Who's Who on the Gohonzon?

by Rev. Ryuei Michael McCormick

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



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

The Major Shravaka Disciples

The word shravaka means "voice hearer" and refers to those monastic disciples who directly heard the voice of the Buddha. From the standpoint of Mahayana Buddhism, the shravakas are the Hinayana disciples who listened and followed the teachings of the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. The goal of the shravakas is to become an arhat or 'Worthy One.' An arhat is someone who has realized nirvana and is thereby free of all greed, anger, and ignorance and will no longer undergo birth and death. According to the Lotus Sutra, however, even the shravakas are on the One Vehicle which leads to buddhahood. The nirvana of the arhats is in actuality a temporary respite or 'magic city' on the journey to perfect and complete enlightenment. The true 'voice hearer' then, is actually a bodhisattva who has heard the teaching of the One Vehicle of the Lotus Sutra and who enables others to hear it as well.

Traditionally there are ten major disciples who are representative of the different qualities that were valued by Hinayana Buddhism. They are:

1. Shariputra - foremost in wisdom.
2. Mahakashyapa - foremost in ascetic practices.
3. Ananda - foremost in hearing the sutras.
4. Subhuti - foremost in understanding emptiness.
5. Purna - foremost in expounding the Dharma.
6. Maudgalyayana - foremost in supernatural powers.
7. Katyayana - foremost in explaining the Dharma.
8. Aniruddha - foremost in using the divine eye (clairvoyance).
9. Upali - foremost in observing the precepts.
10. Rahula - foremost in inconspicuous practice.

In the Lotus Sutra, the shravakas fall into three groups of superior, intermediate, and lesser capacity, depending upon the manner in which they are able to understand the One Vehicle. A Dictionary of Buddhist Terms and Concepts states:

"Shariputra alone understood immediately upon hearing the Buddha preach concerning 'the true entity of all phenomena' (shojo jisso) in the Hoben (second) chapter; he constitutes the first group. The Hiyu (third) chapter predicts his enlightenment. Maudgalyayana, Mahakashyapa, Katyayana and Subhuti understood the Buddha's teaching through the parable of the three carts and the burning house related in the Hiyu chapter. They constitute the second group. Their attainment of Buddhahood is predicted in the Juki (sixth) chapter. Purna, Ananda, Rahula and others finally understood the Buddha's teaching by hearing about their relationship with Shakyamuni since the remote past of sanzen-jintengo, as explained in the Kejoyu (seventh) chapter. They constitute the third group. Purna's enlightenment is prophecied in the Gohyaku Deshi Juki (eighth) chapter, and Ananda's and Rahula's in the Ninki (ninth) chapter." (pp.457-8)

Namu Sharihotsu Sonja

The Venerable Shariputra

Shariputra and his lifelong friend Maudgalyayana were born to brahmin families in neighboring villages near Rajagriha, the capital of the kingdom of Magadha. As young men they were both disillusioned with worldly life. Together they left home to find enlightenment and eventually became the leading disciples of the skeptical philosopher Sanjaya. This teaching did not satisfy them for long however, and so they both set out again to find the truth. The two friends even made an agreement that whoever discovered it first would find and tell the other. Shariputra traveled to Rajagriha and there he met Ashvajit. Ashvajit was one of the five ascetics who became the first disciples of Shakyamuni Buddha after he preached the sermon on the Middle Way and the four noble truths at the Deer Park in Varanasi. Ashvajit's calm demeanor so impressed Shariputra that he asked him who his teacher was and what teaching he had received. Ashvajit told Shariputra about Shakyamuni Buddha and then gave him a summary of the Dharma as he understood it in the following verse:

"Of those things that arise from a cause,

The Tathagata has told the cause,

And also what their cessation is:

This is the doctrine of the Great Recluse."

(Great Disciples of the Buddha, p.7)

Upon hearing these words, Shariputra's quick mind realized the profound implications of this seemingly simple verse and he attained the first of four stages leading to complete liberation from birth and death - stream-entry. At that moment, he knew that Shakyamuni Buddha was the teacher he and his friend had been looking for. Shariputra immediately went to Maudgalyayana and shared with him Ashvajit's verse.

Maudgalyayana also attained the stage of stream-entry and together the two seekers agreed to see Shakyamuni Buddha. But first Shariputra insisted they go to their former teacher Sanjaya and try to convince him to join them. Sanjaya, however, was not willing to relinquish his position as a teacher in order to become the disciple of another. He even tried to convince Shariputra and Maudgalyayana to stay - offering them positions as co-leaders of his own movement.

Shariputra and Maudgalyayana were not interested in mere leadership, they were determined to attain liberation under a true teacher, so they both left and took half of Sanjaya's 500 disciples with them. When Shakyamuni Buddha saw the two friends coming to meet him, he announced to the assembly that these two would become his chief disciples. The Buddha ordained the two as monks at that time. After a week of intensive practice, Maudgalyayana attained the fourth stage of Hinayana enlightenment and became an arhat (a worthy one) who would no longer have to be reborn. After another week had passed, Shariputra also became an arhat while listening to the Buddha preach a sermon to Dighanakha, Shariputra's nephew. It is said that Shariputra took two weeks to attain enlightenment because he needed to think through and examine all the implications and permutations of the Buddha's teachings. Because he did this, he was second only to the Buddha in preaching the Dharma, and several sutras in the Tripitika are actually taught by Shariputra with the full approval of the Buddha.

Shariputra was known as the one who had the best knowledge of the Dharma in terms of analysis and systematization. According to tradition, the Buddha taught the Dharma in detail to his mother Queen Maya in the Heaven of the Thirty-three Gods over a period of three months. Each day, the Buddha would explain to Shariputra what he had taught in there, and this transmission became the basis for the Abhidharma, the systematic explanation of the Buddha's teachings. Because the Mahayana sutras base themselves on the doctrine of emptiness, rather than the systematic philosophy of the Abhidharma, Shariputra is often the focus of criticism and ridicule in many Mahayana sutras. The point is that an analytical understanding of the Dharma as represented by Shariputra is inferior to the bodhisattva's intuitive insight into the empty nature of all phenomena. However, as one can see from the story of Shariputra's introduction to the Dharma, this may not be entirely fair to the actual Shariputra of the earlier teachings who seems to have been a very intuitive person and not just a dry intellectual.

Nevertheless, in the Mahayana canon he did come to represent a certain type - a humorless monk whose understanding of the Dharma was too literal and naive. He is portrayed as someone who takes himself and his status as a monk too seriously. He is often presented as a male chauvinist as well. Finally, he is made to represent those whose spiritual concern is limited to their own liberation.

The picture of Shariputra that emerges from the Pali Canon is very different. In the Pali Canon, Shariputra is the right hand man of the Buddha who assists him in teaching the Dharma up until the very end of his life. He is even known as the "regent of the Dharma" due to his role as the Buddha's principal teaching assistant. He is compassionate, helpful, and solicitous of the welfare of the other disciples. He is also given responsibility for the administration and material well-being of the Sangha. He has great facility in abiding in the highest stages of meditative absorption (the dhyanas) including the ability to "abide in emptiness." Contrary to the Mahayana sutras, Shariputra almost seems to be the prototype of the Zen Master: a master of meditation, a compassionate teacher, and one who can abide in emptiness at will. In the Pali Canon, the Buddha himself holds up Shariputra and Maudgalyayana as models for all the disciples.

One of the most important events in the life of the early Sangha was the schism created by Devadatta. Devadatta had convinced 500 newly ordained monks to follow him instead of Shakyamuni Buddha. Out of compassion for those 500 monks, the Buddha sent Shariputra and Maudgalyayana to visit them. Devadatta was eager to have these two revered disciples join his group and so he invited them to join him and even preach to the 500 while he rested. Devadatta's overconfidence was his undoing however, for Shariputra and Maudgalyayana taught the true Dharma which the monks had not heard before and convinced them to return to Shakyamuni Buddha. Devadatta awakened to discover that all his followers had left him.

In the last year of the Buddha's life, Shariputra returned to his home in the village of Nalaka. He returned because his mother had not yet taken refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha and yet he knew that she had the potential to attain the state of stream-entry. So he returned home in order to try one last time to awaken that potential.

Upon returning home, he fell ill with dysentery and all the gods visited him on his death-bed. Witnessing this, his mother realized that the gods that she worshipped in turn payed their respects to her son Shariputra because he had attained liberation. At that time she asked Shariputra to tell her about the Buddha and to explain the Dharma to her. Finally she was able to open her mind and attain the state of stream-entry by taking refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. Shortly after that, Shariputra summoned the monks who had accompanied him and asked forgiveness for anything he might have done to upset them. He then entered into the highest stages of meditative attainment and passed away.

In the Lotus Sutra, it is Shariputra who the Buddha first addresses when he emerges from the Samadhi of Innumerable Meanings at the very start of chapter two. He tells Shariputra that the wisdom of the Buddhas is profound and immeasurable and beyond the capabilities of the Shravakas - of whom Shariputra was the chief representative. Three times Shariputra enthusiastically requests the Buddha to teach this great wisdom. Finally, the Buddha teaches the one great purpose for which the Buddha's appear in the word. The Buddha teaches the One Vehicle, by which he reveals that he only teaches bodhisattvas and so by implication even Shariputra and all the other disciples are actually bodhisattvas who will be able to attain buddhahood. In chapter three, Shariptura is the first to understand the import of this teaching and the sutra says that he felt like dancing for joy. Shariputra then reveals that all along he had wanted to be a bodhisattva and now he is very happy to learn that he too will attain buddhahood. Shakyamuni Buddha then explains that Shariputra has aspired to enlightenment in a previous existence but had forgotten. Now, upon hearing the Lotus Sutra, he was able to return to that original vow. So in a sense, Shariputra had actually been a bodhisattva all along without realizing it. Shakyamuni Buddha then predicts Shariputra's future buddhahood; announcing that in the future he will become Flower-Light Tathagata in the world Free-From-Taint. He also explains that even someone as wise as Shariputra can only understand the Lotus Sutra through faith. Shariputra then recedes into the background until he reappears in the latter half of chapter 12. In that chapter, Shariputra appears once more as the male chauvinist monk who can not believe that the eight year old dragon girl can attain enlightenment. Shariputra is proved wrong and unlike his earlier joyful reception of the Dharma the sutra states that he "received the Dharma faithfully and in silence." (Lotus Sutra, p. 202). Chapters 22 and 28 mention that Shariputra and the other monks had great joy upon hearing the teaching of the Lotus Sutra.

Icon: A monk with a long handled fan.

Namu Dai Kasho Sonja

The Venerable Mahakashyapa

Mahakashyapa grew up in a brahmin family near Rajagriha, the capital of the kingdom of Magadha. His father was very wealthy and owned a large estate encompassing sixteen villages. Despite growing up in luxury (or perhaps because of it) Mahakashyapa wished to renounce the world and live a simple life in search of enlightenment. His parents insisted that he marry and he reluctantly agreed. However, he commissioned an artist to caste a golden statue based on his idea of what a perfectly beautiful woman should look like. He demanded that the woman his parents chose to be his wife should look exactly like the statue. Of course, he never imagined they would find a woman to match the statue but much to his dismay they succeeded. The woman, Bhadra Kapilani, also wished to leave the home life. In fact, they had deep karmic affinities for each other due to having spent many past lives together perfecting virtue and seeking enlightenment. They ended up being a good match for each other due to their shared aspirations. Not long after Mahakashyapa's parent's passed away and he inherited their estate, the couple agreed that the time had finally come when they could both leave the home life and take to the road as homeless wanderers seeking enlightenment. So that it would not cause a scandal, they both agreed to part company and take different roads.

Bhadra Kapilani ended up going to Shravasti, the capital of the kingdom of Kaushali. There she stayed with an order of non-Buddhists nuns near the Jetavana monastery until the Buddha agreed to initiate an order of nuns at the urging of Ananda on behalf of Yashodhara, the Buddha's former wife, and Mahaprajapati, the Buddha's aunt and foster mother. Bhadra Kapilani soon attained the stage of arhat and freed herself from the bonds of birth and death. She became known as the foremost among the nuns for recalling her past lives, many of which were spent as the wife of Mahakashyapa in his previous lives. Bhadra Kapilani was also know for her patience and compassion, and was a popular teacher of the Dharma.

Mahakashyapa ended up meeting the Buddha on the road. The Buddha was sitting beneath a banyan tree emitting rays of light, and Mahakashyapa saw this and recognized all the signs and marks of a great man on him. He immediately went up to the Buddha and declared that he would be his disciple. The Buddha responded by saying that any unenlightened person who tried to explain enlightenment in the presence of someone as perceptive and sincere as Mahakashyapa would have their head split into seven pieces. The Buddha then gave him a brief teaching and accepted him as a disciple. At that time, Mahakashyapa folded his outer robe and gave it to the Buddha to use as a seat. The Buddha remarked upon the softness of the robe and Mahakashyapa immediately asked the Buddha to keep it. In return, Shakyamuni Buddha offered his own ragged robe which had come from a cremation ground. Mahakashyapa joyfully accepted. This was the only time that Shakyamuni Buddha ever exchanged robes with a disciple.

From that time on Mahakashyapa took up the dhuta, the various ascetic disciplines sanctioned by the Buddha for those who wished to strengthen their self-discipline and live as simply as possible. These disciplines included using only cast-off rags instead of accepting donated robes, eating only by begging door-to-door instead of accepting invitations to dinner, eating only once a day, only sleeping outdoors, and other such practices which were austere but not harmful in sub-tropical India. Mahakashyapa even became known as the foremost in ascetic discipline.

Mahakashyapa and many other monks were on the way to Kushinagara when the Buddha passed away. Mahakashyapa and the arhats were not upset, but many of the unenlightened monks were overcome with grief. One monk, however, was actually happy because he assumed that they would now be able to do as they pleased since the Buddha had passed away. Mahakashyapa and the monks continued to Kushinagara where they paid homage to the Buddha one last time. After Mahakashyapa finished paying homage, the funeral pyre spontaneously burst into flames.

After the funeral, Mahakashyapa gathered and presided over the first Buddhist council in order to preserve the Dharma and the Vinaya. The council consisted of 500 arhats. At the council, Ananda recited the sutras while Upali recited the Vinaya.

In China in the late 5th century a writing called A History of the Transmission of the Dharma Treasury appeared. It was allegedly a translation from a Sanskrit original, but this has never been proven. In that writing, a lineage of Buddhist patriarchs is given beginning with Mahakashyapa continuing with Ananda and ending with Aryasimha, the twenty-fourth patriarch. This list appears in the preface to Chih-i's The Great Calming and Contemplation (Jap. Maka Shikan) and became a part of the T'ien-t'ai tradition. In this system, the lineage ends with Aryasimha. This later became the basis for the legendary Zen lineage of 28 Indian patriarchs which extended to four more Indian patriarchs of which Bodhidharma was the last. It was Bodhidharma who allegedly transmitted the Zen teaching in China. Eventually the legend of the transmission of the Dharma from Shakyamuni Buddha to Mahakashyapa actually became one of the more famous Zen koans:

"Once, in ancient times, when the World-Honored One was at Mount Grdhrakuta, he twirled a flower before his assembled disciples. All were silent. Only Mahakashyapa broke into a smile.

"The World-Honored One said, 'I have the eye treasury of right Dharma, the subtle mind of nirvana, the true form of no-form, and the flawless gate of the teaching. It is a special transmission outside tradition. I now entrust this to Mahakashyapa.'" (The Gateless Barrier, p. 46)

In the Lotus Sutra, Mahakashyapa, along with Subhuti, Katyayana, and Maudgalyayana all express their joy at hearing the teaching of the One Vehicle in chapter four. These four disciples then tell the Buddhist version of the parable of the prodigal son in that same chapter. In chapter five, the Buddha addresses the parable of the herbs to specifically to these four. In chapter six, the Buddha predicts the future buddhahood of these four disciples beginning with Mahakashyapa, who he announces will become Light Tathagata of the world Light-Virtue.

Icon: A monk leaning on a begging staff.

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.

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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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