What's in a Name? (written 2016)

14/01/2016 17:39

The name my parents gave me “Bonnie Gay” has Celtic heritage. The first name means variously “pretty” or “good” and the middle “lighthearted, happy”. All these qualities represent hopes parents could be expected to have for their first born daughter, I suppose. My last name “Ryan-Fisher” is a modern hybrid. My father's older sister used to like to tease me that she had once been a Ryan, but wasn't anymore. She told me that would happen to me too and I defiantly proclaimed that “I will always be a Ryan.” Well, that's the family story. I was too young to remember the argument, but I stand by my conclusion of the time. To honor that, I keep “Ryan”. It merges, of course, with my husband's family name, representing for me the merging of our lives.


Recently, however, I requested a Pali name from my teacher, Ajahn Sona, at Birken Forest Monastery. This name does not replace the one my beloved parents chose for me, nor the names of my families of birth or marriage. But, to me it marks my dedication to my teacher and the Dhamma-family I have become part of. The Upasika training I began last spring has meant even closer ties and deepening practice. I wanted to honor this turning.


The name my teacher chose for me is Sumana. After only a week, I am already fond of it. I like the whisper of the first emphasized syllable and downhill ripple of the middle to the release of the long sigh at the end. I like the curves and flow and hills and valleys of the letters under my pen. Ajahn explained it as meaning “joyful or glad”.


Parsed further, the pali prefix “Su” can mean “very”, “good”, or “beautiful”. “Mana” means “happy”, according to one source, and variously “mind, intellect, thoughts, heart” in another dictionary. Because Pali does not really distinguish mind and heart, the two are often hyphenated in translation, with reference to the “heart- mind” and its feelings or workings. So whether I opt for good heart, beautiful mind, very happy, good thoughts, the message in this name is clearly of a positive and uplifting nature. I find reason for a smile at the unintentional echo and inspiring suggestions in the meanings of both my Celtic birth name and my new Pali spiritual name.


“What's in a name?” Juliette famously asked in Shakespeare's play. While her conclusion left names empty of meaning, I beg to differ. In the case of a name chosen for an individual, a name may offer aspirations.


Ajahn suggested that I learn a little about the many historical Sumanas and their relationship to the Buddha. Perhaps I would find one I identified with. And indeed there are many with this name, both men and women. One that speaks to me was a highly dedicated lay disciple, who never missed an opportunity to hear the Buddha speak but who nevertheless chose to remain in her lay life devoted to the care of her aging grandmother. She ordained only as a very old woman, but is described in the Therigatha (poems of early Buddhist women) as completely ripe for awakening at the time of her ordination. As a wife and mother and devoted lay practitioner I am encouraged by this duel dedication and an example of one who followed the way with such devotion without renouncing worldly loves and duties.


The gentle rhythms of my new Pali name as I mentally repeat and absorb it have become a personal chant for me. A reminder of the purpose and promise of this path. The good and the beautiful and the glad. Aspirations for shaping a life free of suffering.