You can call me

January 5th, 2010

It is revealing to me now that back then I didn’t want to make a fuss about this marriage. I didn’t want to have a wedding. I didn’t want to spend the money. I didn’t want to buy a dress or take the time. I didn’t want to bear his name or wear a ring and of course I didn’t want to have his children. In my own defense, I concluded that I was being modern. I meant no harm. Nothing about it had much meaning at all, certainly not the archaic vows I spoke in a half-price hotel suite before immediate family only.Hand Wash Cold

Those of you who read my ravishingly narcissistic Facebook updates may recall that an editor recently asked for permission to delete my Dharma name – Maezen – from my byline, suggesting that it was too Asian and too religious for the sensibilities of modern Western “mindfulness” adherents. (Air quotes are my own.)

You can imagine how I responded. It was not pretty, but it was swift.

For the benefit of all, I’d like to poke into this topic, because it is a jugular.

When you give a color a name, it is the beginning of blindness. – Zen saying

A Dharma name is the name given to a student by a teacher, usually as part of a ceremony in which the student commits him or herself to the practice, or the Way. In my case, I practice in a Japanese lineage, so the name sounds Japanese. In Tibetan traditions, the name will sound Tibetan. Even outside the formal practice, your first name may sound Irish and your last name Serbian. Or English, Spanish, Dutch or Swahili. I say “sounds” because that is what all names are. They are sounds. Names are made-up utterances. I asked for a Dharma name that paid tribute to Maezumi Roshi. My current teacher, Nyogen Roshi, gave it.

Of course, just because a name is made up doesn’t mean it is meaningless.

Some people do a ceremony, get a name, and never take it. I can understand that way of thinking: it’s more modern. Some names are cumbersome. Some are easy to forget. Some sound funny. And let’s face it, a new name doesn’t ever sound like the “me” that each of us so dearly knows and loves. It’s hard to commit to anything or anyone else if your most important commitment is still to yourself. That attachment to ego blinds you.

In my sangha, we all use our Dharma names. Sure, at first, it’s awkward. We think we’ll never remember, and we forget a lot of the time. Then, we adapt. Old habits change. The mind rewires. It happens, and it happens by itself. That’s what Dharma means.

Dharma is translated as “truth” and “teaching.” And the truth teaches itself, once little old me gets out of the way.

I vow to take what I am given. – Zen priest ordination precepts

Maezen (“May-zen”) isn’t really Japanese. It isn’t Asian, and it isn’t Buddhist. It is a vow. And unlike other halfhearted vows I’ve made but never kept, I’ve vowed to take it. I wear it on my sleeve, where I can see it, and where I can be it.

It is the heart of the Dharma.

You can call me Maezen. You can call me Karen. You can call me Mrs. You can call me Buddhist. You can call me Irish. You can call me Serbian. You can call me Mom. You can call me Honey. You can call me @#%!# You can call me No One. You can call me and I will respond. The response makes all the difference.

In matters of the heart, we too often forget what we have promised to remember, and remember what is best to forget.Hand Wash Cold

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  1. This is lovely. I have long adored the concept of dharma. I didn't know the background of your middle name, and I am glad to know it. And glad you stood up to that editor!

    Comment by Lindsey — January 5, 2010 @ 7:58 pm

  2. These words are like honey to me today. Thank you.

    Comment by Swirly — January 5, 2010 @ 8:38 pm

  3. I needed to read this today! Thank you so much for sharing this with us, I am inspired!

    Comment by Chaotic Beauty — January 5, 2010 @ 8:58 pm

  4. Names are made up utterances yes, and within them contains civilizations.

    I love the *ceremony* of many Buddhist traditions. This includes taking on new names, passing teachings down through lineages. All utterances, and yet penetrating in a meaningful way.

    My last name is a vestige of my father's heritage (sephardic jew) – it survived the spanish inquisition, emigration, hiding, holocaust. It is very meaningful to me.

    Some Native American tribes had a custom of not naming a child for many months, as they determined what the qualities of the child were.

    Thanks for sharing the importance of your name; I can't wait to read that new book of yours!


    Comment by 6512andgrowing — January 5, 2010 @ 9:29 pm

  5. This is beautifully written. As someone who changed her first name at age 22 and then her last name at age 24 (I now use both my maiden and my married surnames), the concept of naming is one that intrigues me. Names are all-important–and yet almost totally meaningless. Like much of life itself.

    Comment by Emma Alvarez Gibson — January 5, 2010 @ 10:13 pm

  6. Strange. I've been thinking about names today.

    I think I'll call you favorite.

    Comment by Terri Fischer — January 6, 2010 @ 1:24 am

  7. Favorite is a word like honey to me; so too lovely, beautiful, inspired. Thanks for being not-modern enough to be present here.

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — January 6, 2010 @ 3:15 am

  8. fascinating and beautiful.

    i was given a spiritual name by a beloved guru and use it when it feels appropriate for me. what i loved about the process of being called by another name, one that felt more divine, was that my response often felt more true. i rose up to the name. something to ponder, for sure, and then to let go of.

    thank you.

    Comment by doorways traveler — January 6, 2010 @ 3:37 am

  9. I think the sound, Maezen, is beautiful. I have since the first time I turned onto to Cheerio Road.

    Mae is the middle name of my grandmother, whose quiet impact on my life and the woman I would become, has lasted far beyond her time here on earth. She was such a peaceful woman, absolutely serene.

    To combine the two, Mae and Zen, seems just right to me. I'm glad Maezen was chosen for you, Karen.

    Don't worry about your editor, I'm sure s/he'll get it next year. The light bulb will suddenly pop on. I just know it. 🙂

    Comment by Cam — January 6, 2010 @ 4:11 am

  10. Surprised, and not surprised, that your editor made that request. Not at all surprised by your response. A deep bow to you, our teacher, and the dharma.

    Comment by KIM CHISHIN RUSSO — January 6, 2010 @ 3:07 pm

  11. I was reminded in Tracy's Shutter Sister's post to come here today and I'm glad I did. So different you and I but you are so very thought provoking, calm, and spirituallly aware. It's wonderful.

    Comment by puna — January 6, 2010 @ 6:38 pm

  12. I've wondered about the significance of Maezen and am sorry someone tried to remove it from your writings.

    For me, "Mommy" seems akin to a Dharma name: a name that I wasn't born with but took on with great responsibility, bestowed by two people from whom I have learned so much, a name which now means more to me than my first one.

    Comment by J — January 6, 2010 @ 7:22 pm

  13. Thank you. I love the last part of this post… a punch and then pause.

    Comment by Stacy (Mama-Om) — January 15, 2010 @ 8:24 pm

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