“The perfect place to get free of your name.” That’s how the prolific Tang Dynasty poet and devoted Chan (Jp. Zen) student Po Chu-i described Thatch-Hut Mountain, a complex of approximately 90 peaks in south China. When he arrived there in 815 C.E., monks and sage-recluses had already resided among the craggy ridges for centuries: chopping wood, growing veggies, attending to their breathing, slowly and steadily emptying their minds. Thatch-Hut was a hotbed of name-escapers.
It could be argued that Chan practice—the hours sitting in meditation, the weeks and months and years contemplating paradoxical riddles, the entire shebang—is fundamentally concerned with the prison of the name, in other words the illusory self and the not-so-illusory limitations it puts on our experience of the world and our way of being. Better to establish a home in the nameless rhythm of inhale-exhale, the flow of weather and seasons out your hermitage window, than in the ego’s fears and desires, right?
Well, maybe. Although I want to assume Po’s ancient ideal of Chan namelessness resonates across the ages, it’s likely that your typical 21st-century American relates to the ink on her birth certificate differently: “S-A-M-A-N-T-H-A. I was born Samantha, and thus I will forever be Samantha. I know who I am. I am me. Samantha. When I die, that’s what they will engrave on my headstone.”
OK, sure, easy enough for Samantha—this imagined woman—to identify with her name, but what if that string of letters wasn’t so approachable? What if it failed to offer the security of the familiar and was instead slippery, amorphous, a moving target? What if Samantha’s name was…
“Hi, I’m Leath. Pleasure to meet you.”
“Um, sorry, come again? Leaf? Like on a tree? Like Leif Erikson the Norse explorer? Like Keith? Really, I’m sorry, it’s this darn earwax problem of mine. Did you say Heath? Like the candy bar? Is it L-E-A-S-H, like for a dog?”
From preschool up through yesterday at the supermarket (I was chatting with the deli guy, Ralph), my life has been a streaming pageant of people mishearing, mispronouncing, and misspelling this odd name my parents gifted me. Originally a surname (Mary Leath, Ephraim Leath, Ebeneezer Leath), it came down the family tree like a nut dropped by a squirrel, meaning it hit many branches en route, including my great-grandfather (Leath Postlewaite). Partly as an homage to him, partly because my folks enjoyed the sound, their nameless newborn became L-E-A-T-H.
And there’s been confusion ever since.
Take this scenario from childhood. A gluttonous little brat, I insisted on a Dairy Queen ice cream cake for my birthday party. Pick your battles, Kind Patient Mom thought, reaching for the phone. Of course, the poor soul at DQ was being set up for failure, and when the cake made its grand appearance, aglow with seven cheery candles, the script of chocolate frosting read: Happy Birthday Leith.
Still a gluttonous brat a year later: Happy Birthday Lee.
And the following year: Happy Birthday Leahea.
That one got us all chuckling.
Yes, chuckling. I can’t remember ever caring what I was called or not called. Is Leath eating the cake or is Leahea? Beats me! Cut a fat piece and enjoy! Early on, apparently, I was given the gift of not taking my legal appellation too seriously. That silly thing? Whatever. It isn’t me.
I don’t intend to imply a version of enlightenment here, like I’ve pricked my ears to the ringing silence that is the true source of everything, including tags and designations, cognomens and sobriquets. Au contraire, I’m a bumbling idiot—monkey mind extraordinaire. By chance, though, my weird moniker has nudged me a couple inches nearer to certain aspects of Buddhist philosophy, and for this, I am deeply grateful.
When bad news approaches—something trivial but undeniably miserable, like mysterious clanking automobile troubles—I hear a voice saying, Don’t worry, that’s Leahea’s crappy car, and he always manages to push through the muck and muddle eventually. Hearing this voice respond to good news is challenging yet, ultimately, more valuable: I’m glad Leahea is recognized as smart, handsome, funny, and compassionate, but sheesh, I hope it doesn’t go to his head, because lord knows it would go to mine. Rather than acting as a sticky flycatcher that draws the “good” and the “bad” to my body, holding them close, my name acts as a sort of repellent, a shield that deflects those pesky insects (mechanic’s bill, glowing praise) and thereby allows me to keep on with the vital business of the next breath, the window-framed birds and clouds.
About that window. I don’t live in a hermitage on Thatch-Hut Mountain, but I do live in a snug cottage surrounded by Colorado’s gorgeous 13,000-foot peaks. Taking long solo hikes on these peaks, without maps and usually without the aid of a trail, happens to be my favorite hobby. The boulders and trees and jumpy creeks out there in the backcountry don’t know what to call me (though they likely wouldn’t know what to call Ralph, the deli guy, either). I fully agree with Po Chu-i: Wildlands are indeed a fine place to get free, free, free. The trick is carrying that freedom to the valley, to the daily grind of office and kitchen and commute and telephone and—mailbox.
This last autumn, there inside the mailbox, it happened again. I had published a collection of essays and—surprise, surprise—my name was spelled incorrectly on the back cover. Ha! This ain’t my book! This is some other dude’s book! I laughed a hearty laugh, thinking of Po and my Dairy Queen birthdays and the luck of the draw—how sometimes, effortlessly, we escape ourselves. Is Leath standing in the sun at the end of the driveway, shutting the mailbox and flipping the book over in his hand, double-checking to confirm that the universe has, not for the first time and not for the last, allowed him to slip past the copy editor and the ego? Or is that Leahea? Or is it Leaf? Or is it Keith? Or is it…
Probably doesn’t matter. Blow out the candles. Enjoy.
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