Receiving Your Buddhist Name

By Rev. Ken Yamada

You get it when you die, but why wait? It’s your Buddhist name.

At Buddhist funerals, typically the deceased is presented with a Buddhist name. This ritual gives an erroneous impression that’s when you’re supposed to receive it. Actually, it’s the opposite. Better to receive a Buddhist name while alive.

A Buddhist name in Japanese is called hōmyō, meaning “Dharma name” and signifies one’s commitment to the Buddhist path. The name is conferred in a ceremony called “Kikyōshiki.” These ceremonies are held at our mother temple in Kyoto, Japan, at a district’s central temple (“betsuin”), and sometimes at local temples.

Confirmation ceremonies are said to have originated 2,500 years ago when Yaśodharā (Prince Siddhartha’s wife before he became the Buddha) and her parents became lay disciples of the Buddha by vowing to take refuge in the Three Treasures—Buddha, Dharma, Sangha.

Taking refuge in the Three Treasures is a fundamental tradition in Buddhism that began during Shakyamuni Buddha’s time, showing one’s desire to seek guidance in the Buddha’s wisdom, teachings and community. It’s a formal expression of becoming the Buddha’s disciple.

During the Buddha’s time, the sangha consisted primarily of people who shaved their heads and became monks or nuns. Following this tradition, our kikyōshiki includes a symbolic shaving of the head, in which an officiant waves a razor above one’s head (Don’t worry, no hair is cut!) Consequently, this ceremony sometimes is called “Okamisori” (hair razor).

Higashi Honganji’s ceremony consists of chanting “Shoshinge,” singing gathas “Ondokusan” and “Shinshu Shuka,” listening to a Dharma talk, and a presentation of  Dharma names. Participants also receive a ceremonial sash, which is worn around the neck. Just as they would carry Buddhist beads, people are encouraged to wear these sashes at temple services, ceremonies and whenever they visit the mother temple.

Dharma names are written in Chinese characters (“kanji”), consisting of a prefix “Shaku” (for men) or “Shakuni” (for women), which come from Shakyamuni’s name, followed by two characters, typically taken from Jodo Shinshu teachings. Examples of characters are “wisdom,” “compassion,” “light,” “truth,” “virtue,” and so forth. Names are chosen by ministers or by the mother temple. Recipients often feel whatever name they receive is deeply meaningful.

Hōmyō names typically are written on stiff paper or cards. When people pass away, their families often display their Buddhist name card in home altars. The deceased’s name card also may be displayed during certain anniversary date memorial services, such as a one-year or seven-year anniversary memorial service.

In this way, after a person passes away, the hōmyō assumes a special significance. While a photograph may capture how a person looked at a particular point in time, the dharma name represents a person’s eternal essence.

Hōmyō is not to be confused with “kaimyō,” which means “precept” name, referring to people who are ordained as priests and nuns in other Buddhist traditions.

In 1996, Higashi Honganji launched a campaign to promote Kikyōshiki ceremonies as a way to encourage people to deepen their understanding and commitment to Jodo Shinshu. Indeed, it’s an opportunity for all of us to rediscover the importance of the teachings, our temples, and our sangha.

Of course after receiving your Dharma name, please resolve to truly become the Buddha’s disciple by actively listening to Dharma talks, attending seminars, studying, reading books, and participating in other activities meant to deepen your understanding and appreciation of Jodo Shinshu.

Dharma names are presented posthumously in funeral services to people who hadn’t yet received one. Traditionally, the officiant waves a blade over the casket while reciting the three treasures, then presents the hōmyō, signifying the deceased as an eternal disciple of the Buddha. This ritual unfortunately leads people to consider it exclusively a death ritual, which is mistaken.

This kind of entrenched thinking dies hard. When hearing about a fee associated with kikyōshiki, an old temple member joked, “Why pay now, when I can get one for free when I die.” That’s a wrong view. Kikyōshiki is for the living. Let’s all strengthen our commitment now to follow Buddhist path in this life.

If you’re interested in Kikyōshiki, please inquire at your local temple.

-Rev. Yamada is editor at Shinshu Center of America