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.

10 comments on “Hello my name is

  1. As far as I know, among Vinaya monks it is traditional to receive a name that is partly based on the name of the ordination-preceptor.

  2. Thanks for this Koun. This post really speaks to me right now. I received the precepts, along with a dharma name, almost 20 years ago in the lay ordination ceremony.  I’ve never used that name for anything. I remember reading something from Robert Aiken about him thinking that going by one’s dharma name seemed a bit cultish. That perspective resonated (and resonates) with me. Especially the part of me that would like to keep my practice on the down low so as not to seem weird or to make anyone uncomfortable. 

    Now I’ve made the decision to receive the precepts again (and I suppose another dharma name) in the priest ordination ceremony. There are lots and lots of very persistent questions floating around me about why I’m choosing to do this and what it means. The question of what to do with that pesky dharma name is actually a pretty big one. If I decide to use it in a general, public way that sure as hell puts an end to any ‘private practice’ I’ve had, which of course is what I’m choosing in any case.  Making this practice  available to anyone who might be interested in it is my most basic motivation for becoming a priest in the first place.

    The argument I hold on to in favor of not using my dharma name so publicly is that I’d like to avoid any kind of perceived cultishness or otherness acting as a barrier for someone who really wants access to the practice. I think the entry to Buddhism and especially zazen practice should be as simple and natural as possible.

    All of which is to say that I really don’t know how I’ll approach this yet. Your argument is a pretty strong one for doing what makes me a little uncomfortable, and opening myself up to lots of things that feel awkward seems to be my general game plan, at least for now. 

  3. amanda butcher says:

    Thankyou for such a warm invitation! If I lived closer I would be delighted to come…. I hope your ‘home-going’ goes well…

  4. Ewan Magie says:

    Thank you, Koun, for this powerful meditation on Dharma names. As I go forward with my practice and ruminate over which teacher I might take the precepts with (currently practicing with several through the Everyday Zen groups on the West coast), listening to others around me struggle with how to and how not to use Dharma names is fascinating. At this point, having studied the precepts for a few years and taken a form of them in our recent wedding, I feel in no hurry. Practice continues unfolding as I live the precepts in everyday life. At some point, something more formal may unfold, including the possibility of priest ordination. For now, I find myself moved and inspired by your thoughtful, insightful post. And while I wish we might meet in Helena soon, our upcoming trip from Seattle to Glacier will probably find us north of you. Many blessings. Keep writing. Bows, Ewan.

  5. Jiryu Mark says:

    Thanks for the post, “you”. For me it’s interesting how “Daiji” can become the next “Susan”… and then to suddenly be called Susan again is to pull yet another rug. The rug under what seemed like no rug. Having been called Jiryu in the temple now for eight years or so (I, also, didn’t use it after my US ordination until I got used to it in my Japanese training) and now spending more time in “the world” using Mark, it’s newly jarring. Not until this re-engagement in the world did I really notice how deeply I’ve been depending on my hard-won Zen identity, and it’s actually super-refreshing to have it obscured or ignored or undermined. Who am I without my seniority, my ordination, my name? It’s one thing to feel for that in zazen, but I’m enjoying the study of it as I blend in a sea of worldly humans… Just another Mark. Not that there’s no depth behind that Mark, but I’m less sure any more than there’s any more behind this Mark than behind any other Mark, and in a way “Jiryu” can a kind of advertisement for my own depth… Not that it would have to be, but in a subtle way we’re always on that edge as priests and “spiritual people”. Rich topic, thanks for the space to ramble.
    Jiryu Mark (nozeninthewest.com)

  6. Cliff Clusin says:

    I need to dig in to this koan, Koun. I’ve opted to stay with Cliff, I’m just not comfortable with being Jodo; although I really like the meaning Katagiri Roshi told me: “the way of life is found in samadhi; stability of mind like a mountain”. – It could be I am making a big mistake in choosing “being comfortable”.My rationalization is the balance of special and ordinary, and that I am going with ordinary on this one. Offering public sitting and chanting at 6 in the morning and
    wearing my robes for practice (usually) and some others, are special things I hope to never compromise on.

  7. desiree985 says:

    Names are confounding???

  8. Kogen says:

    Great post, Koun. This might explain why I’m terrified to use my dharma name (Kogen- Ko, as in ancient or old, gen, as source, or eye- Ko is my teacher’s first character). I’m currently a lay student living in a temple, on his way to the monastery. I’ve kind of told myself that I won’t go by Kogen until ordination, but practice period is just 2 weeks away and I thought about giving it a tour.

    However, I do use it online, and I started doing that on my blog and in e-mail as to reign in what “Austin” might feel free to express in speech and mind. I think it has helped, too, this container or cage, which some of us just do better in.

    Palms together,

  9. Names are vibrations whose qualities are discernible and unless better refuse any other.

  10. chrissmart says:

    Thanks for this post. I’m currently working on a dharma talk on my dharma name which I was given in 2007. I was given the name Zentei Shogen by my teacher. I studied the precepts, sewed a rakusu and took the bodhisatva vow. A few folks in our local sangha (not monastic) know my name but we don’t use our names. I’ve been sitting with this name in the background without thinking about it too much for 10 years. It is a koan for me. Zen Garden, Iluminating Expression. Or it can be turned in a circle Zen Expression Illuminating garden. We are all in a garden, all needing to be nurtured, rooted at the source. What do we feed our garden, our true nature? Do I shed light on the garden that is the world, that includes everything? How do I express my Buddha nature? Is awareness enough? So many questions. Dharma gates with a name or not are limitless. Beings are numberless, I vow to save them… really? with awareness each moment, the garden going on with or without me. Birth/death. Seeds sprout. harvest abundance. Death is inevitable. Within darkness, light… the cycle turning.

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