The Gift of a Name

The Gift of a Name

People often ask about my name. I’m not Tibetan nor married to a Tibetan, so where’d that funny surname come from?

Rinchen-Wongmo is my Tibetan name.

It means Precious Empowered Woman.

Tibetans don’t generally have surnames or family names. Each individual carries one or two names, usually given to him or her by a lama (a Buddhist monk or spiritual master).

Names can change several times in a lifetime. When great obstacles are encountered or significant changes take place in one’s life, it’s not uncommon to ask a lama for a new name. This shows a deep respect for the power of words and an awareness of the fluidity of identity.

My name, Rinchen Wongmo, was given to me by Geshe Sonam Rinchen, the Tibetan lama with whom I took refuge in the Buddha’s inner path of freedom and well being. Taking refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha is, in layman’s terms, the formal act of becoming Buddhist.

I had always been drawn to an eastern spiritual view. It simply felt natural to me from an early age, but I had no specific practice. Ram Dass had been my first teacher, I’d done Transcendental Meditation, and I’d seen the Dalai Lama in college, during his first visit to the US. When I met Tibetan culture on my first trip to Ladakh, I felt I’d found a family — to add to my already wonderful family in the US.

After a few months in India studying Buddhism and living among Tibetans, I chose to formalize my commitment to the practice. Geshe Sonam Rinchen, my primary teacher at the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives in Dharamsala, welcomed my declaration and gave me a part of his name, Rinchen (great value, precious). This piece of my name reminds me of the precious opportunity I have in this human life, to practice, to discern, to make choices, to teach, to give. It trains me not to disparage myself, nor to waste the great resource of being me.

The second name Geshe Sonam Rinchen conferred upon me, Wongmo, is a bit harder to take on. And it challenges me every day to step into what I’ve come here prepared to be. Wong is power or authority, ability and influence. It’s also the word used to describe the initiation or empowerment rituals by which lamas confer the essence of esoteric practices to practitioners (the blessings and authority of unbroken lineage). Mo is a feminine suffix, indicating that this particular holder of power is female. So Wongmo can be translated as empowered woman or female initiate. (More commonly transliterated as “Wangmo,” I altered the spelling to “Wongmo” to encourage accurate pronunciation by English speakers.)

Living among the Tibetans for nine years, I was Rinchen Wongmo, precious empowered woman. I learned to make thangkas as Rinchen Wongmo. Ask me in Tibetan what my name is and “Rinchen Wongmo” is the response I’ll give.

When I returned to the West, I tried to bring this name with me intact, to be Rinchen Wongmo here too.  But I quickly found that I was still Leslie when speaking English. I’d spent a long time growing into that name and liked who Leslie was. To merge the gifts I was born with and those I’d acquired, I hyphenated my Tibetan name and made it into an artistic surname.

Leslie Rinchen-Wongmo was born.