Becoming Buddhist

enzoI am inching toward becoming a Buddhist and find myself torn.

When practitioners “become” Buddhists, they are given the name of an ancestor.

And this is where my panic digs in.

It’s not just the accoutrements of religion–the bowing and the incense and the meditation.

It’s the naming.

I understand a “name” is just a label, yet I cling to my birth-name.

One of the Buddhist priests in our community doesn’t use his birth-name anymore.

He says when he mingles with folks in town, rather than giving his birth-name of Fred, he uses his Buddhist name, Tomoya (I’m using pseudonyms for propriety).

He says, “call me Tom.”

Other Buddhists combine their names.

Take, for example, the American-born writer Robert Baker Aitken.

If you look on his Wikipedia page, his name is written as: Robert Baker Dairyu Chotan Aitken.

The Buddhist name is sandwiched between birth-names.

For me, the problem is my American Indian identity.

My uncle gave me a name that I hold close to my heart.

My Indian name.

When the Buddhist priest explained that, at the end of our schooling, we would receive an ancestor’s name, I felt creepy.

I already have myriad names: my birth-name, my married name, and my Indian name.

I feel that receiving a Buddhist name will diminish my Indian-ness.

It feels disloyal.

Many of my relatives are religious or spiritual: they are Catholics, Protestants, Jewish, and Agnostics.

And they are Indian, too.

What drew me to Buddhism was not religion.

What drew me was a philosophy that honors ethical actions and kindness.

Can I assume the posture of the Buddhist philosophy without becoming a disciple?

My relatives assure me nothing can take away my Indian-ness: I will always be Wah-zha-zhe.

And that resonates with my heart strings.


Buddhist enzo painting (uncredited) on









About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
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