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Recently I had a conversation with someone whose opinion I greatly respect. We spoke about the essence of the Nichiren Gohonzon, the one all of us in the Soka Gakkai International practice with. This person expressed the their understanding of this mandala as an expedient. That is, something that wouldn’t be needed if only we could tap into our Buddha nature on our own, without relying on an external object. This made perfect sense to me. Since we seem to be at the whim of external influences that consistently affect our momentary states of being, having an object whose sole purpose is to help us provoke the most positive effect possible is something to be desired. And for economy’s sake, let’s just say this effect is that we see things as they are from an enlightened perspective.

There is a phrase “opening of the eyes” that has been used in the past by both the Nichiren laity and the Nichiren Shoshu priesthood. It’s also the title given to one of Nichiren’s most important letters. In the past the priesthood has claimed that to “open” any given copy of a Nichiren Gohonzon’s “eyes,” to activate its properties that enable individuals to “see things from an enlightened perspective,” it must be placed before the so called Dai-Gohonzon and be chanted over. “So called” because the documentation normally referred to in supporting it’s claim to existence comes from Nichiren’s letter entitled On Persecutions Befalling The Sage: “The Buddha fulfilled the purpose of his advent in a little over forty years, the Great Teacher T’ien-t’ai took about thirty years, and the Great Teacher Dengyo, some twenty years. I have spoken repeatedly of the indescribable persecutions they suffered during those years. For me it took twenty-seven years, and the great persecutions I faced during this period are well known to you all.” WND, Vol.1, page 996. The background of the letter explains: “Nichiren Daishonin wrote this letter at Minobu on the first day of the tenth month of the second year of Koan (1279) to his followers in general. It reviews some of the outstanding incidents in his life. But more importantly, it contains the sole allusion to his inscription of the object of devotion for all humanity as the purpose of his life, a task that he accomplished on the twelfth day of the same month.” WND, Vol.1, page 998. The word “it” in “For me it took twenty-seven years…” is the documentation. It seems paradoxical for those who profess discipleship to a man who showed such a breadth of detailed knowledge, argued his points so meticulously and extensively in his writings, to use one word, in one sentence, out of over 400 extant writings as documentary proof. This falls short of his benchmark. It’s the kind of proof that works better when presented to a choir of true believers rather than to a jury of reason.
Nichiren himself reasons us to this point in The Openings Of The Eyes II: “It is also laid down that one should ‘rely on sutras that are complete and final and not on those that are not complete and final.’(Nirvana Sutra) We must therefore look carefully among the sutras to determine which are complete and final and which are not, and put our faith in the former. Bodhisattva Nagarjuna in his Commentary on the Ten Stages Sutra states, ‘Do not rely on treatises that distort the sutras; rely on those that are faithful to the sutras.’ The Great Teacher T’ien-t’ai says, ‘That which accords with the sutras is to be written down and made available. But put no faith in anything that in word or meaning fails to do so.’ The Great Teacher Dengyo says, ‘Depend upon the preachings of the Buddha, and do not put faith in traditions handed down orally.’ Enchin, also known as the Great Teacher Chisho, says, ‘In transmitting the teachings, rely on the written words [of scriptures].’” WND, Vol.1, pages 263-264. Just to add a little irony to all this, the last quote used by Nichiren is ascribed to “A Collection Of Orally Transmitted Teachings”.
What is commonly referred to as the Dai-Gohonzon is a wooden Gohonzon, which is a copy of a paper Gohonzon that was supposedly inscribed by Nichiren for all mankind. In other words, a template Gohonzon that would be used for “everyman” so all who practice to it could reap the benefits of what the nature and purpose of a Nichiren Gohonzon is for. That puts whoever is in possession of this Dai-Gohonzon in a position of power over those who actually believe the Dai-Gohonzon possesses this power over other Gohonzon to “open eyes”. This very medieval thinking is the foundation of Christianity’s success throughout Europe. It is interesting to note that throughout history, no religion was exclusive in erecting temples to worship relics: it just makes good business sense. It works especially well when working in conjunction with whatever happens to be the current governing authority. Instead of “power to the people,” it’s “power over the people,” because the premise consists of subjugating individuals who relinquish control of their lives to an external source.
The Soka Gakkai International organization has refuted this claim of the Nichiren Shoshu Priesthood, and has asserted that each individual “opens” the Gohonzon’s “eyes,” activates its properties, every time it’s practiced to. That makes sense, because in reading Nichiren’s letter The Opening Of The Eyes, he consistently battles against any idea, person or bureaucracy that comes between an individual and his or her potential enlightenment. What doesn’t make sense is for the Soka Gakkai membership to be cajoled into believing that each person needs to continue to repay a debt of gratitude to “it,” the Dai-Gohonzon, as stated in their liturgy books. That’s medieval thinking too, and seems to me to be self-defeating in purpose. It’s a conflicting message about the nature of a Gohonzon, which very well may be residue from what the Soka Gakkai considers its lineage. Here is an example of a perpetuation of existing conflicting dogma:
“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-myoho-renge-kyo” (MW-1, 213).
“Thus Nikken’s destruction of the Grand Main Temple, has encouraged SGI members to internalize the meaning of the high sanctuary. And to fully realize the inner implications and significance of any event or phenomena is the proper spirit of Buddhism.” The Untold History Of The Fuji School. Pg. 196
“To those who fail to grasp its message, however, the map’s (Gohonzon) worth will be reduced to that of a mere scroll.”
Then why…
“Photographs should never be taken of the Gohonzon and should be destroyed if accidentally taken.”
Is the Soka Gakkai still practicing surplus Nichiren Shoshu precepts? Or are they just stuck in transition? I can understand the confusion since also contained in the condemnation of the priesthood in The Untold History Of The Fuji School is “We should look upon the Gohonzon enshrined in each of our homes as the life of the Daishonin, the entity of the original Buddha. When chanting daimoku with that conviction, it is the same as worshipping the Dai-Gohonzon itself, right where we are.” pg. 11. Is that the same Uber-Gohonzon that the priesthood told us that we needed to open each Gohonzon’s eyes? Or is this the one we should not seek outside of ourselves? I took a picture of my stepdaughter’s bulldog Egor. I tried to play fetch with the picture but that didn’t work out so well. I put the picture next to a bowl of delicious dog food. Unlike with the actual Egor, the food didn’t disappear instantly. Then again, I’m also not sitting in front of the likeness of Egor as the entity of the original bulldog attempting to manifest my bulldog nature.
The idea of “opening eyes” is wondrous in its inclusiveness. As it happens to an individual it also is what happens to the mandala itself. It becomes more than paper and ink. Or more than wood and etchings. Or more than pixels on a screen. This process has been expressed in ways not relating to enlightenment, but never the less aptly portraying the effects of contemplating a thing or idea with some degree of diligence. Nietzsche warns of the negative affects of such efforts in his “Beyond Good And Evil” when he writes, “Those who would fight monsters be wary not to become one. For when you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss gazes long into you.” His warning was for those combating evil. But it can apply to any endeavor a person may immerse their self into. There is a tendency to become alike. At first glance it might seem that if an individual has found a quintessential positive to be devoted too, then ignorance is bliss. But since every relationship is symbiotic — everything flows both ways — it would behoove the devotee to understand as fully as possible all aspects of the relationship so as not to, as the saying goes, ruin a good thing. Daisaku Ikeda addresses this same idea in a positive way: “An active life retains the ability of selection, in that it decides what circumstance should be confronted and what substances to assimilate. In response to this life, the outer circumstances or object is certain to undergo a delicate and relative change in significance.” Dialogue On Life, Vol.1, page 40.
I had a similar but separate conversation with another person about the nature of a Gohonzon a couple of years ago. In this particular conversation I posed the question that if insentient phenomena such as a Gohonzon or a rock, have the same potential for enlightenment as sentient phenomena, then why can’t we chant to a rock as an expedient means and attain the same result as chanting to a Gohonzon? The answer I got was, “the nature of a rock is to be a rock, and the nature of a Gohonzon is to be a Gohonzon.” I do believe this person gave me more credit for understanding what they said than was due me. As simplistic as this statement reads, it has rattled around in my brain for a couple of years looking for a place to lodge itself. I have eventually translated it into meaning that a Gohonzon has a deliberate intention and a rock doesn’t. A rock has many potentials: to become soil, a foundation for organic growth: to be strapped to a piece of wood to be used as a tool or a weapon: to be marketed as a pet in a box. Can I see the potential in a rock? Sitting on the shoulders of human evolution and Madison Avenue, I certainly can. And as part of the environment that I co-exist in, I can appreciate it for what it is, a rock with many potentials. It has an intention, which is to fulfill it’s potential as a rock. Those potentials are imbued upon the rock from an external source, me. The rock has undergone as Daisaku Ikeda has said, “a relative change in significance.” Can I see the potential in a Gohonzon? When I look at it, can I, metaphorically speaking, make it look back at me, open its eyes, and fulfill its necessary intention? Can I then see the potential in all phenomena, sentient and insentient alike? Can I appreciate this potential? Sitting on the shoulders of my own human revolution, yes I can.
But in my conversation, what really got my attention, what interested me most was this persons’ reluctance to speak openly about what the Gohonzon actually is. “Don’t tell anyone I said the Gohonzon is an expedient.” Like it’s a big secret. Nichiren said himself that it is not to be found outside of one’s life. It isn’t actual enlightenment, but the representation of the potential of enlightenment for human life. Yes it contains its own potential for enlightenment, but it still needs human life interaction to activate it. If the Gohonzon is an expedient, why whisper the fact to a select few in secret? And why refer to it as something it isn’t? Is it for power, as in medieval times when the only people who could read were the priests and the nobility so they have a “power” over others? I really don’t believe this particular individual is into power of that nature. Doubt, is more likely, but doubt about what? This attitude of not speaking about what something is, but rather, what it is not, reminded me of the early Deists. Fearful of being labeled persona-non-grata, which could lead to social banishment and financial ruin, they hedged their way around what they really were: atheists. There was also a fear of tearing apart the fabric of society, which they mistakenly believed was held together by the common people’s belief in an omnipotent being. Fear that the common man couldn’t comprehend a godless world without falling into hedonism. The first fear — personal, social, and financial ruin — was, and still is, well founded. The second fear was proven completely false. This happened with profound resonance in the publishing of Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense,” when the world did not fall backwards into time, but instead leapt forward with a gusto never before seen in the history of mankind. Isn’t that what we are trying to do in the Soka Gakkai, lead mankind into a new paradigm of common sense?