While we were up there I did yet another priest ordination. I swear this will be the last one for a very long time. I don’t have a priest training program and I’m not planning to start one.
When someone becomes a priest or even takes the Buddhist precepts they’re usually given what they call a “dharma name.” This isn’t just a Zen thing. For example, when Jim McGuinn of The Byrds became initiated in Subud, an Indonesia-based spiritual movement, he was given a new name. It was Roger.
In Zen, the names are usually chosen by the person’s teacher to try and reflect something of the student’s personality. There is also a tendency to go for names that sound something like the person’s given name. This part of it appears to have been mostly lost when Zen moved to the West. But Nishijima Roshi chose my dharma name with both of those things in mind. Thus I was dubbed 応道勉英, which is pronounced Odo Benei. 応道 (Odo) means “Responding Way” and sounds very vaguely like Warner. 勉英 (Benei) would translate to something like “Heroic Effort.” Actually, 勉英 is very difficult to translate in any meaningful way since it was chosen mostly for sound. Nothing in Japanese sounds even remotely like “Brad.”
When I worked at Tsuburaya Productions I was given another sort of “dharma name” (working being one of the many kinds of dharma). Normally, the name Warner is written in Japanese phonetic characters as ワーナー, which would be pronounced “wah-nah.” Warner Brothers uses these characters in Japan.
I thought that was boring. So I went through my Kanji dictionary and came up with this: 和菜. It would be pronounced “wana.” The first character means peace and the second means vegetable. I chose it since my being a Buddhist and a vegetarian was often a topic of interest within the company.
Later on a woman in the Business Affairs dept. made some kind of a list of all employees names. When she came to mine, she put my last name as 和菜 and instead of writing my first name out phonetically she put 仏楽鳥. This would be pronounced “burattori.” The first character (仏) means “Buddha,” the second (楽) means “fun” and the third (鳥) means “bird.” I had a baby wild starling at the time that had fallen out of its nest in our monster warehouse, that I briefly kept in a cage on the veranda outside the International Division office. I eventually raised it to the point at which it could hunt its own food, and then I let it go. I loved that name. It still means a lot to me. Being given a name like that meant that I was accepted into the community at Tsuburaya Productions.
Since I started giving out dharma names I have tried to come up with names like the one I got from Tsuburaya Productions and the one I got from Nishijima Roshi rather than the more standard types of names that are usually given in Zen Centers that translate to things like “Lotus of Beauty” or “Wind of the Rhinoceros” or whatever and have no relationship to the person’s given name.
Since my teachers both stressed the importance of integrating Zen practice into our normal lives, I feel like it’s a good idea to give the person’s real name back to them. In fact, Nishijima Roshi often gave his Japanese students their own name as their dharma name, but with a different set of Chinese characters to represent it (you can do this in Japanese, it’s a long story).
Thus I gave Caitlin Fabens the name 恵富輪 which would be pronounced “kei-to-rin” and would mean something like “Wheel of Blessings and Wealth.” Since she had already received a dharma name pronounced “Seijun” by my friend Greg Fain, I gave her a different Seijun (生純 “Pure Life”) for the second part of her name. I gave John Graves the name 浄人弘誓 (Jonin Guzei) meaning “Pure Person” and “Great Vow.” I gave Nina Snow the name 然道雪 (Nendo Yuki) meaning “Natural Way” and “Snow.” I gave Linda Dydyk the name 凜夏大諾 (Rinda Daidaku). 凜夏(Rinda) is a common Japanese woman’s name pronounced almost the same as Linda. If you take apart the characters it means something like “Cold Summer.” Linda’s from Montreal, so I figured that worked. 大諾 (Daidaku) means “Great Agreement.”
I had a heck of a time with Rylend Grant, though. I must’ve gone through a dozen horrible Chinese character combos that sounded vaguely like Rylend before I came up with 雷連打 which could be pronounced “Rairenda” and means something like “Barrage of Thunder.” Rylend writes action movies for a living so I figured that worked. For the second part I took the meaning of his last name, Grant, and made him 与道 (Yodo) which means “Giving (or Granting) Way.”
I hope these names are meaningful to the people who receive them. It’s part of welcoming them into the community.
In the Zen world some people use their dharma names on a regular basis and some don’t. I would’ve felt weird telling people to start calling me Odo or Benei, so I never really used mine. But in my travels I’m constantly meeting people who introduce themselves by their dharma names.
I’ve also noticed some different patterns of usage. If someone uses their dharma name as their middle name, like if I called myself Brad Odo Warner, they’re probably from the White Plum lineage. If they use it as an additional first name, like if I called myself Odo Brad Warner, they might be from the San Francisco Zen Center or one of its offshoots, although those guys don’t seem to use dharma names at all as often as not.
I’m not sure where the dharma name tradition began. It is present in some Hindu groups as well, so I tend to believe it existed even before Buddha’s time. I know, for example, that the Hare Krishnas use pretty much the same criteria for selecting their names as Nishijima Roshi did. They’re chosen for their meaning as well as their similarity in sound to a person’s given name. I find it interesting that there are groups like Subud who give their members new Western names.
I’d like to start a cult someday wherein every member is given the name Seymour Butts when they join. A man can dream…
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On May 21, 2014 at 6:30pm, Brad Warner’s Hardcore Zen will be shown at Drexel University in Philadelphia! I will be there the do a Q&A afterwards.
Sometimes a movie is made to tour.
Are you interested in seeing HARDCORE ZEN with your local community? Would you like Brad Warner to speak at your university, meditation group, or personal guests?
Now you can have both. The film will screen at a location at your discretion. Simply contact firstname.lastname@example.org with the following specifics: your location, contact info, and potential date for the event.