What’s in a name?
Bodhilila writes about this week’s special Sangha Night to welcome back Vilasini from her recent ordination retreat, explaining the meaning of Vilasini’s new name and reflecting on her own experience of the mysterious and profound significance of the ordination ritual.
We had a very special evening on Tuesday when we welcomed Vilasini to her very first Sangha Night. Most of the class had never met Vilasini even though she has been attending Sangha Night regularly for about 15 years and attended the class just three weeks ago. Vilasini was one of the people who welcomed me when I first visited the old West London Buddhist Centre nearly seven years ago and she has since become a dear friend. And yet I only met her ten days ago, during an afternoon visit to Adhisthana in Herefordshire.
After reading that opening paragraph you may be wondering if I’m confused, maybe caught up in delusional views or in some kind of time paradox. While I am undoubtedly caught up in delusional views (and nowadays much of my Buddhist practice is focused on gaining more clarity and insight, trying ‘to see things as they really are’, in this case there is a very simple explanation. Three weeks ago we said farewell to long-time sangha member Priscilla, who was about to head off on a ten day ordination retreat. While on the retreat she was ordained into the Triratna Buddhist Order and she has recently returned with a new name, Vilasini.
It is already apparent to me that Vilasini is not the same person, that although the ordination took place less than two weeks ago, Priscilla is no more. I don’t yet know who Vilasini is in the process of becoming, but she already embodies her new name which means, ‘she who is shining or radiant (from the Dharma)’.
She was given this name by her private preceptor, Ratnavandana, who introduced Vilasini at the recent public ordination ceremony I attended at Adhisthana. When explaining why she had chosen this name, Ratnavandana commented that, ‘this shining and radiance comes from Vilasini’s deep connection with and practice of the Dharma. It radiates from within and the effect is very like the sun shining on water where it sparkles and glitters as the water moves and the sun’s rays shine through it’. She also referred to an observation from Dhammagita, ‘I think it’s simply that she has fed so often and so deeply on the Dharma that it runs in her blood now’ adding, ‘it is this that shines forth from her. She is lit up by the Dharma.’
There are two parts to ordination, starting with a private ritual just with the ordinand and their private preceptor (a spiritual mentor and friend who plays a pivotal role in their journey towards ordination and who is responsible for choosing the new name they receive during the private ordination ceremony). Later there is a public ordination ceremony led by a public preceptor during which the ordinand takes on ten ethical precepts and four ordination vows. I first met Vilasini at her public ordination ceremony, together with a group of sangha friends that she had invited to witness this very significant event in her life. I hadn’t been to a public ordination ceremony since my own ordination back in 2010, so it stirred up strong feelings and brought back many memories. Although my ordination took place during a three month retreat at Akashavana retreat centre in the Spanish mountains (which is very different to the lush green Herefordshire landscape of Adhisthana), the ordination ceremony and its significance is constant, regardless of the context in which it takes place.
Vilasini was one of seven mitras who were ordained on the recent retreat. It was moving and inspiring witnessing their ordinations, particularly that of Vilasini as she is a good friend and I know she has had a long and challenging journey to ordination. Seeing her beaming smile as she received her kesa and listening to Ratnavandana introduce her by her new name was an absolute joy. And I feel a new connection with Vilasini, not just as Order members but because we now share the same private preceptor – it was Ratnavandana who gave me my Buddhist name, Bodhilila.
I remember being anxious before my ordination retreat, not knowing what name I would end up with or whether I would even like it. That’s a practice in itself, surrendering control and surrendering personal preference, just being open and accepting toward whatever name you are given. Preceptors often choose a name related to qualities you embody or can develop, so there can be a sense of being seen by them on a deeply spiritual level. Of course they may see and value something different to one’s present self view, so while the new name may be very affirming it can also be challenging. Often one’s Order name becomes a lifelong teaching and personal practice.
I remember being so caught up in the moment during my private ordination ceremony that I’d forgotten I’d be getting a new name. I can still recall the shock and delight when Ratnavandana gently told me, “Your name is Bodhilila – (she who has) The Play of Awakening.” Seeking truth, trying to develop and grow as a person, trying to discover my potential and to cultivate insight had been threads in my life even before I discovered the Dharma. Afterwards I felt very drawn to wisdom teachings and at the time of my ordination I chose to deepen my bond with the archetypal blue Buddha Akshobya (head of the wisdom family of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas). So I felt very honoured to have ‘Bodhi’ as part of my name, and ‘Lila’ gave me permission to cultivate my creativity and my playful side, including both of these in my spiritual practice.
I also remember leaving my private ordination in a daze, spending the day in a nearby wood trying to assimilate the effects of this very powerful yet deeply mysterious ritual. Symbolically ordination involves a spiritual death and rebirth, entering into the family of the Buddha. It’s hard to describe, and actually it’s not the kind of thing you can put into words, but I knew immediately that something had changed. I was no longer the old me even though at the time I had no sense of who I was or who I might become. I’m still in the process of becoming Bodhilila. And I look forward to discovering just who Vilasini becomes.