Hello my name is

Dōgen admonished his monks not to go back to their hometowns. “The old women,” he told them, “will call you by your childhood name.” In a week, I’ll visit my hometown for the first time in three and a half years, so this advice has been on my mind.

Dharma names are a tricky part of Zen. In my experience, most people are very excited to receive one, and once they do, they have no idea what to do with it. That uncertainty might be the whole point.

I received the name Kōun (幸雲) as part of my ordination ceremony. My teacher handed me a folded piece of paper, and I, kneeling before him, opened it, read it, and tried not to look disappointed. First, it means “happy cloud” — lots of people get names like “iron dragon,” or “compassion dragon,” or, well, anything with “dragon.” Happy Cloud is not exactly a power name. Second, I knew immediately that no one would be able to pronounce it. I get called a lot of things in the US, even by people to whom I’ve introduced myself: Koan is probably the favorite, followed by a more-than-occasional Koon. The best description I’ve found, over the years, is to say it’s like the “cone” in “ice cream cone,” but you have to stretch it out a little, like you’re from Mississippi.

In my case, my teacher didn’t put a lot of thought into the meaning of it. He took the kō from his own name, Kōsoku, and the un from the full name of his temple, Kiunzan Ganzōji. There’s a lot of talk about how a dharma name contains qualities to which you should aspire, or sometimes it’s a description of where you are, or maybe it’s a kind of personal koan. But my teacher’s approach was more like branding a cow. Koun means, “This is my boy.” That’s a fairly traditional way of doing it, though I think teachers tend to be a bit more poetic about it outside Japan. It’s not at all uncommon for teachers to take one character from their own name and include it in the names of all their disciples. Some people think that seems arrogant; others don’t give it a second thought. I think my teacher’s main reason for choosing the particular combination of characters he did — don’t get me started on how many cool names could have been made between his name and the temple name — was that 幸雲 is a perfect homonym for 幸運, which is a common word for “good fortune.” And that just seemed nice.

Kōun is not my first Dharma name. Twenty years ago, a teacher in the Thich Nhat Hanh lineage named me “Source of Strength.” A few years after that, I received the precepts in Japan for the first time and was named Tōshin (透眞, penetrating truth). I never gave either much thought, and to my memory, no one ever asked me about them. They were invisible footnotes in my story. (I’m sometimes asked if it’s acceptable to receive the precepts more than once, or from different teachers. Yes, absolutely yes. If we’re really following the tradition, we renew the precepts monthly; and receiving the precepts from a teacher is a great way to establish a connection with him or her. Most teachers, if they know you already have a Dharma name, will not try to give you a new one, but most will also grant you a new one if that’s your wish.)

Even after being ordained, I couldn’t find it in myself to introduce myself as Kōun. I shaved my head from that point on, but I had no idea what I had done or what it all meant. I was a priest, but only on paper, only to a few people who knew. In the year following the ceremony, I sat with a group in Seattle, and no one ever knew I was ordained. I actually told a few of them, but I could see they didn’t think I understood what I was saying — they probably assumed I’d received lay ordination and was calling it “ordination,” that I had an inflated sense of it. I saw that reaction, but I wasn’t about to press the point. What would it have meant for me, with no outward signs (but one) of the priesthood, to insist to someone, “No, I really am a priest.” I wasn’t at all sure that I was one myself.

It wasn’t until I entered the monastery that I embraced being Kōun. While in training, of course, there was no choice — in that context, your Dharma name is your only name. But more importantly, in that context, there is only the function of being a monk. I knew, by the time I left the monastery, that part of becoming that function was adopting those outward signs. I had my name legally changed after I got to Alaska. …There are pages to be written about the various nuances of “ordained” and “lay,” but I think that distinction might come down to this: the priesthood is a public role. Spiritual responsibility of ordained and lay are the same; the vows are the same; zazen is the same. But the decision to ordain as a priest is an agreement to let the world watch you stumble through the practice, to keep those windows open all the time. It’s also an agreement to work, in that public role, to create a space of practice for others. And part of that space is a priest who does not apologize for being a priest, even if he thinks he’s a complete failure at it.

It’s difficult to tell, from this distance, how Dharma names are used in the US. I know of some priests who publicly go by their Dharma names, but I don’t know what they call themselves around friends and family. It seems that the most common approach is to use both one’s given name and the Dharma name together, as in Bob “Tetsuryu” Jones. And then there are priests who don’t use their Dharma name at all. That, to me, is unfortunate.

I encourage laypeople to go by their Dharma names in practice spaces (at the Zen center, or at sesshin), and to go by their given names everywhere else; I encourage priests to go by Dharma names all the time. Names confound us in ways that perfectly suit this practice.

When we get a new name, we think “Oh boy!” and we cling to it, whether we use it around others or not. We contract around it. We imagine that we got something special, and we obsess over the meaning and why that particular name was chosen for us by this particular person. It all seems so personal. But it’s not.

It’s not that you get a new name — it’s that the rug is pulled out from your old one. Nothing has been replaced, only lost. A name is a powerful thing. If your name is Susan, you’re probably always been Susan. That name is one of the first words you heard, one of the first words you learned to identify with a signifier. You most likely cannot imagine not being Susan. You know where Susan went to high school, who her best friends are, what she likes and what she avoids. You know Susan’s favorite color. You know how she walks, what flavor ice cream she always chooses. There’s a good chance that you know what Susan wants.

But if Susan is given the name Daiji, and if she uses it, suddenly there’s a disconnect. It’s jarring to be called by another name, especially when that name is attached to a particular practice, a specific way of being. Susan might always get mint chocolate chip, but Daiji doesn’t know what to order. Daiji and Susan are not really from the same place; they have a shared history, but Daiji’s is very short, very fresh in comparison (some priests celebrate their ordination day as their birthday — by that system, I’m a much younger man, with a much broader future). Daiji is all possibility. Specifically, Susan does not know how to live the precepts, how to fulfill vow. But that’s OK, because Daiji is the one who took on that responsibility, who was entrusted with saving all beings and cutting through all delusion. Daiji, if we’re lucky, might just see a way.

Again — Daiji did not replace Susan. But trying to authentically be Daiji makes it clear that Susan is not just Susan. Susan, too, is a story. This is transcendence — being Susan and Daiji, but also both, and neither. It doesn’t matter what “Daiji” means, not really. More often than not, that meaning is just an excuse to limit this new identity, to decide ahead of time what this new person is really all about. This is not about becoming your best self — that’s a fallacy. Nor is it about embodying a concept (like “great compassion”) that someone else has assigned to you (trying to be a happy cloud, for me, is not a useful exercise). It’s about moving beyond being this person or that person, about expanding beyond what any one individual can aspire to.

Offering yourself can only be a truly generous act if you first let go of your limited idea of that self. If you can’t do that — if you can only offer up who you think you know you are — then it’s a very small gift indeed.

This tradition offers up all sorts of opportunities for this. We first receive a new name when we receive the precepts; in some cases, it might happen again under a different preceptor. At ordination, we once again can receive a new name (though not all do). Some receive two names at ordination (functioning like a first and last name), but in many lineages, the second name (the last name) is not given to the student until the time of transmission. I see a lot of people in the US publicly using both names, but that isn’t a traditional approach. That second name, historically, is used only on very specific documents, mostly having to do with transmission of one kind or another. It’s almost a secret name. I love this because it means that at these critical moments when the teacher really needs to be fully present, to really empty her cup, she has this support, this other name that she uses so infrequently that she will probably never really get comfortable with it in her lifetime. It’s a way to pull the rug out from oneself when that is most needed.

Dōgen knew how much we need that fresh start, how valuable it is to simultaneously reinvent and deconstruct yourself in the name of serving others. He also knew that it was hard.  It’s basic human behavior to regress a little around our parents, no matter how old we or they are. It’s natural, walking the streets of one’s hometown after a long absence, to fall into the thought patterns of your high school self. These are the forces that define us, that defined us. So he warned his monks, and he was right. When I go home, it’s all too easy to slip into that skin, to inhabit the mind of the person I used to think I knew so well. The old women shout out my name, and I hear it as if I’ve never responded to anything else. It’s a reunion with my story about myself–“Wow,” I think, “you haven’t changed a bit.”

I will have the honor of sitting with the Open Circle Sangha in Helena, MT, on August 12, 19, and 26, 8:30-10am; I’ve generously been invited to speak on each of those days. I don’t know if any readers of this blog live in the area, but all are very welcome to attend. It would be a pleasure to meet you.