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Names in Tibetan Culture

Venerable Tenzin Gephel

Venerable Tenzin Gephel

Resident Namgyal Monastery Monk
Cornell University Buddhist Chaplain

In Buddhism it is said that everything is imputed by name and thought and nothing exists inherently. Names in Tibetan Buddhist culture are given intentionally. Some examples of sources of names given to children, are The Dalai Lama's name, common types of names, name changes and the names of the four major Tibetan Buddhist sects.

In Tibet there are two main sources for personal names. People get their names from either their parents or from great lamas. A lama is a great teacher or holy person. It is very common for people to request names for their children from lamas. Many people nowadays request names for their children from His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. Some parents request names while the child is still in the mother's womb. When people go to the Dalai Lama to request a name for their child, he gives a name which is then written on a piece of blessed thread. These blessed items serve as protection from physical and mental negative factors such as negative thoughts or bad dreams. Blessed pills are made from different herbal substances. In brief, the giving of these blessed items is done in order to give the child an auspicious beginning to life and with prayers for the child to develop a healthy body and mind. We Tibetans feel that these blessings are created through the combination of religious power and the compassionate mind of the holy person.

My name is Tenzin Gephel. I was named after Tenzin Gyaltso who is the Fourteenth Dalai Lama. My first name "Tenzin" means "holder of Buddhist doctrine" and my second name "Gephel" means "increase of merit." Tenzin is a very popular name among Tibetans because it is the first name of the Dalai Lama. When I was born I was named Nyima Dhamdul by my parents. Later my parents asked the Dalai Lama to name me. Then Tenzin Gephel became my name. I was very small and not a monk at that time. Although people call me by the first name Tenzin or by both names Tenzin Gephel I prefer Gephel because it is less common among Tibetans.

I should mention that Tibetans usually do not have or use family names. For instance in the West, the Smith family would all have the last name of Smith. The family might consist of Bob Smith, Mary Smith, Joe Smith and Susan Smith. In a Tibetan family, all of the first and last names of all members might be different. The family might consist of Tenzin Wangdu, Dicky Dolma, Dawa Paljor, and Karma Dorje.

In Tibet we do not usually refer to the Dalai Lama by that term. "Dalai" is a Mongolian word and was a title given by the Mongolian King Altan Khan to Sonam Gyaltso, who later was named the Third Dalai Lama. Sonam Gyaltso was a highly respected Buddhist teacher and friend of the Mongolian king. There was a popular saying about the king and the third Dalai Lama: "In the sky: sun and moon. On earth: two great symbols of generosity." In appreciation to Sonam Gyaltso for his Buddhist teachings, the king, out of respect, bestowed on him the title"Dalai Lama." Dalai "in Mongolian means" Ocean of Wisdom." A very close spiritual relationship developed between Tibet and Mongolia. Since then the name "Dalai Lama" has been used for all succeeding Dalai Lamas and was also applied to two predecessors of Sonam Gyaltso.

The current Dalai Lama is the fourteenth. His Holiness the Fouteenth Dalai Lama's personal name is Tenzin Gyaltso and was given to him by his religious tutor. "Gyaltso" in Tibetan means"Ocean of Enlightened Qualities." Tibetans refer to His Holiness the Dalai Lama by other names such as "Yeshi Norbu" which means "Wishfulling Gem," and "Kundun" which simply means "the presence." The names deity is the patron deity of Tibet and Tibetans consider the Dalai Lamas to be manifestations of this deity. The Dalai Lama is the religious and political leader of Tibet. The Dalai Lama is currently leading his people in their efforts for a free Tibet using methods of nonviolence based on great love and compassion according to the Buddhist teachings. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989.

Names are given to all people and things in order to differentiate who or what they are. Naturally nobody wants to have a bad name or reputation. We all want to be referred to by something nice. In Tibet, a person who gives a name to a child, in accordance with Buddhist tradition, always choose a name with an auspicious meaning in order to create positive predisposition for the future of the child. Many people in Tibet have names related to male or female Buddhas or enlightened beings. Some names such as "Tenzin" or "Dawa" can be both male or female although females often take the name of a female Buddha or deity such as "Dolma" (Tara in Sanskrit ) which means the "one who liberates others from suffering. There are also female names such as "Dicky Dolma" which means"one who is healthy, happy and liberates other by leading them to Nirvana." Some names such as "Dawa" have several different meanings. "Dawa" means both" moon" and "Monday." "Dawa" can be given to a child who is born on a Monday or it can convey the symbolic meaning of one who"gives light and removes darkness" as moonlight does. Tibetans names can come from important religious symbols such as the "dorje" which symbolizes indestructibility, compassion, and skillful means. People are also named after simple Buddhist terms such as "sherap" which is a word meaning wisdom, or "sopa" which means patience.

In Tibetan culture people sometimes change their names. For example when someone becomes a monk or nun, they are given a new monastic name. There are occasions such as when someone becomes sick and medical treatments do not cure the person over a long period of time. At that time, according to lama's advice, the sick person may have a name change in order to keep away obstacles and harm. When I was in school I got some kind of mysterious pain in my upper back and chest. I had to go home to live with my parent for special care. It was a very painful sickness. My parent tried their best to treat it. I tried modern treatment and ancient Tibetan herbal medicine for many days, months and a year. The doctors didn't discover what kind of sickness it was. So the treatment seemed not so helpful. At the same time during those long periods of sickness my parents often asked others to perform many ritual prayers according to Buddhist traditions. Meanwhile my parents brought me to consult with Dhamo Loche Rinpoche, who still lives in Dharamsala. He is one of the greatest lamas among several who were escaped from Tibet in 1959. Dhamo Loche Rinpoche advised me to change my name. I was named after him, Losang Tenzin, which means good-hearted dharma holder. But I prefer to use Tenzin Gephel for the rest of my life. It is very auspicious for my present and future life to have this name. After I recovered from that sickness, I reused my name Tenzin Gephel. When I received the monastic vows from the Dalai Lama, H.H. did not change my name Tenzin Gephel into another name because he gave this name to me when I was very small and I became a monk. Another solution is that the sick or troubled person may take a name intentionally unpleasant such as Shilog. It means "one who seems likely to have died but come back to life."

Since the 7th century, Buddhism has served as the basis of Tibetan culture, ethics, and almost every other aspect of Tibetan life. Within Tibetan Buddhism there are four great traditions: Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya and Geluk. "Nyingma" means old or early and is one part of Tantric Buddhism that came to Tibet from India first during the seventh century. It is called "Nyingma" because it is the oldest form of Tibetan Buddhism. Subsequently Buddhism was suppressed for a period of seventy years until religion reemerged in the year 978. The great Buddhist traditions founded after this time are referred to as the "New Tantric Buddhist traditions." The second tradition to appear, and the first of the new systems, is the Kagyu tradition. This name means "stream of oral teaching." The Kagyu tradition was passed through a long line of teachers from Vajradhara to the great Tilopa, to Naropa, to Marpa and so forth in an oral manner. The third tradition is the Sakya. "Sakya" means "place of white earth." The founder of this tradition was the master Konchok Gyalpo. In looking to establish his monastery, he examined many places but finally he decided on a place on the side of a mountain called Ponpori that was covered with a whitish earth and built his monastery there. After that the tradition he founded was called "Sakya" for the white earth. The fourth and newest tradition is the Geluk tradition. "Geluk" means meritorious or virtuous tradition. "Ge" means virtue and "luk" means system or tradition. Originally this tradition had the name "Ganden" because that is the name of the monastery founded by the great Lama Tsongkhapa who also founded this tradition. This great teacher lived five hundred years ago.

Names are very important in Tibetan Buddhist culture. In order to begin to understand Buddhist principles of names one could examine areas ranging from children's names or common names to the Dalai Lama's names and names of different sects of Tibetan Buddhism.