Why are there fake names in Buddhism?

Traditionally they are called Dharma names.
When I became a member of the Rime Center, I was given the name Kalsang Dakpa, which means fame and fortune. When I joined the Five Mountain Zen Order, I was given the name Boepyol, which means Dharma Zeal. When I joined the International Ch’an Buddhist Institute I was given the name Heng Xue, which means Enduring Study.

What’s with all the fake names?

The practice originated, I think in monastic orders. If one became a monk and left the regular world behind, they would leave their old name behind too. It reinforced the fact that they weren’t a layman anymore, they were a monk now.

But now it’s used by the laity in a lot of places. I don’t know if the practice is as common in the east, but I suspect it isn’t. It is normal here to get a new dharma name every time you join a new community. It makes more sense for monastics because if you make the decision to become a monk in a certain order, you’re probably never leaving that order to join another one.

Why? To reinforce a sense of community, maybe? To make us feel like being a Buddhist has changed us, even though we haven’t given up everything to become monks?

I don’t know, but it’s something I am wondering. Also, are Dharma names helpful? I’m not sure. In some branches of Buddhism here in the west, they don’t use Dharma names at all. I wonder if collecting Dharma names is helpful.

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About Daniel Scharpenburg

Daniel Scharpenburg is an independent dharma teacher and Ch'an Adept living in Kansas City. He regularly gives teachings through the Open Heart Project. He also runs the Monday Night Zen Group at the Rime Buddhist Center. His writing has appeared in Lion's Roar, Patheos, Tattooed Buddha, and Elephant Journal. Daniel has taken Bodhisattva Vows and was transmitted the Caodong Ch'an lineage of Master Hsu Yun.

1 Response

  1. Perhaps because we can become attached to our names, so by giving us a new one we can learn to not attach to the life we led before? It’s perhaps a type of “coming of age” practice, where we have come so far in our practice that we can let go of identity and become something more?

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