Symbols of Faith
For Soka Gakkai followers, the Law of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo is not merely expressed through chanting – it is also embodied as an object of devotion, called the Gohonzon. Honzon means ‘object of fundamental respect’ and go means ‘worthy of honour’ (SGI-UK 2017: 19).
Each member of the Soka Gakkai receives a Gohonzon that takes the form of a paper scroll inscribed with Chinese and Sanskrit characters in black ink. Reading vertically downwards along the centre of the Gohonzon are the words ‘Nam-myoho-renge-kyo Nichiren’. This design of the Gohonzon is based on a copy transcribed by the Nichiren Shoshu’s twenty-sixth high priest Nichikan Shonin (1665-1726) (SGI-UK 2017: 19). These words are surrounded by characters representing the ‘ten realms’ of consciousness, which refer to ten basic life conditions which everyone possesses and can experience (Hammond and Machacek 2002: 1190). These are (SGI-UK 2017: 34–35):
• Humanity or Tranquility
• Heaven or Rapture
• Realisation or Absorption
Rather than being external circumstances imposed upon the individual, these ‘life circumstances’ are modes of being that we all experience or could potentially attain. Our external circumstances merely reflect our inner life conditions – by changing our way of being in the world, we can improve our external circumstances (SGI-UK 2017: 1190).
The Gohonzon is also used in the Nichiren Shu sub-school, but here it is regarded as the transmission of the dharma (the Buddha’s teachings) from the original Buddha to his disciples and to us (Montgomery 1991: 171). The Nichiren Shoshu, however, hold that they alone possess the true Gohonzon, the Dai-gohonzon, which is sometimes described as the ‘reality’ of the God worshipped by other religious followers, including Christians, Jews and Muslims (Montgomery 1991: 170). Soka Gakkai do not uphold this Nichiren Shoshu doctrine.
Soka Gakkai followers do not have Buddha images or statues as this suggests that Buddhahood is separate from the individual. The SGI website states that the script, rather than a painted image or statue as the object of worship, is a “mirror” of “Buddha nature”, which is “universal” and “free of the connotations of race and gender inherent in depictions of specific personages” (SGI 2015).