The provisional bodhisattvas are not granted the most difficult and crucial mission of spreading the Lotus Sutra in the Latter Age of the Dharma because they represent the theoretical teaching of the Lotus Sutra. … The Bodhisattvas of the Earth, however, represent the essential teaching of the Lotus Sutra. The essential teaching shows that buddhahood is immediate, without beginning or end, and ever-present in the lives of those who have faith in the Eternal Shakyamuni Buddha.Lotus World: An Illustrated Guide to the Gohonzon
In the Lotus Sutra, … bodhisattvas come from ideal worlds to hear the Dharma and volunteer to teach the Lotus Sutra in this world after the Buddha’s extinction. They represent those who cultivate the Six Perfections of generosity, discipline, patience, energy, meditation, and wisdom over many lifetimes in order to attain buddhahood. These bodhisattvas also assume that Shakyamuni Buddha only attained enlightenment within his current lifetime, and that his current buddhahood was the culmination of many eons of spiritual cultivation. … So in the context of the Lotus Sutra, these bodhisattvas represent a provisional teaching regarding the relationship between Bodhisattva Practice and buddhahood.
The pre-Mahayana sutras recognize only two bodhisattvas, Siddhartha Gautama before he attained buddhahood as Shakyamuni Buddha and Maitreya Bodhisattva, who resides in the Heaven of Contentment until he appears as the next Buddha in this world. These sutras leave open the possibility that there might be other bodhisattvas, but none are named. The Mahayana sutras, however, make the bodhisattva the primary ideal of Buddhist practice.Lotus World: An Illustrated Guide to the Gohonzon
In the first half of the Lotus Sutra, the “imprinted gate” (Japanese, shakumon), the theoretical teaching of the One Vehicle is taught. This teaching is called theoretical because it teaches that “in theory” all people can become buddhas because all along the Buddha was teaching the One Vehicle that leads to buddhahood. The provisional bodhisattvas, like Maitreya Bodhisattva and Accumulated Wisdom Bodhisattva, represent this principle by providing a model of gradual cultivation to attain buddhahood. For them, bodhisattva practice must precede buddhahood as its cause.
The latter half of the Lotus Sutra, the “original gate,” is the essential teaching of the Eternal Shakyamuni Buddha. The essential teaching reveals that buddhahood has no beginning or end: the cause of buddhahood, bodhisattva practice, is actually simultaneous with the effect, buddhahood in the eternal enlightenment of Shakyamuni Buddha. One enters into this unity of practice and enlightenment through faith in the living actuality of buddhahood already present in the figure of the Eternal Shakyamuni Buddha. This is his teaching, and only his original disciples, the Bodhisattvas of the Earth, are entrusted to propagate such a teaching during the critical time of the Latter Age of the Dharma.Lotus World: An Illustrated Guide to the Gohonzon
In Chapter 21 of the Lotus Sutra, [the Bodhisattvas of the Earth] are given the specific transmission of the Wonderful Dharma of the Lotus Flower Sutra consisting of the teachings, the supernatural powers, the treasury, and the achievements of the Buddha. Therefore, they are responsible for propagating the Lotus Sutra in the Latter Age of the Dharma. Thus, anyone who upholds the Odaimoku in this age is said to be a Bodhisattva of the Earth or, more humbly, one of their followers.Lotus World: An Illustrated Guide to the Gohonzon
Many Treasures Tathagata represents many things. On one level, he represents all the Buddhas of the past, and his testimony shows that Shakyamuni Buddha’s teachings are in accord with the universal truth, valid in all ages and in all worlds. On another level, Shakyamuni Buddha personifies subjective wisdom while Many Treasures Tathagata personifies objective reality. When they share the seat within the Stupa of Treasures they are actually demonstrating the unity of wisdom and reality, subject and object. The emergence of the Stupa of Treasures itself and the testimony of the Many Treasures Tathagata from within it could also indicate the emergence of Buddhahood from within our lives and our own inner recognition of and response to the truth when we hear it.Lotus World: An Illustrated Guide to the Gohonzon
The Eternal Shakyamuni Buddha also displays the three virtues of parent, teacher, and sovereign of all who live in this Saha world. Which is to say, the Eternal Shakyamuni Buddha nourishes, teaches, and protects humanity through the power of the Wonderful Dharma. This is because faith in the Lotus Sutra enables our wisdom to mature, opens our eyes to the truth, and frees us of suffering.Lotus World: An Illustrated Guide to the Gohonzon
The Eternal Shakyamuni Buddha represents the unity of all three bodies (Sanskrit, trikaya) of a Buddha: the universal Dharma-body (Sanskrit, Dhannakaya), the idealized enjoyment-body (Sanskrit, sambhogakaya), and the historical transformation-body (Sanskrit, nirmanakaya). … Only the Eternal Shakyamuni Buddha accompanied by the four leaders of the Bodhisattvas of the Earth represents all three bodies at once, the unity of the universal, ideal, and historical aspects of Buddhahood. All the other Buddhas are merely his emanations or aspects of him. For this reason the Eternal Shakyamuni Buddha is considered to be the Buddha who is most worthy of reverence.Lotus World: An Illustrated Guide to the Gohonzon
This view of Shakyamuni Buddha, specifically in the sixteenth chapter of the Lotus Sutra [as the original and eternal Buddha], is the key to the true nature of enlightenment according to Nichiren Buddhism.
Shinjo Suguro explains that the original and eternal Shakyamuni Buddha provides Buddhism with a united faith:
“In Buddhism, various Buddhas have been established as objects of devotion for different pious believers. Since each Buddha has a good reason for being venerated, Buddhism permits us to worship any or all of them. Nevertheless, the Most-Venerable-One should be One, just as the Truth is One. The second half of the Lotus Sutra (Hammon) emphasizes such a Buddhist position regarding the unity of faith. As the object of faith is absolute, it must relate to the realm of eternity. Generally we think of Shakyamuni as a historical figure, bound by the limitations of time and space, and only a provisional manifestation of the infinite, eternal Buddha. According to the Lotus Sutra, however, every Buddha, including the historical Shakyamuni Buddha, is a representation of the eternal original being of Shakyamuni.”Lotus World: An Illustrated Guide to the Gohonzon
In Nichiren Buddhist Gohonzons, the two Buddhas are shown forming the anjali mudra (Japanese, gassho-in), the hand gesture in which both palms are placed together in front of the heart to indicate an attitude of praise and reverence. This is the same mudra that Nichiren Buddhist practitioners use when chanting the Odaimoku. It is unusual for Buddhas to be shown making this mudra, but in this case it indicates that both Shakyamuni Buddha and Many Treasures Tathagata have come together to praise the Wonderful Dharma of the Lotus Flower Sutra to which they have awakened and to praise the Buddha nature in all sentient beings.Lotus World: An Illustrated Guide to the Gohonzon