Wading Through the Muddle
BJ: Can you offer an overview/short introduction of yourself and your online activities?
TR: My name is Terry Ruby. Father of Teresa and Alex Ruby, road dog to Kathy Ruby. I started practicing Nichiren Daishonin’s Buddhism on January 4, 1969, in Washington D.C.
My main online activities are sharing Buddhist experiences, Chinese translations of Buddhist terms, and anything else that I think is encouraging and informative.
Our website of Buddhist experiences is at: http://www.gakkaionline.net/Experiences/.
Some translation work can be found at: http://www.gakkaionline.net/imagery/.
And some more translations are at: http://www.gakkaionline.net/mandala/.
BJ: I understand that you put together a seminar on the Gohonzon — can you share some highlights?
TR: I love it when jaws drop and eyes open wider than they have before — those “Aha moments” as we make new discoveries and share them with others.
Each year the Washington D.C. region hosts a Summer Study Conference. Last year we held a Gohonzon Translation/Great Mandala workshop at this conference. Since that time, we have been invited to districts, chapters, and areas to do this workshop. We are presently working on an animated video and DVD that will help people understand the meaning and the imagery of the Chinese and Siddham characters on the Gohonzon.
BJ: When you talk to members about the Gohonzon, is there a fundamental area of misunderstanding or ignorance that people seem to have about it?
TR: Many people see the Gohonzon as an object that is outside themselves. Some substitute the Gohonzon for whatever deity they had before they encountered Buddhism — “Gohonzon won’t ya buy me a Mercedes Benz?” The Gohonzon is not a car salesman, a real estate agent, or a matchmaker. The Gohonzon embodies the abundant hope, courage, wisdom, compassion, and joy of a Buddha. Our practice to the Gohonzon develops these strengths and virtues. And — yes, these qualities help us find homes, jobs, and meaningful relationships with others.
The idea that the Gohonzon is inside you, is difficult for most Americans to comprehend.
The Gohonzon workshops enable people to see that the characters on the Gohonzon embody the illuminating power of fire, the purifying ability of water, the nourishment of earth, the boundlessness of the wind, hope, wisdom, joy, justice, eternity, etc. These are the powers of life itself. Our practice reveals the powers of these archtypes, but they are always a part of us whether we practice or not. They reside physically as our flesh and blood and have corresponding spiritual signatures in our heart/mind/intent.
For example, fire (Jogyo) can illuminate as well as burn. One of Jogyo’s (fire’s) functions is to burn earthly desires to reveal enlightened wisdom. On one level, body heat (fire) keeps us warm but on another level, fire is like ambition — always rising above the median — which are a few of the meanings of the characters on the Gohonzon for Jogyo.
BJ:  Some people
seem to think that a Gohonzon is unnecessary,
TR:  I was lucky enough to be thrown in prison early in my practice. I had the opportunity to chant sincerely to a blank wall for many months. The spiritual/emotional impact of a wall is different than that of a Gohonzon. (You can try this, if you like.) When I was released from prison, and able to chant to my Gohonzon, I felt like a thirsty man enjoying a refreshing drink. It is said that Josei Toda attained enlightenment in prison without a Gohonzon — but the first thing he did when he got out, was to chant to the Gohonzon.
BJ:  while others think it’s great to enshrine two or three different versions —
TR:  There is no evidence that having a variety of Gohonzon is better than having one.
BJ:  or hang them on the wall as art. What’s your take on this?
TR:  I heard that a person donated a Gohonzon to an art museum and gave it the title “Nam Myoho-renge-kyo”, thinking that people would look at it and repeat the title. I met a serviceman who bought a Gohonzon at a pawn shop. He was told that it was a poem. There are tourist shops, around some of the more popular tourist temples in Japan that sell a variety of Gohonzon. Some even sell articles of clothing with the Gohonzon printed on them. (“Waaah, My Mom went to Kuon-ji, but all I got was this T-shirt.”)
Taisekiji sold special Gohonzon to help raise money for various efforts, including Japan’s war effort during WWII. It is clear from these examples that many people have no understanding or appreciation of the value of the Gohonzon.
BJ: Also, what do you think of the “Internet Gohonzon” phenomenon of people printing out copies of the Gohonzon from online sources and using them as an object of worship? How does, say, a desk-jet printer differ from a woodblock print, or even a priest’s brush?”
TR: We live in an instant gratification world. Receiving the Gohonzon can be an act of faith and great expectation or just a Right Click and a “Save As”.
When receiving the Gohonzon, one should consider the source. I am not convinced of the authenticity of several of the Gohonzon that are purported to be in Nichiren’s own hand that appear on the Internet.
The fact that anyone would put the Gohonzon on the Internet for others to download — the fact that some people would download them and use these objects as objects of worship — is indicative of thinking of the Gohonzon as something outside ourselves. Something that can be downloaded or bought and sold in tourist shops. Nichiren describes the Gohonzon as “Banner of Propagation of the Lotus Sutra in the Latter Day of the Law”. Putting the Gohonzon on T-shirts or websites in no way propagates the Lotus Sutra. It just adds to the confusion. There is enough muddle out there already.
BJ: What effect do you think technology has on the future of propagating the Gohonzon?
TR: Technology has always played a role in the advancement of Buddhism. It was the sincere desire to make the sutras more accessible that lead Chinese Buddhist to invent the first printing presses. Nothing will ever replace the value of heart to heart — face to face communication.
BJ: When people talk about the “mystical properties’ of the Gohonzon, what, in your view, are they talking about?
TR: These are nothing more (or less) than the mysterious properties and functions of life. Isn’t life the greatest mystery of all?
BJ: Are some Gohonzon better than others?
TR: In terms of Buddhist practice, no — all Gohonzon that are based on the DaiGohonzon are equally respectworthy. It is the quality and quantity of our faith and practice that matter the most.
BJ: You may not want to get into this, but what makes the DaiGohonzon “Dai”?
TR: The word “dai” means “great”. The Chinese character for “dai” is an image of a person who is standing up with their arms and legs fully extended. The fully extended arms indicate “all embracing”, the extended legs represent fully extending oneself [for the sake of others]. “Standing up” indicates something of stature. To stand up means to take responsibility.
In applying the prefix dai to a specific Gohonzon, I defer to the renowned scholarship of the great reformer of the Fuji school — Nichikan Shonin (1665-1726) who wrote: “This [DaiGohonzon] is the origin of all Buddhas and sutras and the place to which they return. The blessings of the myriads of Buddhas and sutras throughout space and time, without a single exception, all return to this Gohonzon which is the Buddhism of the seed. It is just like the tree’s hundreds and thousands of branches and leaves which can all be traced to the same root. This Gohonzon therefore provides vast and boundless benefits. Its mystic functions are vast and profound. So if you take faith in this Gohonzon and chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo at all, no prayer will go unanswered, no sin will remain unforgiven, all good fortune will be bestowed, and all righteousness proven.”
His description fits all the meaning of the Chinese character for “great” (dai).
All Gohonzon that are based on this DaiGohonzon have the following inscription in the lower right corner. “Never in the two thousand two hundred and thirty-some years since the passing of the Buddha has this Great [Dai] Mandala appeared in the world.” Your own Gohonzon is a Dai-Mandala or DaiGohonzon. Whether or not your Gohonzon has the power of the DaiGohonzon depends on the extent that you have stood up in faith, fully extended yourself [for others], and become all embracing [compassionate towards all species].
BJ: If there’s one thing you could say about the Gohonzon to someone who doesn’t practice Nichiren Buddhism, what would you say?
TR: Before I attempt
to explain the Gohonzon to someone, I would like to listen to what they
have to say about life, the universe and everything. I usually learn as
much (if not more) from new members as they learn from me. This also helps
me to find the best way to explain the Gohonzon. Because each person is
wonderfully different, there is no one explanation that is perfect for
Copyright Terry Ruby 2004. May not be quoted without written permission.
Write me at firstname.lastname@example.org.