I am sometimes known as “Ironox” and it’s a name I’ve also used for my company. On the off chance someone is interested, I thought I’d explain where it came from and what it means.
In 2000 I formally and officially committed myself to the great Way of Buddha. I am in a sangha, which is a group of practitioners. In the Clouds and Water Sangha, receiving a suitable Buddhist name is part of taking the precepts for the first time.
It worked like this: my teacher, the Venerable Bodhin Kjolhede, Roshi [although he was known as ‘Sensei’ at that time], selected five Buddhist names for me including ‘Ironox.’ In private consultation with me, we agreed upon ‘Ironox.’ The consultation is really because, unknown to the teacher, a certain name may have unfortunate connotations for the student and it’s preferable to avoid giving that kind of name to a student. (This name is not to be confused with a dharma name given to a zen priest at ordination.)
At the time, I had no idea what, if anything, it meant.
He has never told me why he selected it. All he said was that it was very easy for him to select names for me and that that isn’t always the case.
I have since learned that the ox often stands for the mind in Buddhist literature. I naturally concluded that ‘Ironox’ denotes a mind made of iron, a very hard mind.
That would make sense because I am a formally trained master thinker — at least assuming that a doctorate in philosophy means something.
‘Ironox Works, Inc.’ in 2003 came, of course, from it.
I do occasionally find the term ‘iron ox’ in Buddhist literature. Perhaps the most famous example is in the deathbed utterance of Master Mingzhao Dequin who lived in the tenth century.
According to Andy Ferguson’s masterful Zen’s Chinese Heritage some of his last words translate as:
“Within the fire, an iron ox gives birth to a calf.”
What? Is that typical zen nonsense?
I’m not sure. My reading is that ‘fire’ refers to the domain of Becoming [for the Becoming / Being distinction, click here]. A newborn calf is, of course, something alive. It would be miraculous if a hard mind could spawn something living.
Minds are full of thoughts. Since thoughts necessarily require conceptualization, they are always, at best, relatively true and cannot be wholly true. They always require perspective [For more on perspective, click here].
This explains why attaching to thoughts is the way of the fool. As the Third Ancestor wrote in his great writing on mind:
“If you’re attached to anything, / you surely will go far astray.” [Rochester Zen Center translation]
Thoughts are also always abstractions. Even words like ‘here’ or ‘now’ are abstractions from the present moment. In this sense, thoughts are always dead.
Relying on words to describe what-is, then, however sometimes useful, is using death to describe life. It cannot work well.
My suggestion is that Mingzhao was using words to point past them to life.
A similar image was once used by Taiping Huiquin [aka “Fojian”] (1059-1117):
“The iron ox grazed in the golden grass.”
A hard mind sustaining itself by relying on living food?
In my case, ‘Ironox’ denotes a serious conceptualizer.
There may have been an implicit prediction in naming me ‘Ironox’: it will prove very difficult for me to let go of conceptualizing after decades of attachment to it. If so, that has proved correct.
What counts, though, is not the speed of a breakthrough but its thoroughness. Intellectuals do tend to take longer to let go of thinking, but, when they do, their breakthroughs tend to me more thorough.
As my philosophical mentor Panayot Butchvarov is fond of saying, “One never knows about these things.”