Question: What is the significance of receiving a Dharma name (法名) upon taking Threefold Refuge (三皈依) in the Triple Gem (三宝)?
Answer: One receives a secular name (俗名) upon birth, that marks the beginning of one’s worldly life and identity. As a parallel, one receives a Dharma name upon taking of refuge, that marks the beginning of one’s spiritual (wisdom) life (慧命) and identity as a Buddhist, which is more important in the long run.
Just as secular names are used among worldly friends and on worldly occasions, Dharma names are used among Buddhist friends and on Buddhist occasions, although this is not a must. For monastics, as they are supposed to renounce their worldly lives totally, they should only use their Dharma names.
Dharma names remind us to stay motivated, ‘to have all evils not done (诸恶莫作), to have all good practised (众善奉行), and to personally purify one’s mind (自净其意)’, thus practising what ‘are all Buddhas’ teachings (是诸佛教)’.