Zen Buddhism and Steve Jobs

Nov 26th, 2011 | By | Category: Culture & Wordview, Featured Issues

With the death of Apple founder, Steve Jobs, and the subsequent release of the biography of Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson, we have gained a new insight into the mind and heart of Apple CEO Steve Jobs.  A few thoughts about this remarkable man.

  • First, Steve Jobs was a man of much inner turmoil and unsettledness.  He told Isaacson that “For most of my life, I’ve felt there must be more to our existence than meets the eye.”  Much of his early childhood was spent searching for that “unseen something.”  Isaacson relates that when he was 13 years old, he talked with a Lutheran pastor about human suffering and starving children.  The pastor did not give him satisfactory answers so he refused to attend church again.  He then turned to Eastern mysticism, to meditation and to even psychedelic drugs.  He also began to study Zen Buddhism.  He especially focused on the lectures of Shunryu Suzuki, a Zen master from America.  In 1974, Jobs travelled to India in search of a guru that could serve him personally.  According to Daniel Burke of USA Today, “Upon returning [from India] he found one in his hometown of Los Altos, California, where a Suzuki disciple, Kobun Chino Otagawa, had opened the Haiku Zen Center.  Jobs and this Zen master quickly forged a bond, discussing life and Buddhism during midnight walks.  ‘I ended up spending as much time with him as I could,’ Jobs told Isaacson.  ‘Zen has been a deep influence in my life ever since.’”  In 1976, Steve Jobs ended his regular practice of Zen Buddhism.  His work at Apple was consuming more and more of his time.  Nonetheless, his contact with Kobun continued.  Indeed, Kobun officiated at his wedding in 1991.  When Kobun died of drowning in 2002, evidence indicates that Jobs took this death very hard.  According to Isaacson’s biography, as reported by Burke, Jobs believed that Zen meditation taught him to concentrate and ignore distractions:  “He also learned to trust intuition and curiosity—what Buddhists call ‘beginner’s mind’—over analysis and preconceptions.  More visibly, Apple’s sleek, minimalist designs reveal Jobs’s zeal for Zen aesthetics—the uncluttered lines of calligraphy and Japanese gardens, according to Isaacson’s book.”

Further, to boost creativity among Apple’s engineers, Jobs began offering meditation classes at Apple in 1999.  However, Jobs was known as a ruthless, mean, manipulative and egocentric CEO, for, as Isaacson reports in his book, “Unfortunately, his Zen training never quite produced in him a Zen-like calm of inner serenity, and that is part of his legacy.”  Isaacson quotes one of the meditation teachers in California as stating that “He got to the aesthetic part of Zen—the relationship between lines and spaces, the quality and craftsmanship, but he didn’t stay long enough to get the Buddhist part, the compassion part, the sensitivity part.”  In short, Steve Jobs did not practice what he believed, a common struggle for all humans, due to sin.  But sin is not part of the Zen equation.  Enlightenment is gained by turning inward and when you do that, the Bible teaches, you find nothing but more darkness, not true enlightenment.

  • Second, what exactly is Zen Buddhism?  “Zen” is actually a Japanese word for meditation (in China it is Ch’an), a form of religion which developed out of, and in a reaction to Buddhism.  It originated in India, rose to prominence in China and now flourishes in Japan.  As you might expect, it is very difficult to arrive at a clear understanding of all that Zen Buddhism teaches.  Each Zen leader has his own applications.  Nonetheless, here are a few tenets that seem to apply to all Zen leaders:
        1. The Buddha-nature is in all men, so that all can become Buddhas; and the Buddha-mind is everywhere.  Anything can occasion its realization at any time.  Enlightenment (called satori) can be attained in ordinary living, under ordinary circumstances and in ordinary situations.  Satori, sudden illumination, can occur at any point in life.
        2. According to one writer, satori involves a return to one’s original nature, to one’s original relations with the world of nature.  This satori is not normally attained via rigorous asceticism (as in traditional Buddhism) and it is not conceptual in nature.  In fact, concepts and ideas are not what motivate the Zen Buddhist.  Instead, it is characterized by the absence of conceptions, the absence of thought.
        3. In fact, the power of Zen is released in the koan, a problem designed to baffle one’s ordinary intellectual apprehension, forcing a new orientation of awareness.  The koan poses a dilemma capable of arresting the mind, of calling up analogies; but the point is to pass beyond this symbolic formulation, to move through the koan, emerging on its other side with a unity of mind and spirit one had not possessed before.  When a koan is solved, typically a flash of enlightenment comes.  With greater periods of enlightenment, one eventually becomes a “Buddha in this very body.”
        4. For the Zen Buddhist, meditation (called “Za-zen”) incorporates Yoga-like techniques to promote the atmosphere of inner peace, allowing the individual to conserve his psychic energy for the sake of concentrating attention more effectively in the struggle with his koan.
        5. The simplicity of Zen is reflected in architecture and painting in Japan and China.  It is this that influenced Jobs and his designs at Apple.
  • Third, how could one possibly reach someone like Steve Jobs, who was so influenced by Zen Buddhism?  The ultimate reason for seeking an intelligent understanding of Zen Buddhism is to find bridges we can build to reach the Zen Buddhist with the gospel.  Jesus did this constantly, as He regularly adapted His message to His hearers.

Bridge #1: First and foremost, consistency in what we believe is crucial.  Our doctrinal convictions must be matched by the reality of the Christ-like life.  Because Zen Buddhism is fundamentally an ethical faith with no real emphasis on the supernatural, the authentic life of Christ speaks volumes to the Zen Buddhist.  Authenticity will get the Zen Buddhist’s attention.  This is what Steve Jobs was seeking and what he failed to attain.

Bridge #2 is the issue of suffering.  For the Zen Buddhist, suffering encompasses all of life from birth to death.  Clinging to the pleasures of life is considered foolishness and vain to the Zen Buddhist.  The Christian worldview harmonizes with Zen Buddhism on this point.  Christianity recognizes the reality of suffering and ties it to the consequence of human sin (Genesis 3).  For that reason the book of Ecclesiastes may be the best starting point, for it declares the futility of life “under the sun” (1:1-11).  This book points out that life is unfair, futile, confusing, and transitory.  It is only belief in a Sovereign, personal God that brings sense to all of this, declares the author.  For that reason, life is seen, for the Christian, as a good gift from a good God, who ultimately makes sense even out of suffering.  Perhaps books like Phillip Yancey’s Where is God When It Hurts? or C.S. Lewis’s The Problem of Pain, both of which deal with suffering, can be of help to the Buddhist.

Bridge #3:  When the Zen Buddhist asks the question, “what is life all about?”, he turns inward and answers that it can be found within.  When the Christian asks the same question, he turns outward and upward towards God for the answer.  For that reason, the Zen Buddhist will focus so much on inward issues.  The Zen Buddhist seeks to dwell on and master self in an effort to eradicate self.  The haunting question for the Zen Buddhist is how does one achieve satori through occupation with self?  It is a paradox.  Jesus gave the solution to the paradox of Zen Buddhism:  “He who has found his life shall lose it and he who has lost his life for my sake shall find it” (Matthew 10:39; Mark 8:35 and Luke 9:24).  We find our true identity by losing ourselves in the One who created us, namely Jesus Christ.

Bridge #4: Zen Buddhism claims that all humans should be treated well.  But why?  There is no absolute standard in Zen Buddhism.  Zen Buddhists practice respect and dignity for all life to gain personal peace, to live in harmony with the world.  But perhaps a person could easily do evil to get ahead and attain personal peace.  Why is that wrong?  We must press the Zen Buddhist:  “What is goodness?  How do we know what is good?”  Moral law points to a moral Lawgiver, namely the true God.

Bridge #5:  For the Zen Buddhist, ultimate reality is within the human self.  Self is the ultimate.  But for the Christian, ultimate reality is in the absolute truth of a God who is outside of man and man knows that truth through revelation.  For the Zen Buddhist, reality is thoroughly subjective and inner; for the Christian it is objective and God-centered.  Ultimate reality is knowable only through Jesus Christ, Who said, “I am the way, the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me” (John 14:6).  This is ultimately the choice the Zen Buddhist must make–is it self or is it Christ?

Reaching a Zen Buddhist, such as Steve Jobs, with the gospel of Jesus Christ is difficult and problematic.  These suggested bridges can be used by the Holy Spirit to pierce the heart of the Zen Buddhist.  Fundamentally, both the Zen Buddhist and the Christian focus on the metaphor of light as being the path to truth.  As the Zen Buddhist journeys into himself and as he learns to negate himself more and more, he is thereby enlightened.  The Christian journeys into Jesus Christ, who is the light of the world.  To find Jesus is to find true enlightenment.  That is the message we must take to the Zen Buddhist.

See Daniel Burke in USA Today (3 November 2011); W.L. Reese, Dictionary of Philosophy and Religion: Eastern and Western Thought, pp. 639-41; and James P. Eckman, The Truth About Worldviews, pp. 31-39. PRINT PDF

7 Comments to “Zen Buddhism and Steve Jobs”

  1. jack says:

    A monkey can not understand human language. If u want to understand about steve jobs and buddhism, first u must become a human.

  2. Mike says:

    Though it may seem a paradox to become one with the enlightenment already inside us by using words, there is a practice in chinese medicine to relieve a hot flu with hot tea. Consider Koan to be an immunization of thought and language.

  3. […] Steve Jobs famously studied Zen Buddism. […]

  4. Jack says:

    “Enlightenment is gained by turning inward and when you do that, the Bible teaches, you find nothing but more darkness, not true enlightenment.”

    Oh right, so I suppose when Jesus said the Kingdom of Heaven is inside you, he was referring to what?

    Have you even read the bible??

  5. Amitayu says:

    To find the being , is finding Christ in yourself…..

  6. Share says:

    Your quote “Bridge #5: For the Zen Buddhist, ultimate reality is within the human self. Self is the ultimate.”

    That has got to be the biggest misunderstanding on Zen Buddhism I have ever read. Actually, in Zen we try to go beyond the self, and see that the self is just our non-permanent, clinging mind. “Self” is exactly the OPPOSITE of the ultimate.

    But don’t misundertand the “self” as the personality (which is real, though temporary since we are always changing) or the idea of a soul. “Self” is more akin to the “selfish self”. When a person has compassion, they are said to be selfless in the English language, and that wording describes how Zen sees the self as well. Selfish means you are wrapped up in your own ego, constantly thinking about yourself, and overly self-concious. In Zen we try to be selfless.

    As far as why we should all be treated the same? It is because in Zen we say that we are the same… all people seek happiness. To use a metaphor, if you have two hands, would you use your right hand to hurt your left? Not if you understood that the right and left hand are from the same source… but people who persist in thinking of themselves as a seperate, invididual, “selfish selves” cannot see this. They cannot see themselves in others or others in themselves. So they hurt other people. Wisdom is what makes us realize that we are not seperate in the absolute, (though in the relative word, of course we are seperate). An henlightented person (who has brought their wisdom into practice and into their life) sees and understands this, so it is therefore natural for them to not even want to hurt others.

    As far as your “haunting” question about “How does a Zen Buddhist realize satori with an occupation with themselves?” The answer is simple. They don’t. You cannot realize satori if you have a pre-occupation with the self. When we meditate, we are not meditating on the self, so there is no contradiction here. What do we meditate on? Depending on the branch of Buddhism, it can be anything from compassion, to a visualization representing a quality of an awakened person(Tibetan), to somatic body sensations (Vipassina) to a intellectually unsolveable question that can only be understood by realizing satori (Zen) to focusing on the breath. But if you notice, none of that is focusing on “the self”

    And again we don’t “negate ourselves” as in, destroy our personalities. That would be pathological. Rather, with satori, we see that we are not seperate from other people…there are no divisions, while at the same time there are divisions. (It may seem like a paradox but it’s not, they are both simultanously true).

    BTW, I once believed in Jesus…probably when I was five or six. But I have been a Zen Buddhist since 18 (for almost 10 years now) and I can say that I have felt much closer to enlighenment by following the path that I am on, then when I believed in Jesus as a child. I have had personal experiences that have only strengthened my faith in Zen Buddhism.

    Each person is unique, but for me, I cannot see how a simple belief would give me any of the richness that the practice of Zen Buddhism has. Perhaps one of the biggest reasons (though not the only reason) I chose Zen Buddhism was because of the strong de-emphasis on the LACK of supersition, miracles, reliance on “coincidences”, reliance on “an outside authority”, and reliance on written scriptures to prove it’s validity. I do not have to suspend my disbelief (so that I can believe that someone came back to life after dying, or that Jesus healed the blind with a touch, or that God existed within him,).

    I once asked a friend who strongly believes in Jesus why she believes, and she basically explained a personal experience that was little more than a coincidence to me. Our brains are designed to see patterns, so it is not unusual that we see them when we look for them. Of course I didn’t want to say anything to her because I do respect her beliefs, even if I don’t agree with them (which is something I really wish Christians would do for me. But I know, tough luck, you think I’m going to heck so you got to save me).

    Another thing that is NOT helping the Christian’s case (in my book) is the strong anti-gay stances of some of the more fundamentalist Christians. Those of us who are not Christian shake our head in sadness, as we see the harm that they cause. I have known people who have left Christianity for that reason.

    There is also the issues of how wrong Christianity has been over the centuries whenever it comes into contact with science. It used to be that 100% of the population believed in creationism because that’s what the bible said. Now, people had to make up a way to make the bible’s ideas fit with the reality of observable science- they call it intelligent design. But if that were true, why didn’t Christianity start with that and not creationism?

    i wish I could put into words the beauty and richness that I have experienced with Zen… but it is impossible to put into words. And Zen meditation, it is hard, not an easy thing like suddenly believing in something. It takes years of work, and time, and I do tend to believe that if something is hard to do, it tends to be worth it.

    I’m sure Christianity has it’s own beauty too, (it wouldn’t be the world’s most popular religion otherwise) but many of the things that draw people to it are the very things that turn me off to it.

    After what I have seen and experienced with my own eyes (and not having to trust an authority figure who says something is true based on authority)- well, for the see it to believe it type like me, Zen Buddhism just works better. I’m sure that if you find a Zen Buddhist who hasn’t really gone deeply into the practice side, or felt what it’s like to get really into it, or been to a real dharma center (there are many book Buddhists out there who read it, think the philisophy is neat, then call themselves Buddhists) perhaps you can convert them. But how can you convert someone like me, to something when with my own eyes and my own experiences, Zen Buddhism has shown itself to be the best path? Plus the arguments you put forth- only someone who doesn’t really truly understand Zen Buddhism would be confused by them (ie book Buddhists who never go to a center/temple to practice)

    For me, Zen Buddhism is my path and it is a path I love and feel very grateful to be on.

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