to the SGI for a long time due to the bad press I had read. If Nichiren could have seen the beautiful quality of the Gohonzon I made for myself, he would surely not have snatched it from my hands and torn it up.

In fact, Nichiren would have seen me using my home grown Gohonzon to make great strides in my life, digging myself out of a lifetime of anxiety and self doubt, and going on to getting my pilot’s license. So frankly, I have first hand experience and proof of Nichiren’s Buddhism, without any help from the SGI, or a priesthood. I’m also happy to report that since enshrining my SGI Gohonzon I have continued to overcome various obstacles in my life, and have a great circle of friends in faith.

Nam Myoho Renge Kyo

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