A Historical Perspective on the Transcription of the Gohonzon
Over the years, the priesthood has taught lay believers that only the successive high priests can transcribe and issue the Gohonzon because they alone have received "the heritage of the Law" from Nichiren Daishonin. Until relatively recently, the SGI has supported this idea exactly as it was explained.
A close examination of Nichiren Shoshu history, however, reveals that others besides the successive high priests have transcribed the Gohonzon and made it available for lay believers. This historical fact runs counter to the priesthood's current assertion that only the person holding the position of high priest is qualified to transcribe and issue the Gohonzon.
In response to the SGI's decision to issue the Gohonzon, the Nichiren Shoshu Bureau of Religious Affairs issued a statement dated September 7, 1993, that reads in part:
"In Nichiren Shoshu, all Gohonzons have always been transcribed by the successive High Priests, to whom the heritage of the Buddhist Law has been transmitted. All Gohonzons have been endowed with the spiritual properties of the Buddha by the High Priest...."In "On the Formalities of True Buddhism," Nichiu (1402-1482), the ninth high priest, states:
"Those at branch temples who have disciples and lay patrons may transcribe the mamori [Gohonzon]. However, they should not place their seals on it.... Those at branch temples who have disciples and lay patrons may transcribe the mandala [i.e., the Gohonzon] yet may not place their seals on it"In the past, as Nichiu states here, chief priests of branch temples transcribed and issued Gohonzon to believers. Because some branch temples were located far from the head temple and transportation was primitive, it seems that chief priests in distant areas were permitted to transcribe the Gohonzon. Records also show that chief priests of branch temples near the head temple transcribed the Gohonzon as well.
There is also a much more recent example of others besides high priests reproducing the Gohonzon. Myohon-ji in Hota, Chiba Prefecture, is an old, prestigious temple established in 1335 by Nichigo, a disciple of Nichimoku Shonin. At this temple is kept the man'nen kugo Gohonzon, which Nichiren Daishonin inscribed in December 1274. (Man'nen kugo means "that which protects and saves [all living beings] for all eternity.")
Myohon-ji seceded from the Minobu sect and joined Nichiren Shoshu in 1957. (The reversion of Myohon-ji to Nichiren Shoshu is detailed in The Human Revolution. See the Seikyo Times, February 1993.) This temple has reproduced the man'nen kugo Gohonzon both before and after it joined with Nichiren Shoshu. Its chief priest, Nichio Kamakura, is now a senior executive priest in the Nichiren Shoshu priesthood.
The priesthood currently asserts that authority regarding the Gohonzon rests solely with the high priest. It alleges that only the high priest can reproduce the Gohonzon for believers, because he alone can perform the "eye-opening" ceremony and thereby inject into the Gohonzon the "living essence" of the Daishonin's enlightened life that only he possesses. However, not only is there no passage in the Gosho to support such esoteric rituals; the fact that chief priests at branch temples have transcribed the Gohonzon also completely contradicts this reasoning. These chief priests did not possess, by the priesthood's definition, "the heritage of the Law" and thus the Daishonin's "living essence. "Therefore, according to the priesthood's own history, "the heritage of the Law that only the successive high priests inherit" is not an absolutely necessary condition for the reproduction of the Gohonzon.
Simply put, the successive high priests traditionally have been entrusted with the role of reproducing and issuing the Gohonzon for believers so that they can assist in the accomplishment of the Daishonin's mandate — kosen-rufu. Their transcription of the Gohonzon in no way indicates that they possess any special spiritual state that the rest of us do not. It is simply a part of their managerial responsibility as high priest to support believers and advance kosen-rufu.
After Nichiren Daishonin died, only Nikko Shonin among the six senior priests understood the importance of the Gohonzon as the true object of worship. Other senior priests in the Daishonin's order failed to recognize the Gohonzon as the object of worship and treated it disrespectfully.
For example, they would place Gohonzon behind statues of Shakyamuni or hang them casually in a corridor of a temple. They even sold Gohonzon for profit or buried them with dead bodies. Furthermore, they reproduced Gohonzon using woodblock techniques and distributed them among those who neither had solid faith nor any appreciation for the Gohonzon (Gosho Zenshu, p. 1606).
Under these circumstances, Nikko Shonin was compelled to discourage the reproduction of Gohonzon via woodblock printing. And he transcribed the Gohonzon by hand only for those who displayed strong faith (Gosho Zenshu, p. 1606 / Detailed Accounts of Nikko Shonin by Nichiko Hori, vol. 2, p. 227).
Nikko Shonin's desire, however, was to make the Gohonzon as available as possible for those with seeking minds. He continued to transcribe the Gohonzon until the last moment of his life. A Gohonzon exists that Nikko Shonin transcribed shortly before his passing. The weak brush strokes attest to his waning physical strength.
According to Nichiko, the 58th high priest and renowned Buddhist scholar, during the time of Nichiei (1352-1419), the eighth high priest, the head temple began using woodblock printing to reproduce the Gohonzon (Essential Writings of the Fuji School, vol. 1, p. 113).
As mentioned before, during High Priest Nichiu's time, chief priests of branch temples were allowed to transcribe the Gohonzon However, they were not allowed to place on them their own handwritten seals. The placement of a handwritten seal indicated that the transcriber of the Gohonzon was officially acknowledged. If any priest could officially transcribe the Gohonzon, it was likely to create confusion as the kind caused by the five senior priests during Nikko Shonin's, time. To avoid such confusion, Nichiu adopted strict restrictions regarding the placement of transcribers' handwritten seals.
In other words, the use of wood blocks, the transcription of the gohonzon by chief priests of branch temples, and the restrictions on the placement of transcribers' handwritten seals were all adopted to make the Gohonzon more readily available for believers while maintaining strict control of the Gohonzon's reproduction, thus avoiding confusion or disrespect toward the Gohonzon.
Commenting on Nichiu's "On the Formalities of True Buddhism," High Priest Nichiko states:
"When this school's fortune gradually increases and people of different races overseas begin to invoke the Mystic Law, how can the high priest alone possibly manage the bestowal of the mandala? The situation might resurrect these articles [from "On the Formalities of True Buddhism" on the transcription of the Gohonzon by chief priests of branch temples]. Or should we use woodblock printing as a supplement?"As High Priest Nichiko states, if the transcription or reproduction of the Gohonzon is done manually only by the high priest, the more kosen-rufu progresses, the less access believers will have to the Gohonzon. Therefore, Nichiko suggests that the method of reproducing the Gohonzon must be reconsidered so as to accord with the unfolding of kosen-rufu.
In fact, since the time of Nikko Shonin, the method of reproducing the Gohonzon has changed according to societal conditions, such as advancements in transportation communication and printing technology — and, more importantly — the conditions and progress of the kosen-rufu movement.
It was not until recently that the high priest became the sole authority in the reproduction and issuance of the Gohonzon. During the tenure of Nittatsu, the 66th high priest (1959-1979), all branch temples began issuing replicas of the same Gohonzon transcribed by the high priest of the time. Until then, some branch temples issued Gohonzon transcribed by previous high priests.
In the process of reproducing and issuing the Gohonzon, however, it is important to always maintain a delicate balance between maximizing the availability of the Gohonzon for those with strong faith and seeking minds, and minimizing the danger of confusion and disrespect toward this precious object of worship, as Nikko Shonin instructed. The reproduction and issuance of the Gohonzon must be handled strictly by the body of believers dedicated to kosen-rufu, based on the teachings of the Daishonin and Nikko Shonin.
Regarding the Gohonzon, the Daishonin states:
Now, over two hundred years have passed since the beginning of the Latter Day of the Law. How awesome that Nichiren was the first to inscribe this great mandala as the banner of propagation of the Lotus Sutra, when even such great masters as Nagarjuna, Vasubandhu, T'ien-t'ai and Miao-lo were unable to do so!The Daishonin describes the Gohonzon as "the banner of propagation of the Lotus Sutra"; so responsibility for the Gohonzon should naturally rest with those of Nichiren Daishonin's order who wholeheartedly promote kosen-rufu. Now that Nikken is using the Gohonzon as "a banner of authoritarianism,'' a tool to manipulate believers, the SGI's decision to make the Gohonzon available for members is particularly welcome and valid in light of the Daishonin's teachings.
"On the Transmission of the Heritage of the Law" by Masahiro Kobayashi, Seikyo Times, December 1992.