When you become a Buddhist monk or nun, you get a new name. Mine was "Ben Ri." For the rest of the Hsi Lai Eight Precept retreat, that was what I was called and how I had to sign my name. Our entire group was "Ben" something. When they gave me my new name tag, I decided that, when I got a chance to talk, I was going to ask Venerable Miao Hsi how to pronounce it and what, if anything, Ben Ri meant.
This idea of getting a new name... I guess that happens in a number of different religions. At least some Catholic nuns change their names when they become nuns but I think they get to choose their own. I'm not sure how I feel about this idea of a new name, of leaving the one I was born with behind.
Before I got married, I never felt all that strongly one way or the other about the whole name change thing, perhaps because I really only ever use my first name anyway. It's unusual enough, it usually doesn't require a last name to separate this Marley out from all the rest. So, I figured that, if I got married and if I liked my future husband's last name better than mine, I'd change it. If I didn't, I wouldn't. But, when Kevin and I decided to get married and it turned out that I actually did like his last name, I found I just couldn't do it. I'd been "me" too long. It felt weird to change my name, the implication seemed too great, like I was going to have to give up my very identity just because I'd decided I could spend the rest of my life with this guy and I didn't think that's what being married meant, giving up my separate identity. I thought it was more like deciding to go down the same path together.
Now, this may explain some of why we had a pretty rocky time of it our first decade together. But, just a few months ago, as a twentieth anniversary present, I told Kevin that I was finally -- and officially -- going to take his last name. He burst into tears. He'd been pretty cool about it when I'd decided not to back in 1987 so I was shocked it meant so much to him. I can't finish all the paperwork to make the name change official until the end of the summer but I put a ribbon around the initial social security forms and gave them to him as my present. Just in terms of reaction, it may be one of the best presents I've ever given.
I wonder what it'll feel like, how much it'll matter, that my name will be new, different. I mean, I even have to get used to a new signature when my pen seems to write the name I was born with almost automatically. I guess I'd better start practicing...
But I'm not writing about marriage...although, perhaps, the problem I had letting go of my old identity and the effect of that unwillingness is exactly why ordination comes with a new name. I guess I have a pretty strong notion of who "Marley" is and what it means to be me. I always assumed that that was a good thing, something to work for. And it's important to me, this name: it was my mother's mother's last name. There have been consequences of the choice of this name for me, a story that went with it, a story that I love, that has become mine because my name is Marley. So, when I consider the possibility that I could, if I wanted to, live the rest of my life without that name, I find it completely confusing. There is part of me that's sitting here demanding to know who I might be, then, without that name? Would I be "me?" Should I care that much about something that's the definition of superficial? I mean, my name isn't me, is it?
My Hindu teacher, Swami Sarvadevananda (who also got a new name when he became a swami) refused to talk about his previous name, the name he was given at birth. He'd left that person behind along with his old life, his old concept of himself. Do I want to leave mine behind? Is it even possible?
How much does my name have to do with who I am anyway? Who I really am?
During the time we were supposed to be taking our showers, I went looking for Venerable Miao Hsi. She was answering email at her desk. "Can you tell me how to say my name?"
I cannot even pretend to replicate here how Ven Miao Hsi said to pronounce Ben Ri: it's pronounced nothing like it looks. The "Ben" part is pretty straight forward but"Ri" involves some teeth, mouth, and throat action we don't use in English that I could never quite master.
And how did she choose mine? "We just give out the names at random. From a list. 'Ri' means 'now,' so Ben Ri means: 'beginning' or 'starting now.' "
Beginning Now. Pretty perfect, eh?
10 July 2007