FYI: Naming Trivia for Monastics

Here’s a short article about how monastic names come about. Just so you know. 🙂

The surname adopted in the Chinese Mahayana monastic tradition is Shi “釋”. It comes from the Shi “釋” in the Buddha’s name “釋迦牟尼佛”, a transliteration of Shakyamuni, meaning the sage of the Shakyan clan.

My ordination name was 釋智行 Shi ZhiXing and it was given by my late teacher
and ordination Master, Master Miu King 境老和尚 when I was given the “going forth” in 2002.

In Singapore, I’m also known by 釋傳觀 Shi ChuanGuan. This name was given by my then mentor Master,  when I took mentorship in 2006.

So, 智-Zhi and 傳-Chuan is the ‘generation’ character. Under the lineage stemming from the Buddha to the Chinese masters, the Chinese sangha adopted the naming convention in use by the Chinese. so a monastic from a certain lineage would have the lineage / generation (middle) character that follows a certain order. Based on one’s lineage / generation character, one could trace your Dharma lineage accordingly.

行-Xing and 觀-Guan is the ‘name’ character. Depending on the master or community, there may be some naming convention in place.

IMHO, this elaborate system can be useful to avoid undue duplication of names when there were hundreds or thousands of monastics. Kinda reminds me of the IP address system (Internet Protocol), ###.###.###.### …. (Comp. Engr or Comp. Sc. students should have a chuckle on that! 😉 ) … but I digress!

Also, this naming system was adopted from the Chinese naming convention when Buddhism took root in China.

Therefore, “Shi” is the surname, and “Zhi-Xing” is the complete name, and not Zhi-shi or Shi-Zhi or other permutation! ^_^

Say, for a fictitious monk by the name Shi Mou Jia 釋某甲, in formal writing, one may refer to him as Venerable Shi Mou Jia, while in spoken form, one would simply address him as “Venerable Mou Jia”, “Mou Jia fashi 某甲法師” or “Mou Jia shi 某甲師”.

In some writing convention, it is also common to join characters together if they are meant to be joint as a phrase or name. Eg, Ven. Moujia instead of Ven. Mou Jia.

In various communities, both Theravada and Mahayana, it is common that a monastic may be known not by his ordination name, but by a common name based on the location this master came from. Eg, Chanmyay Sayadaw, means the Meditation Teacher from Chanmyay (a place in outskirt of Yangon, Myanmar).

Another example would be Dharma Master Tang San Zang 唐三藏  法師. This indicated that he is a Tripitaka master from the Tang dynastic empire. The tripitaka reference may also point to his pilgrimage to India to bring back the teachings (tripitaka) instead as his motivation for the trip was to clarify certain discrepancies in the existing texts. His Dharma name was 玄奘 Xuan Zang (or Xuan Zhuang) and is what is commonly found as the translator for various sutras in the Mahayana tradition.

In Buddha’s time, Dharma names were not explicitly given to new monks. Rather, they were simply known by the existing names. Eg, Upatissa became known as Ven. Upatissa. Upatissa was the name of Ven. Sariputta. Sariputta means “Son of Sari”, “Sari” being the name of Ven. Upatissa’s mother.

While the tradition of giving and receiving Dharma names came later on, it can serve monastics in a meaningful way, to mark a departure from our lay life as we embark on our spiritual journey towards Nibbana.

Hence, if you have a friend who has went forth as a monastic, it can be better to start addressing them by their Dharma name. Even though words and names do not make one enlightened, it can remind both parties of the change in role and path in life, and gently urges the monastic onwards in their daily endeavour on the path.

So, now you know! …
With metta, ^_^

3 thoughts on “FYI: Naming Trivia for Monastics”

  1. Dear Venerable Sir

    Thank you for sharing.
    What are your advice to someone who intends to become a monk (in the Mahayana tradition) in Singapore?
    Do you need to know the Abbot personally before an ordination is given?
    Thank you.

  2. @ShiXiong, you are most welcome. 🙂

    @Patrick, in certain cases, it would also be the Abbot of a monastery, though that is not always the case. The preceptor is the one whom you should know personally; he is the one who will be ordaining you and thereafter giving you the training.

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