|Me and Ajahn Thiradhammo|
after my Buddhist naming ceremony
On Friday I received a Buddhist name, Jagaro, by having a little ceremony with Ajahn Thiradhammo, the Abbott of the NZ monastery. The name means “One who is awake and mindful”. I’ve been Buddhist for 14 odd years and in my early years I briefly considered taking on a Buddhist name but never really pursued it. Then when my son was born Ajahn Thiradhammo came over to Sydney so we had a blessing ceremony for him. He was given the Buddhist name of Sukhacittomeaning ”One who has a happy mindful heart” as this signified my son’s personality. It suddenly struck me that it was something I wanted to do, take on a name that signified my life – especially considering I’d be Buddhist for one third of my life (most of my adulthood). We discussed it at this blessing ceremony but time was short and we needed more time research names. We agreed to discuss it later.
Over the last year or so at times I thought about this but without knowing enough about Buddhist Pali names or what the proper process it was hard to come to any conclusions. Then a few weeks ago my teacher mentioned Ajahn Thiradhammo was coming over again. I knew this was my opportunity to go through the process and take on a Buddhist name. I felt I wanted to make it official by having the Ajahn do a ceremony for me. With that decision made I set about thinking about names and researching.
So on Friday I spent the day with Ajahn Thiradhammo (see A Day with Ajahn Thiradhammo). During the day we discussed possible names for me and then later we picked one and went through a ceremony to certify the event. But how did I arrive at this decision? What is the relevance of taking a Buddhist name? How is it used? In what situations do I used it? It is this I want to cover here because I think it’s interesting to know about it and it may help you understand if you want to do the same. Obviously a lot of what I write below is based on what I’ve discovered over the past year about Buddhist names in the Thai Forest Tradition and may not be completely accurate for other Buddhist traditions but will give you a decent understanding if this is something you want to do.
Why Take on Buddhist Name?
You can take on a Buddhist name for many personal reasons, and for most people their own reason will be different to the next person. Typically you take on a Buddhist name to show that you are dedicated to the Three Refuges (Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha) and that you are committed to the 5 precepts. In simple terms that means you are committed to leaving a life based on the Buddhist teachings – a life of virtue, honesty, compassion and dedicated to your own development as a person as well as the welfare of others. For me it was my way of affirming what I feel in my heart, the way my life is and what I’m committed to.
Do I Have To Take on a Buddhist Name?
Really it’s up to you, it is a personal choice and when you are ready you can. There is no-one saying you should or you must. This is why I hadn’t taken one on for 14 years. Really it doesn’t matter if you do or don’t, but if you are committed to the practice of Buddhism then it is a nice thing to do. For me it made me feel a sense of connection to this way of life, which made me feel at peace.
What is a Buddhist Name?
Buddhist names vary across different traditions and the name will typically be based on the language of the Buddhist tradition you follow. Zen Buddhists will often have Japanese names, Tibetan Buddhists will have Tibetan names and so on. Me being affiliated with the Thai Forest Tradition, their names are based on the Pali language, the language the Buddhist canons are written in. The names are usually a word or combination of words that have a particular meaning.
So some Thai examples that you may know – Brahmavamso, Sujato, Thiradhammo, Sumedho, Boowa and my teachers name was Javano. There are usually then prefixed with a title of some kind depending on the person’s rank, experience or heritage -Ajahn Brahmavamso, Bhante Sujato, Luang Por Sumedho, Acariya Maha Boowa etc. These are obviously monastic titles which lay people don’t use – lay people just use the Buddhist name without title.
How is a Name Chosen?
Typically there are two main ways a name is chosen. Traditionally a teacher would choose a name for you, either when you ordain as a monastic or when you ask to be given one as a lay person. Alternatively you can choose one yourself if you have a particular affiliation to a name. Sometimes a monk may be given a name and later change it to something they prefer. So, really there is no set rules here. As with anything in Buddhism, people accept whatever way it goes. Some people prefer the selflessness of being given a name, other people prefer to pick their own. It doesn’t really matter.
How is the Meaning to a Name Chosen?
I asked around a bit about this with various people, monks and nuns and there seems to be general two ways the meaning is derived; either it describes your nature or it describes something that you spiritually can aspire too. I’m sure there are other reasons but these seem to be the main two. There is nothing stopping you picking a name simply because you like the sound of it or what it means. It really is up to you or your teacher. I like my name Jagaro because I felt it captured both meanings; an aspect of my nature and something to aspire to. This double meaning appealed to me.
The Specifics of the Picking a Name
Something I didn’t know until I asked is that in the Thai Forest Tradition, typically the name chosen start with a particular letter depending on what day of the week you were born. Again, this doesn’t have to be this way if you prefer a name with a different starting letter, it is just a convention.
I had to go and look this up, I was born on a Tuesday. For me this meant I could have either a C, CH, J, JH or Ñ (pronounced like NY). I personally liked the J and JH sounds, hence why I ended up with Jagaro. You can use a simple website like this one to work what day you were born on. Obviously watch out for different time zones, the wrong time zone could give you the wrong day depending on what country you were actually born in.
I tried looking for online resources to find the first letter of a Pali name based on the day of week but I couldn’t find one. My teacher had it penciled into a handwritten notebook he had from his monastic days. When I asked him about it today he said he got it from a Thai book when he was a monk and it’s usually something monks know, so you may need to ask your teacher about this.
Once you have the first letters you can start to search for names using an English-to-Pali dictionary. The best one I found was this website, it does both ways Pali-to-English and English-to-Pali and has really good translations. I found it very helpful in trying to find a relevant name and meaning.
How Did I Chose My Name?
Jagaro I found by chance about 2 weeks ago when I was staying at Santi Forest Monastery. I was sitting with several others and we were discussing Buddhist names and we pulled out a Pali-English dictionary. I was flicking through “J” names and decided to look up my teachers Buddhist name, Javano (which means quick learning/realization). Then just 5 words down was Jagara. I immediately like the sound of it, the simplicity of it and the meaning of it “Awake, mindful, watchful”. It kind of stuck with me and I liked that I found it by chance, which to me felt like it was given to me by life itself rather than me choosing it. What better way is there to find a name then by life finding it for you? Perfect!
When speaking with Ajahn Thiradhammo yesterday he came up with another name for me of, Jotipanyo, which means “One with radiant wisdom” which he felt described me after reading my blog. I thought that was a very kind thing to say. I really liked the name and then felt torn between that and Jagaro. However later in the day I found myself struggling to remember, was it Joti-something? I thought if can’t remember it others would struggle with it too. It was a shame because I really like Ajahn’s suggestion. So, I eventually decided on Jagaro because it was simpler and easier to remember, and it seemed life has chosen this for me.
There is a bit of history behind my Buddhist name. I found out Ajahn Jagaro was the Abbott who founded the Bodhinyana Monasteryin Perth Western Australia before Ajahn Brahmavamso, the current Abbott, took over managing it.
How Do You Use Your New Name?
This is probably one of the things I was most interested in understanding. Once I took the name was I suppose to replace my English name with that? I couldn’t see that working in my work context where I have a pretty high profile job. Interestingly, like everything else in Buddhism, it is up to you how much you want to use your name and in reality its use varies across Buddhist traditions. Even within the Thai Forest Tradition the use of a Buddhist names varies for monastics depending on the monastery. In some areas the monks will still use their normal name and then will use their Buddhist name in formal situations, like meetings or in their writings. For monastics however it’s most common to replace your name in total with your Buddhist name. In other countries, such as Thailand where Buddhism is more pervasive and accepted, lay people also take on their Buddhist name as their new name as well.
For lay people however the use of the name is optional and again comes down to personal choice. Amongst (western) lay people it seems common to use a Buddhist name in your Buddhist circles and to use your normal name for the rest of your life situations. For example, when going to meditation group or being around the Sangha people call you by your Buddhist name, or when writing on the web. Conversely at work and with your friends who aren’t Buddhist they just call you by your normal name. It’s entirely up to you. Using the name however is a good reminder of your dedication to the Buddhist path of practice and the 5 precepts.
The other alternative I’ve seen for lay people is to use the Buddhist name as a middle name in a formal context or in writing. I think this is what I’ll most likely do as well as be called in Buddhist environments. An example that comes to mind is Charlotte ‘Joko’ Beck who is an Zen teacher and author. In my writings it allows people to know my real name and also my Buddhist name and they can choose to call me either. So really, the extent of the use of your Buddhist name is up to you.
The Ceremony – Making it Official
Once you’ve decided on a name you can then go through a small ceremony to officiate it. It isn’t officially recorded anywhere, the official aspect is really the ceremony that cements it in your heart. What I talk about here is the Thai Forest Tradition, the ceremony may differ in other traditions but I assume it would probably follow similar principles. This is usually done by going through a small chanting process that lasts only about 4-5 minutes where you officially ask to take The Three Refuges (refuge in the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha) and by taking the 5 precepts. The whole chanting process can be seen in this link.
Sometimes during the ceremony a long piece of cotton is passed around the room and each person holds it during the chanting. I didn’t for mine, but we did for my sons blessing. This signifies the connection between everyone (the Sangha) and that which binds us. After this a little piece of the cotton string is cut off and tied around your right wrist which you keep on there for as long as you choose or as long as it stays on there (you can see this around my wrist in the above picture). This string process is very common in ceremonies including Buddhist weddings etc. When my son was blessed and named his piece of string stayed on his wrist for a month or two, until his wrist got too fat through baby growth that we had to cut it off!
|My copy of the Dharmmapada that has|
my name written in it and the date of the ceremony
One thing I didn’t know which I learnt at the time is that it’s customary to write your new Buddhist name and date down somewhere to record it. It’s nothing official but commemorates the ceremony for you. It could be a card or piece of paper. My teacher grabbed a copy of the Dhammapada and we wrote my name in the front of it which was then given to me as a gift.
Considering I’ve been Buddhist for such a long time, to me doing the ceremony was a very significant and important thing and I felt quite humbled by it. It was also special to me to have Ajahn Thiradhammo do this ceremony considering I feel a connection with him and to have my teacher present at it as well. It also felt to me like it was cementing in me the Buddha’s teaching and the importance of holding the 5 precepts.
Taking a Buddhist name is a nice thing to do if you find you feel affiliated to the Buddhist teaching. Typically taking the name means you also take on the Three Refuges (refuge in the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha) and you take the 5 precepts. This is more-so about a commitment within yourself to lead a wholesome life. This naming process can be done whenever you feel like (it took me 14 years!) and no-one judges you if you have or haven’t taken on a Buddhist name. The choice of your name, the use of your name, and how widely used it is, is also up to you. If you feel a connection with Buddhism then I hope writing about this has helped you understand it better and whether you’d also like to take on a Buddhist name.
While what I’ve written about here is the ceremony and process of taking a Thai Forest Buddhist name I’d be interested to hear your comments and what is customary in your Buddhist tradition. It would be interesting to hear what your name is and how you came about it, what process you went through.