What’s In A Name

Well, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge didn’t take my advice and name their royal son Gomez after all, or anything even remotely interesting as I had hoped. But as a famous British subject once wrote, “What’s in a bleedin’ name?”


You know, many of our English words have their origins in Indian Sanskrit. My last name, for instance, is derived from the Indian word raja, meaning ruler or king. It was mispronounced by the Gypsies and carried to the British Isles where it ended up as Riley. As a matter of fact, the very word “name” comes from the Sanskrit nama.

Nama is name or concept. A name is a symbol, used to indicate and symbolize a referent. In addition to names, referents have laksana, signs or marks, which allow the referents to be cognized.

Station Fire - Los Angeles - August 27, 2009
Station Fire – Los Angeles – August 27, 2009

In his treatise on the Prajna-Paramita Sutra, Nagarjuna uses the example of fire to describe the relationship between nama and laksana. Fire is the name, and smoke is one of its signs. When we see smoke, we know there is fire.

Likewise, “man” and “woman” are names, while bodily features are the signs by which we recognize man and woman. In this way, nama and laksana, names and signs, are interdependent. “Laksana is the root and nama is the branch.”

Then Nagarjuna explains that

When one sees with one’s eyes the bodily form, one seizes with a bias only such characters that one likes and cling to them; the others do not have the same interest in regard to these characters. [These] characters are capable of giving rise to passion and clinging . . .”

A name or sign cannot be the same as the referent. Nagarjuna says that if a name and a referent were the same, then the word “fire” would burn the mouth. On the other hand, owing to their mutual dependence, name and referent cannot be different, for it that were the case, there would be no cognizance of any phenomena.

The best way to sum up these relationships is with the Japanese expression nini-funi, or “two but not two.” On the conventional level, we see separation, but from the ultimate view is there is no separation.

The bias Nagarjuna spoke of causes us to make distinctions between things, to have preferences. Abiding only with nama and laksana, names and signs, is merely seizing upon appearances, which obscure the true nature of things. He notes,

The Buddha reveals the true nature of all things by means of nama and laksana, in order to enable all to understand the truth of things. [Most] people dwell only in nama and laksana, the thought-constructions that are devoid of substantiality.”

What is the true nature? It is akincana, “not anything specific,” and frankly, it is easier to explain what the true nature is not, that is to say that things do not exist as separate entities, nor do they posses any separate essence. Seizing upon names and signs, clinging to appearances, causes us to think that things have a separate nature, and to believe that they are ultimate in their separateness.

For Nagarjuna, who was engaged in a critical analysis of the possibility of finding anything in reality that is self-existent, which stands on its own, independent and separate from other things, and who investigated every proposition, every argument, and concluded that self-existence was not tenable, nama and laksana are conventional entities that need to be transcended in order to see the true aspect of all phenomena.

That’s why Pema Chodron, the wonderful American-born nun in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, tells us

The cause of our discontent is our mistaken feeling of separateness. This isn’t based on anything tangible. It’s based on beliefs and concepts. The duality of subject and object, self and other, is an illusion imputed by the mind.”

– – – – – – – – – –

Nagarjuna quotes from N?g?rjuna’s Philosophy as Presented in the Maha-prajñ?p?ramit?-?s?tra, K. Venkata Ramanan, Motilal Banarsidass Publ. 2002

Pema Chodron quote from No Time to Lose, Shambhala Publications, 2005


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