By Anissa Housley I’m in Estes Park, Colorado. The cavernous meeting hall is filled with people. It’s early morning; everything is dimly lit. Monks and nuns sit onstage and Thay is leading the ceremony for the transmission of the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings. I’m standing, I’m prostrating, I’m kneeling, I’m singing.
I find myself before the stage. Sister Chan Kong hands me my ordination certificate. I can’t believe it—the name I’ve been given is “True Wonderful Action.” I feel deep gratitude to receive such a beautiful name, hand-picked for me by Thay and the monks and nuns, but I also struggle with feelings of insufficiency. Is this a name of which I can be worthy?
This transmission occurred two years ago. I had looked forward to learning my Dharma name and had wondered what it might be. When I took the Five Mindfulness Trainings, I had been pleased and grateful for the name “Wise Caring of the Source.” I could see how it applied to who I was at that point in my life. I could also see how it was something I was becoming.
But True Wonderful Action? This is a name about which I’ve had conflicting emotions, especially as I’ve tried to understand more deeply the foundation of our Order: Engaged Buddhism. Why is this sometimes a struggle? Part of it is my perception of both Engaged Buddhism and Right Action. Many people, both in my local Sangha and in the OI community at large, are diligent social activists. I hear and read about their dedication, commitment, and wonderful actions often.
I do not, however, view myself as a social activist. I tried many times to summon the energy to get involved. I attended peace walks, donated funds, and signed petitions. But it didn’t go much deeper than that. My heart wasn’t attached to any particular cause.
This has been a source of shame for me. I felt like an ant in the company of giants. Surrounded by people moving social and political mountains, I’m doing well just trying to keep my anthill in good order.
Shortly after receiving my ordination, I made a post to the OI Announce listserv, signed with my new Dharma name. I received a kind e-mail from a brother who shares the English translation of my Dharma name (the original names in Vietnamese are not identical). He asked me about myself and shared his experiences. We could not have been more different. He is an amazingly active member who has done much for the community and for the world through his conscientious and consistent social action. His accomplishments overwhelmed me. He had wondered if he had been given his name because of his dedication to social activism. I wondered if it disappointed him to learn that I, a tiny ant, shared a similar name with him, a true giant.
I tried to deal with my fluctuating feelings of inadequacy through humor. I would jokingly sign e-mails to my brothers and sisters “True Wonderful (In)action.” I was disturbed even by this little joke, since “inaction,” when broken into two words, is “in action.” I was still convinced I was anything but active. Even when I took action, it felt empty and forced, as though I were going through the motions in order not to be judged.
The real sticking point for me was the word “true.” I could perform “wonderful actions” if I had to, but for them to be “true” didn’t they need to fit my true nature? Didn’t they need to arise from a place of compassion and understanding? Even though I’m only a wave in the ocean, I’m a specific wave and my actions flow from my individual amplitude and frequency. How could I be authentically active?
So I continued to feel slightly uncomfortable with the fit of my name. Sometimes it felt like I was walking around in someone else’s clothes, of a fine material and cut, but too large for me, dragging in the dirt.
After receiving my name, I became more aware of the bodhisattva Samantabhadra. As the bodhisattva of great action, I hoped he could help teach me to grow into my oversized name. I took as an ant-sized goal to “ease the pain of one person in the morning and bring joy to one person in the afternoon.” It wasn’t going to bring war to a screeching halt, end world hunger, or cause all suffering to cease, but it was something I could see clearly, something I could do. It was a Tiny True Wonderful Action––or so I hoped.
Time passed. I stopped analyzing so much and learned to let go a little. My name is my name and it won’t change. My name is a gift and I decided to be patient, to accept it, to see what it might offer.
So I continued my ant life. I wrote. I painted. I listened and talked to my friends and relatives. I participated in Sangha. I meditated. I read. I walked in the park.
Finding True Action
About a month ago I find myself walking to my park with the intention of feeding the hungry (in this case, the hungry ducks). As I arrive at the large pond, I see three boys. Two of them are throwing rocks at the ducks and the third is charging at them with his bicycle.
I’m instantly angry. My first impulse is to yell at them and tell them to stop. “Why are people so cruel?” I wonder. “Why must children be destructive and hateful? No wonder our world is such a mess.”
My stomach is churning and my heart is beating quickly. My usual course of action would be to walk past the upsetting scene and forget about it as quickly as possible.
But something happens. My habit energy is interrupted by a sudden burning awareness of the bag of bread in my hand. I came here for a specific reason and that reason wakes me up. An idea springs full-formed into my head.
I feel hot all over. What I intend to do is outside my normal, comfortable range of behavior. But I have to do it.
I walk over to the boys.
I don’t have children of my own. Nor do I work with children. In fact, I’m still learning how to be around children because I don’t automatically know what to do or say or how to act. Walking up to these three boys is an act of courage, especially for an ant like me.
I stop in front of the boy who has been leading the rock-throwing.
“Hi,” I say.
“Hello,” he responds, obviously wondering why I’m speaking to him. I feel a flicker of encouragement. Some part of me expects him to ignore me, to run away, to mock. Instead, he’s just a boy, saying hello to a grownup, and to a stranger at that.
“Can I ask you a question?” I begin.
“Yeeesssss,” he answers, still unsure about what’s happening.
I forge ahead with my plan. It feels exactly right. “Why are you throwing rocks at the ducks?”
I wait. He looks down at his feet. I feel his discomfort. I know he thinks I’m going to yell at him, tell him how bad he is. I know this because I remember. I remember what it is like to be him.
He answers: “I don’t know.”
I look at him and nod. I’m silent for a moment. I realize he’s telling me the absolute truth. He has no idea why he is throwing rocks at the ducks. I know what I have to do.
“Well,” I say, and I pause again, gathering my courage, getting ready to put it all out there. “How would you like to feed them instead?” I hold up my bag of stale bread.
His face clouds over for a moment with confusion. Then his eyes clear and he half-smiles.
“Sure,” he says. “I’d like that.
I give him a couple of bread slices and start to walk away, but the second rock-throwing boy runs up to me.
“Can I feed the ducks, too?” he asks eagerly. I oblige and hand him some bread.
A few seconds later, the third boy on the bike rides towards me.
“Do you want some bread for the ducks?” I ask.
“Please!” he says, with excitement. More bread changes hands.
As I continue on my walk, I glance back over my shoulder at three boys surrounded by ducks. In spite of myself, I feel my eyes become hot with tears.
True Wonderful Action. I think I’m beginning to understand.
Anissa Housley, True Wonderful Action, practices with the Plum Blossom Sangha in Austin, Texas. She is a writer and an artist.
Sister Annabel on Dharma Names
Until fifteen years ago Thay knew all OI aspirants personally and they were invited to receive the OI ordination. After that time candidates began to request ordination and often they were not known to Thay. More than fifty people receive the lay OI ordination every year and Thay cannot possibly know them all personally. It is therefore very important that ordinees practice deeply while writing their aspirations because the Dharma teachers of Plum Village and Thay use those words of aspiration when giving a name. Giving a name is a meditation and is never done by one Dharma teacher alone. After the Dharma teachers are agreed about the name, Thay has to give Thay’s approval. The list of names already given has to be consulted so no two people have the same name, although sometimes two different Chinese words have only one English equivalent. It is necessary that an aspirant writes her aspirations with all her concentration and mindfulness as if she were writing to the Buddha about what matters most to her in this life. Once the aspirant has done his best, he can be sure that the name he receives will help him. She should receive her name with humility and gratitude. If he does not understand his name he can ask his mentor or a monastic Dharma teacher to help. Otherwise she may recognize that she has not yet realized the full implication of her name, and be willing to give it time to reveal itself as her practice deepens. A Dharma name is to point to a quality that we have, and we need to practice to help that quality manifest more. “True” is the name that Thay has chosen for his own disciples. The quality that follows may be something that we already have, but not yet in its truest form. We need to practice to make it more true.