I have a suspicion sometimes that in the entire history of our people, there was only ever one pet Tibetan dog. Called Singey. Why the perennial fascination with that name otherwise? Tibetan families either call their pet Singey or they call it by English and Indian names such as Tiger and Baloo. Uncommon and creative Tibetan names such as Dhamsig or Singchung or Taktuk (suggested by friends of mine) are entirely unheard of. The only unusual pet name I remember hearing belonged to a majestic black dog that one of my uncles owned in Nepal. The dog’s name was Tashi Phuntsok. It suited him very well.
Often times, Tibetans won’t even bother to name their pet at all. It’s simply the cat or the dog, just like the chair or the table. Injis, on the other hand, name everything they see. Archie from the Archie comics that I used to read when I was little had a red jalopy that he lovingly called Betsy. This would be the Tibetan equivalent of your neighborhood phosa calling his motorbike Wangmo. Why aren’t we as quick and eager to label things as the Injis are?
I wonder if Buddha dharma plays a role in this. From childhood we are taught the law of impermanence. Everything is interdependent; nothing is real, everything is relative. Are we perhaps seeing the social and cultural implications of this philosophy in our naming patterns? When older Tibetans refer to space and location, the references often seem relative. Although they do label some landmarks specifically as Mabcha Khabab or Jhomolungma, they more frequently seem to speak of space and objects in relation to one another - of the hill behind Kumbum monastery or the valley on the other side of the mountains. Maybe we can call it the Tibetan theory of relativity.
I myself easily fall subject to it. There are around 500 Tibetans in Boston. Although I know a good number of them, I know the names of only a very few. Most of them I know only as a friend’s father or sister or so-and-so’s mother-in-law. The preservation of my ignorance is of course facilitated by generic relative labels such as Genla and Achala. In fact I don’t even know some of my family member’s names because I and everyone around me always call them by their relative labels rather than their specific names, ie, Somola or Momola rather than Somo Yangchen or ...actually, I still don’t know my grandmother’s name. However, labels such as Jhola, Genla and Achala are beginning to feel less useful, in the west at least. Think about it. Jhola sounds like someone with a pot belly and an unflattering mustache and Achala sounds like an older woman with a fake leather handbag and red lipstick in the Lhasa style. Genla of course, with its obvious connotations, sounds out of place on most people. Some of my friends have found out the hard way, at New York dance parties, that Tibetan women in their twenties no longer appreciate being called Achala because apparently it makes them seem old. I suppose you could just call them “Tenzin la” and hope for the best.
Which brings me to my next point. Why are there so many Tenzins? I know that it’s traditional for lamas and rinpoches to share a part of their name with whoever they are naming. But His Holiness has a long name; his full name is Jetsun Jamphel Ngawang Lobsang Yeshi Tenzin Gyatso. Maybe Kundun can share some of his other names instead of just Tenzin? Also, we know that Kundun is very busy. Surely he doesn’t really have time to generate names for everyone born in exile. How does it happen? Does Kundun sit there making up names while some guy from the Home Office writes them down on different pieces of paper, to be put into separate envelopes?What happens if some official comes in one day a little under-caffeinated or over
intoxicated and picks up an envelope from the girls’ stack for a baby boy? Is that what happened to that Tenzin Chime or Tenzin Pema you know who happens to be a guy? Every once in a while, however, I hear a story that makes me think maybe everyone does end up with the name they are supposed to have. My brother Tendor told me of this one family who requested a name for their child from the Home Office and received a name that they didn’t like. So they disregarded the name and bided their time. They managed to get an audience with His Holiness and asked him to name their child, and they received the exact same name. I do enjoy parts of the Tibetan naming system actually. The general lack of family names makes me feel that people are judged more on their own personal merit, for their own person, rather than in the context of their family.
Things are changing in the west though, for some people. Many families are beginning to adopt new family names for documentation purposes since the norm is to possess a family name. Some of them just use the father’s last name as the family name. I know a Tenzin Dickyi whose father’s last name is Dorjee so her full official name is Tenzin Dickyi Dorjee. Tibetans who originally only have one name go through a lot of trouble. For example, my mother had only one name. So the American authorities, in their documents, sometimes called her Chodon Chodon or Mrs Chodon, as if Mrs was her first name. Finally she became fed up and added a Tenzin to her name, so she is now Chodon Tenzin. My father knows a Namgyal who became Nam Gyal.
Living in America, far from rinpoches and monasteries, Tibetans fortunately seem to become more pro-active about naming. Most of my friends want to name their kids themselves. Some of them mention that they will pick names that Injis find easy to pronounce. Others mention that they will name their child after epic and historical heroes, in homage to our history. All of them, uniformly, want a Tibetan name for their child. This is not a no-brainer, as some of you may think. Most immigrant groups from Asia give their children Inji names. Many Asian foreign students, like my Thai friend Ricky, create American nicknames for themselves. (To be fair, if my name was Weerawat Runguphan, I would call myself Ricky too.) Tibetan parents in the west give their child a Tibetan name as a way of proclaiming and reaffirming the child’s Tibetanness.
The Inji propensity for labels has its benefits. Labeling implies ownership. When the Injis climb a mountain, they put a flag on the summit and claim glory for their country. When they reach a new land, they give it a new name and then say they discovered it, ignoring the people who already live there. Why else are the West Indies so called? Why else did Indian nationalists want to chuck Madras and Bombay and go back to Chennai and Mumbai? Mikel Dunham, the Pulitzer-nominated author of Buddha’s Warriors, speaks eloquently and expertly on the Tibetan guerilla wars. He remarks that when the CIA was air dropping supplies to Tibetans, the Tibetans would name them locations for the supplies. The Americans assumed these were names of towns and villages, and later found they were the names of the major monasteries in the area. I wonder about further misunderstandings and the negative impact they must have had on the coordination of our resistance many decades ago.
Therefore, let’s name all our cats and dogs. And in the naming of our children, whether by a rinpoche or a parent, let’s be more creative. I have met Tenzin, Pema, Tashi and Dhondup many times over. I now look forward to meeting Gesar, Mila, Athar and Yula.