Home » Features » A Buddhist By Any Other Name Is Just As Buddhist?

Paradoxically,
names help us to differentiate,
as much as to associate.

~ Stonepeace

When we were born into this worldly life, we are given worldly names (though they can be spiritual in nature too). When we decide to become Buddhists and have taken the Threefold Refuge, Dharma names inspired by the Buddha’s teachings are given. It is as if we are reborn into a spiritual life, which is what they serve to remind us of – of our new lease of life to live up to. It can be used for all occasions… perhaps other than when one’s legal name has to be used for official documentation. (You can register your Dharma name as an alias for your identification documents though.) A friend was given the ‘Christian’ name ‘Patrick’ (not his real name) when young, which he liked a lot, till he became aware of ethnic pride as a Chinese. Now that Patrick is a practising Buddhist, his name felt even more incongruent. He was wondering if he should change to his Dharma name for everyday use.

If Patrick was born in the West, would he be obliged to be pro-West? Ethnic pride is really relative. It’s wiser to not cling to any ethnicity, and just learn the worthy from each. Will those who know ‘Patrick’ might find it incongruent to call him by another name? A joke comes to mind… Two prehistoric men were naming animals when they came across a fish. The first says, ‘Let’s call this a fish!’ The other asks why and the first replies, ‘Because he looks like a fish!’ Patrick’s friends probably feel he is ‘Patrick-ish’, due to associating him with his name over time. Would calling him by another name be as awkward as calling a fish something else? It’s true, as Shakespeare put it, ‘that which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet’, but old and new names have ‘smells’ in themselves too, as perceived differently by each.

If Patrick doesn’t feel averse towards using ‘Patrick’, it might be better for him to continue using it, but it’s really up to him of course, as it’s a good idea too, to get others to remind him of the new spiritual life he is to live up to when they call by calling him his Dharma name. Names have power embedded in them due to the workings of meaning and perception. (Think the ubiquitous ‘Amituofo; Amitabha Buddha’ for example.) What we feel is best for us might not be so for another. For me, I would use the name that strikes a balance of comfort for others, with the ability to link them to the Dharma as a conversation starter. This might be difficult if very ‘worldly’ given names have been in use for a while already. Thankfully, my given name is often mistaken as a Dharma name. Anyway, as the ‘Patrick’ that I know is a devout Buddhist, to me, it is already his Dharma name! (Patrick decided to ask his family and new acquaintances to address him by his Dharma name. It’s a Middle Path solution!)

When we are mindful of the Buddha’s name,
there is no need to name any inner demons then.
[Mindfulness of Buddha keeps demons at bay.]

~ Stonepeace

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3 Responses to “A Buddhist By Any Other Name Is Just As Buddhist?”

  1. Rob Englert March 24, 2011

    If there is no self and everything is empty, then isn’t a name just
    another form of attachment. Ethnicity shouldn’t matter if we
    try to see ourseves as we really are.

  2. Yesplease March 24, 2011

    Hi Rob, we’ll still need to address you as so for practical purposes of social convention and identification. That’s why names are needed. And if so, a good name is always better than a less meaningful one. There might be some attachment involved but not necessarily so.

  3. If the human mind thinks there is a meaning to something, then it will mean something. If the human mind thinks there is no meaning to it, then it will mean nothing. If we always practice the dharma and buddha’s teaching, even if we do not have a dharma name, people will associate us with the dharma and the compassion in buddhism. However, if we do not practice the dharma and buddha’s teaching, even if we have a dharma name, people will not be able to associate our dharma name with anything of good meaning. I hope that buddhists can use not just their dharma names to give good meaning to sentient beings…but also let sentient beings see the dharma in actions through their practice of buddha’s teaching in real life situations…so that the compassion in buddhism can be spread to everyone. Amituofo

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