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What’s in a Dharma Name?

As part of this month’s exploration of Debt, we’re paying attention to the wholesome debts we owe, including debts to our dharma lineage! Today’s installment: What does it mean to receive a dharma name? How does this connect us with our lineages – both spiritual and political – in new ways?


At the Bodhisattva Precepts ceremony I recently participated in, the 16 participants each accepted the 10 Bodhisattva Precepts and received a dharma name.

In receiving the 10 grave precepts, we joined with millions of other beings who had also committed to practicing with these principles. Do not cause harm; do not speak ill of others; take care with powerful energies of sex and intoxicants.

Yet in receiving a dharma name, we also were receiving a very personalized practice, a connection to a more narrow lineage of people who have shared this name.

A dharma name gives me no special powers. There’s no secret handshake involved that gets me into the secret club of Buddhists with fancy names. A dharma name is just another opportunity for practice, a way to enter study of the dharma, an aspiration to incline toward.

Our teacher Mushim Ikeda and the preceptor, the most Venerable Suhita Dharma, spent hours selecting names for the 16 people who participated in the ceremony. Many were rooted in happiness and spiritual friendliness, related to the Buddha’s cousin and attendant Ananda – names like Mettananda (happily bringing loving kindness), Upayananda (happily applying skillful means in daily life), Lokananda (bringing happiness to the earth).

Happiness in the Dharma

My given dharma name – Dhammadina – also is rooted in happiness, a happiness in the dharma. The name has both this meaning in the Pali language, and is also historically significant.

A Buddhist nun watches a Kalachakra ritual dance during the Kalachakra Buddhist festival, in the town of Bodh Gaya, believed to be the place where Buddha attained enlightenment, Bihar, India, Saturday, Jan. 7, 2012. (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)

Dhammadina was an enlightened being who lived at the time of the Buddha. She left a life of riches with her millionaire husband to seek the true happiness the Buddha offered. She was about 35 when she joined the Order of Bhikkunis (I just turned 36 last month!), a few years younger than the Buddha who was 40. She was a woman who achieved full enlightenment, praised by the Buddha as the foremost teacher among nuns.

In the Culavedalla Sutta (one I hadn’t heard of until I had the occasion to study up on Dhammadina!), Dhammadina’s former husband asks her a series of questions about the nature of ego identity and how it leads to the clinging of suffering:

Which self-identification is described by the Blessed One?
Which origination of self-identification is described by the Blessed one?
Which cessation of self-identification is described by the Blessed One?
Which way of practice leading to the cessation of self-identification is described by the Blessed One?

You might recognize in these the Four Noble Truths, specific to the suffering of self-identification.

I have many years of study ahead to understand her answers! However at first read, I find it especially interesting to receive a dharma name with a backstory that focuses on non-identification with the ego. Of the three characteristics (suffering, impermanence, egolessness), I have found the teachings on egolessness – or radical interdependence – most inspiring as an engaged Buddhist. On the ultimate level, there is no I, only we. Yet on the relative plane, identity politics around gender, race, class, sexual orientation, age, and dis/ability have been hugely influential in my political development.

There’s a lot to explore in this dance between clinging to identity and clinging to non-identity. If you have any thoughts to share, resources you’ve found helpful, or commiseration about how complex this is – I’d love to hear from you in the comments!

~ Dawn

Photo: Mushim (Patricia) Ikeda, the most Venerable Bhante Suhita Dharma, and Dawn Haney all laughing at a talkative baby during the Bodhisattva Precepts ceremony held at East Bay Meditation Center on December 2, 2012. Photo credit: Holly Hessinger.

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