Thursday, October 17, 2013

What's In A Name?

In modern Theravada Buddhism there is a tendency to want to give monks aggrandizing names like "Yuttadhammo" (One With Proper Righteousness) or such rot. This was not the case with the Buddha, who, when he did, chose names like "Sariputta" (Son of Sari) or "Moggallana" (Descendant of Moggallana) or even Kundala-kesi (Curly-Haired One). When Ahimsaka (harmless one) ordained, they called him Angulimala (Garland of Fingers), after the epithet he had gained as a mass murderer for cutting off people's fingers and wearing them around his neck - really, that's what the Buddha and other monks called him, Angulimala Thera (Elder Fingergarland).

Most often, however, the Buddha seems to have allowed his students to keep their given names; in the vast majority of cases, that is what happened. Unfortunately, the practice of giving children Pali names seems to have died out with, well, the Pali language. This poses a problem during ordination, when the monks ask the applicant in Pali what his name is, and he's supposed to answer, in Pali. "Ahaṃ bhante Michael nama" just doesn't do the trick. It gets worse when they have to ask the sangha in Pali about him. Hence the need for a Pali name.

So, my line of reasoning is this; my own given name is in honour of some guy who saved a bunch of animals from drowning in a flood and then got drunk and cursed his grandson. He's also supposedly the first meat-eater in the history of mankind. Anyway, the saving the animals thing is cool, so I like the namesake.

I think passing on names of people one admires is a great tradition. I'm not sure if it was employed by the Buddha - probably not, what with his being the pinnacle of achievement and all, but it was most certainly employed by monks in the Theravada tradition in times gone by; hence the multiplicity of Sariputtas and Moggallanas in the history of our tradition (none of whom were, ostensibly, sons or descendants of their respective namesakes except in a monastic sense). So, I do feel justified in the decision to revive some of the great names of the ancient arahants when ordaining students. So far, I've ordained a Nagasena, a Yasa, a Sumedha, and a Sumana. Soon, barring some catastrophe in the next three days, we'll have a Mogharaja to add to the list.

The other part of my reasoning follows the Buddha's tradition of, unsurprisingly, letting new monks keep their old names. The reason I chose the names I have for my students is also due to the (sometimes vague) similarity to their given names: Nagasena was Nicolas, Yasa was Jens, Sumedha was Meredith, Sumana was Mantani, and Mogharaja was/is Michael. Apart from simply butchering their names to fit the Pali (Mayakalo?), this is the closest I could come to the originals. That, and now the word will have a Mogharaja in it again, something which delights me to no end.
Suññato lokaṃ avekkhassu,
Mogharāja sadā sato;
Attānudiṭṭhiṃ ūhacca,
Evaṃ maccutaro siyā;
Evaṃ lokaṃ avekkhantaṃ,
Maccurājā na passatī”ti.
Look upon the world as empty,
Mogharaja, ever mindful;
Having uprooted belief in self,
one may thus go beyond death;
Looking upon the world thus,
The king of death sees you not.
-- Sn 5.16