The significance of the object of devotion, the Gohonzon, in the practice of Nichiren Buddhism, lies not in the literal meaning of the characters but in the fact that it embodies the life of the original Buddha, or the law of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. No extra benefit accrues to those who can read the Gohonzon, and knowing what is written on the Gohonzon does not mean that one understands the Gohonzon itself. Some of the characters on the Gohonzon are historical persons, mythical figures or Buddhist gods. Nichiren used them to represent the actual functions of the universe and of our own lives. All these functions are clustered around Nam-myoho-renge-kyo; therefore, the Gohonzon is the embodiment of the life of Buddhahood within us.
At one time, the second president of the Soka Gakkai, Josei Toda, explained the purpose of embracing the Gohonzon as follows:
The natural power of human beings is very weak. No matter how hard one tries to live one's own life in one's own way, in the end one is easily influenced by others and by external factors....I believe that to make one's life its strongest, most brilliant and happiest, there is no way but to live the Buddhism of ichinen sanzen [a single life-moment possesses three thousand realms] and the mutual possession of the ten worlds. This is the ultimate philosophy that Nichiren Daishonin delivered to the vast universe more than seven hundred years ago. He perceived people's ignorance of this profound principle and bestowed upon them the gem of ichinen sanzen so that they could attain the state of happiness. This gem of ichinen sanzen is nothing other than the Dai-Gohonzon that he inscribed.... (Buddhism in Action, vol. 7, pp. 107-08)
The Gohonzon, in a sense, can be compared to a map pointing to the location of the supreme treasure of life and the universe-the Mystic Law of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. This treasure map tells us that the treasure is found within our lives. To those who can understand the map, it is not just a piece of paper but an invaluable object equal in value to the "treasure," that is, life's supreme condition and potential itself. To those who fail to grasp its message, however, the map's worth will be reduced to that of a mere scroll. As Nichiren says:
All the characters in which the Lotus Sutra is written represent living Buddhas. But because we have the eyes of common mortals, we see them as characters. It is like the example of the Ganges River. Hungry spirits see the waters of the river as fire, human beings see them as water, and heavenly beings see them as amrita. The waters are the same in all cases, but each type of being sees them differently, according to the effects of its karma. (The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, p. 517)
How then can we correctly understand this map and locate the treasure it leads to? The Daishonin encourages us, "When you chant the myoho and recite renge, you must summon up deep faith that Myoho-renge-kyo is your life itself" (WND-1, 3). Nichiren Daishonin teaches us, in other words, that one's life is the greatest treasure. Hence he also writes: "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" (WND-1, 832). This realization is what Buddhism calls the condition of enlightenment.
To convey his message, Nichiren used the theory of a life-moment possessing 3,000 realms especially the mutual possession of the ten worlds as a basis for the Gohonzon's graphic image. The Gohonzon itself is the world of Buddhahood in which all the other worlds are represented. This is the depiction of mutual possession.
Down the center of the Gohonzon is written "Nam-myoho-renge-kyo-Nichiren" (Nos. 1 and 2 respectively on the chart). This illustrates the oneness of the person and the law, or that Nichiren's life itself embodies the Mystic Law, as he writes, "The soul of Nichiren is nothing other than Nam-myoho-renge-kyo" (MW-1, 120). It also indicates that our lives are fundamentally one and the same with the law of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, as Nichiren demonstrated through his life. Put another way, the inscription of "Nam-myoho-renge-kyo -Nichiren" tells us that we have the identical qualities of the original Buddha's life. To the degree we strive for kosen-rufu and pray with the same desire as Nichiren, we will manifest the same courage, hope and wisdom. This is what he meant when he wrote:
You, yourself, are a Thus Come One who is originally enlightened and endowed with the three bodies. You should chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo with this conviction. (WND-1, 300)
To the left and right of "Nam-myoho-renge-kyo-Nichiren" are various figures that represent the ten worlds in the life of the Buddha. Nichiren included them on the Gohonzon to indicate that even the Buddha's life inherently contains the lower nine worlds.
By writing "Nam-myoho-renge-kyo-Nichiren" prominently down the center with the other, smaller characters around it, Nichiren graphically indicated that the figures representing the lower nine worlds are illuminated by the Mystic Law, as he writes: "Illuminated by the light of the five characters of the Mystic Law, they display the dignified attributes that they inherently possess. This is the object of devotion" (WND-1, 832). In other words, these figures signify the nine worlds contained within Buddhahood.