What’s this Ryūdō nonsense about, anyway?

This post is in case any of my Instagram friends have wondered why my profile says Ryūdō James Holloway these days. It’s because I’m a zen buddhist.

That didn’t happen over the night. But taking the zen precepts did. Well – one morning in Oxford. You don’t need to take the precepts to be a zen buddhist, but it does make it sort of official. You even get a certificate. I did allude to this on Instagram, but you may not have seen it. And I didn’t explain properly. So I’m writing this.

One thing that happens when you take the precepts is that your teacher gives you your zen name or dharma name. Mine is Ryūdō, which translates to things like dragon way, dragon’s way, way of the dragon. I was a bit hesitant – sounded a bit macho to me. I’ve seen buddhism subverted by your incel-types to justify their toxic brand of masculinity. It felt like something they’d like. So no thanks.

But, of course, I missed the point. In zen, and Eastern tradition generally, dragons are quite different. One way, and maybe the most important for me at the moment, is that the dragon symbolises enlightenment. Power? Not so much. That’s not really even a thing in zen – not that I’ve come across.

Enlightenment is a problematic word too, though. It gives the wrong impression in many ways. It’s not “I understand things better than you do.” It’s more “I understand myself much better than I did before.” So yes – I’m on the road to that – is the idea.

And another wrinkle is that Ryū (the dragon bit) is relevant to my sangha and my lineage. It connects me to my teacher and others she has taught and been taught be at one time or another.

Dharma names are generally aspirational, not descriptive. They’re a koan. My teacher and I discussed my dharma name in advance, which surprised me. I’d wondered about Kyōdō – empty way. It seemed a good match for my surname Holloway. It’s like I’ve been walking around with a dharma name this whole time without realising. But no – I have to earn Kyōdō. Fair do’s.

How, when and where you use a dharma name is anyone’s guess. The people I practice with call me Ryūdō sometimes, but James more often. Everyone else calls me James, and that’s for the best, really. But I put it on Instagram, I think, because zen really helps my creativity. And besides here, Instagram’s where I put creative stuff. Those bits of me are one, now.

Bit pretentious? I worry about that, but I don’t think it should be to share your dharma name. I need to get better at the “bring your whole self” thing. I’ve always compartmentalised, and that can make me unhappy. If I’m embarrassed about it, it would mean I shouldn’t have done it in the first place. I don’t believe that.

You might also have seen Chinese characters on my profile. They say Ryūdō as well. Cultural appropriation? I worry about that too. But I’m practicing zen in the Japanese tradition, and that’s how Chinese characters are used. I’ve still much more to learn about that. How buddhism and zen adapts to different cultures is a fascinating topic. But I’m just going with the flow here.

I was going to talk about about how I fell into this whole zen thing and why I took the precepts, but I’ve gone on long enough. I’ll try to write about those things soon. Thanks for your interest. Have a lovely day.