Two friends of mine are going to be ordained soon, and this has got me thinking about how we address monks and nuns in English. We tend to use the term that the monastics themselves use. Sometimes we have to ask, but we increasingly often encounter titles in books, magazine bylines and on the web. This post explores the sorts of monastic titles that I use when I speak or write about monks and nuns in English to English speakers. And I add a couple thoughts about “Western Buddhism” to boot!
For Theravada monks, my favorite Pali term is bhante as in Bhante Piyananda, Bhante Khippapanno or Bhante Kassapa. There is also the term bhikkhu, but this term isn’t used consistently. There’s Thanissaro Bhikkhu but Bhikkhu Bodhi. For the Sanskrit version, I’ve only used it to refer to Kusala Bhikshu — although when I first met him, he usually went by Reverend Kusala. But not everyone likes to be called bhante or bhikkhu.
Some titles straddle multiple languages. The Thai term ajahn (or ajarn, ajaan, acharn, etc.) comes from the Sanskrit word acarya “teacher”, and I use this for both for Thai monks and also monks who were trained in Thailand, so Ajahn Geoff (a.k.a. Thanissaro Bhikkhu), and of course Ajahn Chah, Ajahn Mun, Ajahn Brahm, and so on. I also use the term than (tan, tarn?) for monks from Thai traditions who I may feel hesitant calling ajahn. For the Burmese and Burmese-trained monks, I use the terms ashin and sayadaw (like Ashin Sopaka and Sayadaw U Tejaniya). And then there’s the English catchall: venerable. When in doubt, I use Venerable, even when it means doubling up the honorifics.
Avoidance is the name of the game for certain other titles. I could never use Thay as a reference for thầy Thích Nhất Hạnh alone. Tibetan terms are also beyond me. Not being a part of the Tibetan Buddhist community, I prefer to stick with what I’m used to, so I lop off as many unfamiliar titles as possible (lama, rinpoche, etc.) and replace them with Venerable (if I can get away with it). There are always exceptions, such as monks who are referred to by their title alone, namely the Dalai Lama, the Karmapa and — for those of the Theravada cloth — the Sangharajas.
Now the term venerable feels a little weighty to me. I think less of respect and more of relics that we venerate in shrines. Not to mention that the word is long. But venerable happens to be the most “English” word that I have in my linguistic title-kit. That’s probably why I’m so quick to use this form of address, in spite of how awkward it feels on my tongue.
Together, the above titles comprise a fraction of those used in the English-speaking Buddhist world, and this diversity raises one last point. These terms are almost entirely cultural. Did Lord Buddha call anyone roshi or shifu? Do these terms have meanings that Western (European) languages cannot hold? For those who are concerned about creating a Western Buddhism that moves beyond “cultural trappings”, these titles should be first to go. But for some reason, I don’t think that’s going to happen. We like the cultural trappings, even if they are merely the cover, not the contents. In my opinion, this is a good thing. I like the diversity.