Abstract: From Anila to Gelongma — Naming, Language, and Gender Equality

by Dr. Yu-Ling Christie Chang

Council on International Educational Exchange/ National Taiwan University

Shakespeare mused that the name of a rose does not change its nature or fragrance, a sentiment most Buddhists would share. Buddhists frequently speak about the impermanence of all compounded phenomena, and names, the words we use to distinguish persons and phenomena, are especially transient and insubstantial. At the same time, naming and language are important aspects of the human experience. Human beings pay special attention to the names and titles of address they use with each other. Names are given importance universally and crossculturally, in societies and languages around the world. Parents everywhere are prudent in choosing a name for a newborn baby. In social interactions, people take care to pronounce names correctly, use correct titles, and, in many societies, use honorific language in addressing others, especially when we meet them for the first time. Names are signifiers, and titles, in particular, send specific messages. For example, in Tibetan society, adding or omitting the title "His Holiness" to the name of the Dalai Lama can convey a world of meaning.

Consciously or subconsciously, human beings recognize the significance of the names and titles they use in their respective communities on a daily basis. Language usage reflects societal assumptions and values. Languages are influenced by positive and negative valuations of people and things, but habitual speech patterns and the messages they send may also be unconscious. Even when society and its values change, incorrect or even derogatory ways of naming may persist. A case in point is the language used for Buddhist nuns, a topic that has somehow been neglected. For example, in Tibetan the word for a fully ordained nun is "gelongma," yet we frequently hear the words "ani" or "anila" used instead to address Buddhist nuns. Even though other more respectful terms are available, such as “jo-mo”, “btsun-ma”, “chö-la” and so forth, consciously or unconsciously many people continue to use less respectful terms. Why?

This paper discusses the issue of names and titles for Buddhist nuns from a sociolinguistic perspective. It introduces the results of the “Correct Naming Movement” in Taiwan and the sociological significance of the movement for Buddhist nuns and Buddhism more broadly. The objective is a greater understanding of the relationship between Buddhism, language, and gender, and ultimately to work toward setting standards for correctly naming nuns in Buddhist communities.