Buddhist or Dharma Names
The refuge name, more usually called the dharma name, is the one acquired during the Refuge ceremony.
If you do not yet have a relationship with the teacher and the ceremony is a
public one with a congregation present, your new name will tend to reflect
the lineage/tradition rather than the individual person. When it is given by a
someone who knows you, however, it is often amazing how tailor-made the
name seems in one way or another.
At the hair-cutting time of acceptance into a monastic order, a person will receive one or more initiatory names. By the way, a Tibetan monk whose name one does not know may be addressed as a courtesy as [Skt.] bhikshu, [Tib.] gelong or lama. A woman wearing monastic dress whose status is unknown is addressed in Tibetan as ani.
If a person promises, or turns out out to be special -- an incarnate lama (tulku) or a text-discoverer (terton) -- then strings of names or titles might be appended, eg. Ka Kha Rinpoche is a tulku title. This poses some difficulty for librarians and researchers. (Learning that Rinpoche is not a family name was just the beginning!) The renowned Very Venerable Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche (d.1991) was also called Rabsel Dawa, Tashi Paljor, and as a terton: Osel Trulpey Dorje and Pema Do-ngak Lingpa.
All the above kinds of names are used openly. Tantric ritual names, or samaya (Skt. for bond or obligation) names are kept secret. These are received only during certain empowerments when the vajracharya whispers it into one's ear. The name is explained at that time and is to be thought of as the name of one's fully realized being (a buddha's name.) Since this name functions as a word of power symbolic of the bond tying the initiate, the guru and the tantric deity (-ies,) it should be cherished and protected. The protective circle (Tib. sang khor) constructed at the beginning of the initiation and the evocation of the guardian deities (Skt. dhamapalas) prevent even unseen beings from approaching and learning it.
Non-Tibetan speakers (or beginners in any ritual language) will likely have it written down for them so it is easier to memorize. Before leaving the venue, we [may have to] see to it that the paper is burnt.
The sang khor [magic circle] along with the secret name help prevent the intrusion of tricksters. It is believed that obstacles in the form of Maras or spiritual interferences may try to intervene. And one of the ways to dispel such phantasmic appearances which have been known even to fool a person's tseway [root] lama, is to ask for the samaya name which here acts as a password.
Just as, theoretically, one needs only one major empowerment, so one should have only one samaya name. The intention is to undergo the initiation to embark on the practice and mastery of the corresponding practices. Since one's life may be interrupted or, perhaps, one's diligence, then it may be possible to continue that samaya identification.
The samaya name will help to focus our consciousness so that we may recall
what to do in the transitional states. This secret name is used at the time of
death. One should try to recall and answer to it while in the transition
or bardo at the moment when the shitro deities including
one's one yidam appear.
Pride or Aspiration?
It has frequently been said one's name can function either as a label which influences how others see us, or as a kind of goal or motivation. Sometimes just thinking about the name can be beneficial to one's Buddhist practice.
There is a story told by Kyabje Kalu Rinpoche (Profound Buddhism 190):
Drukpa Kunlek was a practical joker; it was one way he worked to benefit beings. One day, a nun asked him why he was always so happy, laughing and full of fun no matter what. He replied that for him, all suffering had disappeared.
Then the nun said, "I have just taken my vows and wonder whether you would grant me a new name."
"Did you have any particular kind of name in mind?" asked the Drukpa Rinpoche.
"Oh, a beautiful name, of course!"
"OK, what about 'White-yellow-red-green Tara'?
"Well, said the surprised nun, I don't think that name really suits me. I think I would like a sweeter sort of name."
"OK. How about, Sugar-honey-molasses Tara?"
"Maybe something a bit more forceful . . . ?"
"I've got it -- Tiger-leopard-poisonous-snake Tara !"
"Something a little grander, maybe?" the nun requested.
"I understand what you're after now. OK, Sky-space Tara."
"Maybe something that is more in tune with who I really am now . . . ? "
. . . "I guess just Tara-who-has-the-vows is fine," she said thoughtfully, and thanked the skillful teacher.
Translating Tibetan Names
re: a translation of Pema Chodron, the name of the eminent
Western teacher, a writer to the Lotsawa (translator) list wrote (1999):
That may well be true of English-language names, whose significance tends to be long-forgotten; but the beauty of most Tibetan given names (as opposed to family names) is that they have precise meanings, which normally have a Dharmic significance. However, if you just ask some Tibetan man what a given name means, he might not have much to tell you, since most Tibetans are semi-literate, or entirely illiterate. For example, you ask a guy on the street in New York what "john" means, he probably will tell you "toilet" or "prostitute's customer"-- even though the Hebrew roots of the name mean "servant of God" (as in Sanskrit
Some Common Tibetan Names
transliteration [varies] pronunciation [varies w. region] general sense