Newly Ordained Jñānagarbha


What’s in a name?

When I was ordained into the Western Buddhist Order I was given the Sanskrit name Jñānagarbha (and here's a picture of the newly ordained Jñānagarbha from 1998). For the eight or so years after my Ordination that I worked as a ‘professional Buddhist’ (running Buddhist Centres, leading retreats, and teaching) I used this name pretty much exclusively, and even changed my passport and driving licence. When I began working in organisations and started a family of my own I began using my family name again, and now alternate between the two depending on context.

How do you say it?

It is pronounced something like N'yah-nuh-garb-huh.

What does it mean?

The simple translation that my Preceptor (the person who gave me the name) gave me is ‘filled with knowledge’, although my preferred translation nowadays is ‘he who nurtures wisdom’.

I could probably produce a whole website on the meaning of my name, it’s two parts each allude to a separate school of Buddhist philosophy! Jñāna means knowledge or wisdom, and is a key concept in the Yogachara tradition. Garbha literally means womb or embryo, and links to the Tathagatagarbha (or Buddha Nature) tradition. In terms of practice, it's an ongoing reminder that I need to bring together my intellect and my gut feelings into an integrated whole.

Why change your name?

A few reasons come to mind:

  • Having a specifically Buddhist name is a strong declaration to the people you meet about how important your Buddhist practice is to you.
  • There’s a long-standing tradition in many religions of being given a new name at Ordination - it kind of marks a new beginning, and links you into the tradition.
  • The name you are given when you are Ordained reflects both the qualities you have, and the things you need to keep working on. Your name describes your spiritual practice, and every time someone uses your name it’s a reminder of that.
  • Perhaps most importantly, if you want to change and grow you have to be willing to leave some things behind. Sometimes we leave things behind naturally, in the same way we moved on from the toys we played with as children. Sometimes however, we need to make a conscious effort to move away from restricting habits and ways of thinking about things. In a way, changing your name gives you a chance to become a whole new person.
  • People very often ask this question in a slightly confrontational tone, and perhaps this points to the deep issues of identity that we address in Buddhism. The Buddhist tradition explains that one of the main causes of difficulty in our lives is our belief that we have some sort of fixed and unchanging core to our being. If you watch your mind for even a short time, you quickly see that the flow of ideas and emotions is constantly changing, and that it’s impossible to pin down a self that thinks the thoughts or feels the feelings. Anything we can do to open up to a more relaxed and expansive relationship with ourselves, those we meet, and the rest of the universe is immensely helpful.