Who's Who on the Gohonzon?

by Rev. Ryuei Michael McCormick

This Great Mandala is #81 in the GohonzonShu...

Great Brahma Heavenly King

King Mara of the 6th Heaven

Shakra Devanam Indra

Surya (Sun)

Chandra (Moon)

Aruna (Myojo Tenji)

The most common Gohonzon issued by Nichiren Shu to its members (made of silk)


The Vedic Deities

On the mandala that Nichiren Shonin designed are several devas, deities from the Vedic cosmology of ancient India, which were accepted in Buddhism as the inhabitants of the heavens, the personifications of the forces of nature, fellow sentient beings in need of the Buddha's teachings, protectors of the Buddha Dharma, and even as roles taken on by the various bodhisattvas. In many ways they are similar to the ancient Olympian gods of Greece or the Aesir of Teutonic myths. In fact, they may even have a common source in the ancient Aryan culture. Nevertheless, the Vedic gods living on and above Mt. Sumeru have not disappeared but are still worshipped directly in India within Hinduism and appear as the guardians of the Dharma, protectors of humanity, and even as embodiments of aspects of enlightenment in Buddhism. The term devas means "shining ones."

In Philosophies of India, Heinrich Zimmer introduced the Vedic gods as follows:

"Indian orthodox philosophy arose from the ancient Aryan religion of the Veda. Originally the Vedic pantheon with its host of gods depicted the universe as filled with the projections of man's experiences and ideas about himself. The features of human birth, growth, and death, and of the process of generation were projected on the course of nature. Cosmic forces and phenomena were personalized. The lights of the heavens, the varieties and aspects of clouds and storm, forests, mountain masses and river courses, the properties of the soil, and the mysteries of the underworld were understood and dealt with in terms of the lives and commerce of divine beings who themselves reflected the human world. These gods were supermen endowed with cosmic powers and could be invited as guests to feast on oblations. They were invoked, flattered, propitiated, and pleased." (p. 333)

Flammarion Iconographic Guides: Buddhism gives the following summary of the position of these gods, or devas, within Buddhism:

"Devas are gods inhabiting the celestial stages of the world, and most of them are borrowed from the Indian pantheon. As we have seen, early Buddhism did not deny the existence of gods, but merely considered them to be spiritually inferior to the Buddha. The gods of Buddhism are not saviours, but beings with more power than humans. They live in pleasure for extremely long lives, but are nevertheless ultimately subject to the cycle of rebirth and suffering. They may be worshipped for material gain, and the earliest Buddhist literature contains stories of their service to the Buddha, and their promotion and protection of Buddhism. Thus we find the gods of the Indian pantheon assisting at all the major events in the life of the Buddha, more as attentive servants than as followers." (p. 258)

The Guide also says, "Devas represent the first of the eight classes of supernatural beings (Japanese Hachibutshu) mentioned in the Lotus Sutra as being protectors of the Buddha and the Law, victoriously waging war on opposing forces." (p. 260) The other seven are the nagas (dragons), the garudas (giant birds who prey on the nagas), the ashuras (the fighting demons), the yakshas (nature spirits), the gandharvas (celestial musicians), the mahoragas (giant snakes), and the kimnaras (another type of celestial musician who are half-human and half-bird). There is another class of beings associated with the devas who are called the apsaras. The apsaras are servants, court musicians, dancers, and retainers of the devas. Presumably, they are the most populous class of beings in the heavenly realms. Nichiren taught that all the gods had promised to protect those who uphold the Lotus Sutra. He frequently invoked the Vedic deities and the Shinto kami as his protectors as in the following passage from On Persecutions Befalling the Sage:

"You may rest assured that nothing, not even a person possessed by a powerful demon, can harm Nichiren, because Brahma, Shakra, the gods of the sun and moon, the four heavenly kings, the Sun Goddess, and Hachiman are safeguarding him."

The other side of this, is that the gods would also abandon and punish those who slandered or turned away from the Lotus Sutra as in the following passage from his Letter to the Lay Priest Ichinosawa:

"The reason, as I stated earlier, is that every single person in this country has committed the three cardinal sins. Therefore, Brahma, Shakra, the gods of the sun and moon, and the four heavenly kings have entered into the body of the Mongol ruler and are causing him to chastise our nation." (pp. 530)

Nichiren also frequently addressed prayers to the gods and encouraged his followers to do so as well, but always in the context of an overarching faith in the Lotus Sutra.

Dai Bontenno

Great Brahma Heavenly King

Brahma is a term for the highest class of deities residing in the Brahma Heavens. So in the first chapter of the Lotus Sutra, three different Brahmas are said to be present on Vulture Peak: Brahma Heavenly King, Great Brahma Sikhin, and Great Brahma Light. Great Brahma Heavenly King, however, is the chief of these and is believed to be the eternal, omniscient, omnipotent, and morally perfect creator of the world who resides in the Maha Brahma heaven of the realm of form. He is the lord of the saha world, and the first member of the trimurti which represents the three modes of material nature: Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver, and Shiva the destroyer. In the sutras he says of himself, "I am Brahma, Great Brahma, the Conqueror, the Unconquered, the All-Seeing, the All-Powerful, the Lord, the Maker and Creator, Ruler, Appointer and Orderer, Father of All That Have Been and Shall Be." (p. 76, Long Discourses of the Buddha) Other beings believe Brahma's self-testimony or have vague recollections of a past life in the Brahma heavens and therefore seek union with him or at least rebirth in his presence.

Union with Brahma or rebirth in the Brahma heavens of the realm of form (or any of the heavens for that matter) is treated by the Buddha as a legitimate though lesser goal for those who are unable to transcend their theistic assumptions about the goal of the religious life. It is a lesser goal because it is still within the six worlds of becoming and therefore one can only abide in a heavenly existence until the causes and conditions (in this case meritorious karma) which support that life are exhausted. Furthermore, even as the preeminent or first being among beings, Brahma is still subject to rebirth in accordance with the law of cause and effect and can not be apart from it. Brahma simply does not remember that he too came into being in the palace of Brahma due to causes and conditions at the beginning of the unfolding of the world. He believes that he is the sole cause for the creation of the world and its many beings, but once again he has overlooked the many other causes and condition involved. His self-testimony according to the Buddha is actually nothing more than self-delusion and egotism. As a being among beings who is also caught up in the round of birth and death, Brahma also must be considered in need of the Buddha's instruction despite his pretensions.

In any case, the Buddha was sharply critical of the brahmins and their Vedic learning who claimed to teach the way to union with Brahma. In the final analysis, he pointed out that the theistic teachings are based on hearsay and are not themselves able to give direct knowledge of Brahma. As an expedient, the Buddha taught the value of purifying the mind, renouncing the householder's life and meditating on the four infinite states of mind, "abodes of Brahma," associated with Brahma: loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. In this way, one may be united with Brahma at death by emulating his good qualities through virtuous living and meditation.

The Buddha Dharma itself, however, is able to take those who follow it far beyond even the divine realms. The Buddha had realized that even the divine states of being were phenomenal and subject to the same shortcomings as all other forms of phenomenal existence. So, while union with Brahma or rebirth in the heavens is looked upon as a worthy and attainable goal, it is not the final goal, for only the peace of nirvana can provide true peace according to the Buddha. The Buddha, however, did assert that in his past lives as a bodhisattva he too had been Brahma.

According to the sutras, upon attaining enlightenment the Buddha was not sure whether he should attempt to teach others the Dharma. At that time Brahma himself came down from heaven and convinced the Buddha that he should teach and that there were those who would be able to understand. This story is recounted in chapter two of the Lotus Sutra where Brahma appears in the company of the Heavenly-King Shakra, the four heavenly kings, and many other gods. Brahma is also one of the deities who periodically makes an offering of music and showers the assembly with heavenly garments and lotus flowers. In chapter seven of the Lotus Sutra, Brahma Heavenly Kings from hundreds of billions of worlds all gathered to give offerings to Great Universal Wisdom Excellence Tathagata and requested that he turn the Wheel of the Dharma. Chapter eighteen asserts that anyone who persuades others to sit and hear the Lotus Sutra will obtain the seat of Brahma, so one of the causes by which one can become Brahma is to share the Lotus Sutra with others. Chapter nineteen asserts that Brahma will come to hear anyone who teaches the Lotus Sutra. Chapters twenty-four and twenty-five state that Bodhisattva Wonderful Voice and Bodhisattva World Voice Perceiver respectively can both transform themselves into Brahma (among many other forms) in order to expound the Dharma and save others. So based upon the testimony of the Lotus Sutra, Great Heavenly King Brahma is a devotee of the Lotus Sutra and may in fact be an appearance of one of the celestial bodhisattvas who uphold the Lotus Sutra.

Icon: A deity with four arms and four faces, each with a third eye. He is wearing the garments of an Indian king, including a crown on each head. In his upper right hand he carries a lance. The bottom right is in the Varada mudra which represents the act of making an offering. The top left arm holds a long stemmed lotus flower, while the lower left holds a vase of ambrosia. He is seated on a lotus flower which rests upon four (or seven) geese.

Dairokuten Ma-o

King Mara of the Sixth Heaven

The name Mara means "Murderer" and he is called that because he is the entity who attempts to "murder" the spiritual life of others. Though he is a personification of delusion and even evil, he is very different from the devil in other religious traditions. To begin with, he is not a leader of the fighting demons who rebel against the gods, nor does he dwell in hell. Rather, he lives in the highest heaven in the realm of desire, from whence he is able to manipulate, exploit, and trick all the other beings in the realm of desire - including the deities in the lower heavenly realms. His primary purpose is to ensure that no one escapes the cycle of birth and death. In some ways, he is like a jail warden who is trying to keep his "wards" trapped within the world of birth and death. In other ways he is like the owner of a casino who employs all kinds of entertainments and even occasional payouts in order to keep the gamblers at the roulette wheels and card tables. In the end, the gamblers always lose but Mara does his best to keep them fooled into thinking that somehow they can hit the jackpot and find ultimate happiness within the realm of desire.

In the sutras, it is Mara who at first sends his daughters to seduce Siddhartha on the eve of his enlightenment. When Siddhartha sees through their beauty and reduces them to aged crones, Mara sends an army of demons to scare off the Buddha. This also fails. Siddhartha sits unmoved as the arrows and spears of the demons turn into flowers before they can hit him. Finally, Mara asks Siddhartha what entitles him to attain enlightenment. Siddhartha touches the ground and calls upon the earth itself to witness to the countless merits that he had accumulated over innumerable past lives as a bodhisattva. After his awakening, Mara tried to convince the Buddha that it would be impossible to teach anyone else the Dharma and that he should immediately enter parinirvana, but Brahma himself convinced the Buddha that it would be possible to teach others. Mara appears later in the life of the Buddha and unsuccessfully attempts to convince him to pass into parinirvana prematurely before the Dharma and the Sangha can be firmly established. Nichiren Buddhism often refers to Mara as part of the "three obstacles and the four devils" which was a teaching of Chih-i, the founder of T'ien-t'ai Buddhism. These are described in Dharma Flower: The Faith, Teaching and Practice of Nichiren Buddhism (unpublished manuscript):

"The three obstacles and the four devils were Chih-i's way of cataloging all the various phenomena which can keep us from practicing Buddhism. The three obstacles consist of self-centered desires or defilements, the unwholesome habits which arise from those defilements, and the painful consequences of such activity. The three obstacles describe the vicious circle created by our usual self-centered way of interacting with the world. They describe the way in which we bring so much unnecessary suffering upon ourselves, which naturally leads to further frustration and anxiety which then leads to even more selfishly motivated activities and so on, ad nauseum... All of this keeps us mired in our own problems. If we are not careful, it will even prevent us from putting into practice the very teachings which can break the cycle.

"The four devils consist of the devil of the five aggregates, the devil of the defilements, the devil of death, and the devil king of the sixth heaven. The devil of the aggregates refers to the inherent insecurity, anxiety, and outright suffering which results from trying to identify ourselves with various physical and mental components which are in constant flux. The devil of the defilements refers to the ways in which self-centered desires inevitably arise based upon the needs of the body and mind for nourishment, security, pleasurable stimulation, and self-aggrandizement. The devil of death refers to the dread, fear, and terror which arise in the face of the inevitable dissolution of the body and mind upon death. The devil king of the sixth heaven refers to those things in life which tempt us to forget about Buddhist practice and live only for worldly goals and aspirations. The devil king of the sixth heaven personifies all those people, situations, and inner impulses which tempt or threaten us to forsake Buddhism and return to the old cycle of unthinking habit, fleeting pleasures and familiar pains. One could say that the other name for the devil king of the sixth heaven is 'the devil we know' who attempts to frighten or cajole us away from the unfamiliar territory of liberation back into the vicious cycle of our self-centeredness." (p.23)

Icon: A deity dressed like a great king (maharaja) draped with garlands. He holds a bow in one hand and five arrows in the other.

Shakudaikannin Dai-o

(Shakra Devanam Indra ) a.k.a. Taishakuten (Shakra)

Indra is the ruler of the other thirty-two devas in the Heaven of the Thirty-three gods at the summit of Mt. Sumeru and also commander-in-chief of the Four Heavenly Kings. He is the god of thunder and lightning, the bringer of rain, the most powerful of the gods in the realm of desire, and the leader in the fight against the fighting demons (asuras) who constantly plot and scheme to overthrow the gods and on occasion even attempt to storm the heavenly palaces on the slopes of Mt. Sumeru. The name Shakra means "the mighty", Devanam means "chief of the gods," and Indra means "lord." Indra is also known as Vajrapani which means the "Vajra Wielder." He is called this because the thunderbolt which he wields is called the "vajra" or "diamond pounder." Unlike the aloof and serene Brahma who sees himself as the omnipotent creator, Indra sees himself as the mighty lord who leads the heavenly hosts.

Indra is also a follower of the Buddha and a protector of the Dharma. In fact, Indra often appears to test the resolve, patience, generosity, and compassion of the bodhisattvas, including Shakyamuni Buddha in his past lives. As an example, in the Nirvana Sutra, the story is told of how the bodhisattva who would become Shakyamuni Buddha was once a youth practicing asceticism in the Himalayas. Indra transformed himself into a ferocious demon (raskshasa) and began reciting the verse "All is changeable, nothing is constant. This is the law of birth and death." The boy insisted on hearing the rest of the verse, but the demon demanded that the boy offer himself as food after hearing it. The boy agreed, so the rakshasa recited "Extinguishing the cycle of birth and death, one enters the joy of nirvana." The boy inscribed the complete verse on all the surrounding rocks and trees and then leaped into the demon's mouth, but at the last moment Indra changed back into himself and caught the boy in his arms. In other past lives, while still practicing as a bodhisattva, the Buddha himself appeared as Indra. The other bodhisattvas are also reborn, at times, as Indra.

Indra is also well known for his net. The Net of Indra is said to cover the universe and contains jewels in each of its interstices which all reflect one another. This is a model for the interdependent nature of all phenomena according to the Buddha's teachings. This image is especially associated with the Flower Garland Sutra.

In chapter two of the Lotus Sutra, Indra is one of the deities who accompanies Brahma when he convinces the Buddha that he should teach the Dharma. Indra is also one of the deities who offers the assembly heavenly garments, lotus flowers and music. Chapter eighteen asserts that anyone who persuades others to sit and hear the Lotus Sutra will obtain the seat of Indra, so one of the causes by which one can become Indra is to share the Lotus Sutra with others. Chapter nineteen asserts that Indra will come to hear anyone who teaches the Lotus Sutra. Chapters twenty-four and twenty-five state that Bodhisattva Wonderful Voice and Bodhisattva World Voice Perceiver respectively can both transform themselves into Indra (among many other forms) in order to expound the Dharma and save others. So based upon the testimony of the Lotus Sutra, Indra is a devotee of the Lotus Sutra and may in fact be an appearance of one of the celestial bodhisattvas who uphold the Lotus Sutra.

Icon: A golden deity with a third eye in armor holding a vajra in his right hand, and with his left hand curled in a fist and resting on his hip. He sits in the posture of royal ease atop a white elephant which holds another vajra in its trunk.

Dai Nittenno (Surya)

Surya is the Vedic god of the sun, and one of the thirty-three gods in the Heaven of the Thirty-three. In esoteric Buddhism, Surya represents bodhicitta, the aspiration to attain enlightenment for all sentient beings.

Icon: A deity holding a sun disc in his right hand, his closed left hand rests on his hip. He is seated upon a lotus which is carried by three horses.

Dai Gattenji (Chandra)

Chandra is the Vedic god of the moon, and one of the thirty-three gods in the Heaven of the Thirty-three. In esoteric Buddhism, Chandra represents the universal purity of the buddha-nature which cools the passions and removes the three poisons.

Icon: A deity holding a moon disc in his right hand, his closed left hand rests on his hip. He is seated upon a lotus which is carried by three geese.

Myojo Tenji (Aruna)

According to The Myths and Gods of India:

"The Sun's charioteer is the Red-One (Aruna), the wise elder brother of the bird Wings-of-Speech (Garuda). Aruna, like the resplendent Vivasvat, also a son of Kasyapa, is the deity of dawn. He stands on the chariot in front of the Sun, and his strong body shelters the world from the Sun's fury. Aruna is said to be more beautiful even than the Moon." (p.95)

Icon: A deity with red skin driving a chariot.

Copyright by Ryuei Michael McCormick. 2002.

Lotus World by Rev. Ryuei
NewLotus World: an Illustrated Guide to the GohonzonNew
This portion of Nichiren's Coffeehouse was converted into a book to celebrate their 25th anniversary by the Nichiren Buddhist Temple of San Jose and the Rev. Ryuei Michael McCormick in 2005. Ryuei updated the text and it was illustrated by Matt Miller and Rika Williams. It is now the most comprehensive guidebook to Nichiren's Lotus Sutra Mandala in the English language and includes a framable 8.5x11 Pictoral Gohonzon of the Great Mandala of the Nichiren School!

If you have any questions, please Email Ryuei. To order this gem of a book, mail your check or money order for $20 (incl. shipping) to the Nichiren Buddhist Temple of San Jose.

Nichiren Buddhist Temple of San Jose
3570 Mona Way
San Jose, CA 95130

Table of Contents: The Odaimoku | The Buddhas | Four Bodhisattvas | Provisional Bodhisattvas | Esoteric Deities | The Shravaka Disciples | Vedic Deities | Four Heavenly Kings | More Devas... | Shinto Deities | Lineage Chart | Vedic Cosmology | Bibliography | GohonzonShu

More Articles by Ryuei
Odaimoku as Hua-t'ou
What is the Gohonzon?
Life of Nichiren Shonin
History of the Hokke-shu
Building the Treasure Tower
The Sole Efficacy of Odaimoku
Nam or Namu? Does it really matter?
Map of the Shutei Mandala
1. Dai Jikoku Tenno
2. Namu Muhengyo Bosatsu
3. Namu Jogyo Bosatsu
4. Namu Taho Nyorai
5. Namu Myoho Renge Kyo
6. Namu Shakyamuni Buddha
7. Namu Jyogyo Bosatsu
8. Namu Anryugyo Bosatsu
9. Dai Bishamon Tenno
10. Fudo Myo-o
11. Dai Nittenno (Sun)
12. Dairokuten Ma-o (Mara)
13. Dai Bontenno (Brahma)
14. Namu Sharihotsu Sonja
15. Namu Yaku-o Bosatsu
16. Namu Monjushiri Bosatsu
17. Namu Fugen Bosatsu
18. Namu Miroku Bosatsu
19. Namu Dai Kasho Sonja
20. Shakudaijannin Dai-o (Indra)
21. Dai Gattenji (Moon)
22. Myojo Tenji (Stars)
23. Aizen Myo-o
24. Daibadatta
25. Ashura King
26. Wheel Turning King
27. King Ajatashatru
28. Naga-raja (Dragon King)
29. Kishimojin (Demon Mother)
30. Jurasetsunyo
31. Namu Tendai Daishi
32. Namu Ryuju Bosatsu
33. Namu Myoraku Daishi
34. Namu Dengyo Daishi
35. Dai Komoko Tenno
36. "This Great Mandara was
for the first time revealed in the
Jambudvipa 2,220 and some years
after the extinction of the Buddha."

37. Tensho Daijin
38. The signature of Nichiren
39. Hachiman Dai Bosatsu
40. Dai Zocho Tenno
41. The 3rd month of the 3rd year
of Koan, Kanoe-tatsu

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