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October 6th, 2011
11:10 AM ET

The Zen of Steve Jobs

By Dan Gilgoff, CNN.com Religion Editor

(CNN) - Steve Jobs’ admirers praised him for de-cluttering the world of high-tech gadgetry. The products that made him famous, from the Macintosh computer to the iPad, exemplified minimalist design and simplicity of use, enabling what some called a Zen-like experience.

“Apple products are as defined by what they're missing as much as by what they contain,” wrote tech and pop culture columnist Jeff Yang this year in the San Francisco Chronicle.

The spiritual side of Steve Jobs

Might Jobs’ approach to innovation and design have been provoked by real-life Zen, as in Zen Buddhism?

The Apple chief, who died Wednesday at 56, had a decades-long relationship with a Zen master, who presided over his wedding and whom Jobs reportedly appointed as a corporate spiritual adviser. Their ties have fed speculation about such a connection.

Early on in life, Jobs took a spiritual retreat to India that helped lead him to embrace Buddhism. But the teacher with whom Jobs bonded with in the United States was a Zen Buddhist, a tradition rooted in Japan.

According to Yang and to other press reports, Jobs studied at the Los Altos Zen Center in the 1970s and developed a close relationship with a Japanse-born Zen master, or roshi, named Kobun Chino Otogawa.

Kobun focused his teaching on developing a Zen meditation practice.

“The real purpose of practice is to discover the wisdom which you have always been keeping with you,” Kobun said in a talk that’s posted on the website for the Jikoji Retreat Center, a Zen center he founded outside San Francisco.

“To discover yourself is to discover wisdom; without discovering yourself you can never communicate with anybody,” said Kobun, who died in 2002, in the same talk.

Jobs seemed to echo that spiritual self-reliance in public comments, including his oft-quoted 2005 commencement address at Stanford University:

For the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself, "If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?" And whenever the answer has been "no" for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

According to Yang, Jobs appointed Kobun as the official “spiritual adviser” for the company he founded after being fired as Apple CEO in 1986. Called NeXT, that company was eventually purchased by Apple, paving the way for Jobs' second act there.

In the 2001 book "The Second Coming of Steve Jobs," Alan Deutschman describes Kobun as:

a Zen Buddhist monk who had been Steve’s guru and friend since Steve was in his late teens. (Kobun) was a lovable, poetic, romantic personality who was known for speaking very slowly (even in his native Japanese) and giving unintelligible lectures... He was a renegade who rebelled against the strict discipline and burdensome responsibility of being a priest. He was the Steve Jobs of Zen.

Kobun presided over Jobs’ 1991 marriage to Laurene Powell.

The relationship between Jobs and Kobun is the subject of a graphic novel, soon to be published by Forbes. The book, which is fiction but is inspired by the real-life relationship, is titled “The Zen of Steve Jobs.”

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Buddhism • Spirituality • Technology

soundoff (332 Responses)
  1. Jeff Spangler

    Steve Jobs and his Apple coinventor Steve Wozniak are two inspiring examples of independent inventors who cook neat things up in a garage and make good. They were walk-in-off-the-street clients at a patent law firm in California. They're among the less than 5% of indy inventors who ever recover the substantial cost of obtaining a patent. But you'll never know unless you try. Keep on inventing, America!

    October 6, 2011 at 1:08 pm |
  2. kent

    Less Jobs than ever...not only are less people working but there are less visionaries than ever. Steve followed his heart while everyone now is following the money. It's hard to get excited about 100 versions of the same old thing.

    October 6, 2011 at 1:06 pm |
  3. RB

    Zen..? Real Buddhists do not believe in spending one's life in the pursuit of being rich and famous. Jobs, like most rich people, could never believe in any real religion because they all denounce this whole manner of life. He invented plenty of toys, which is wonderful for the easily bored masses, but he was still a coward like most undoubtedly seeking to rationalize his life seeing as he was going to die. Of course the most denouncing would be Christianity, but I guess that is the most staightfoward one too for people who actually want to see heaven...

    October 6, 2011 at 1:06 pm |
    • Marc

      You sir, are a fool and are ill-informed. He was not in the pursuit of "getting rich." He did not live in a gated community or in a mansion. He lived in a normal neighborhood in what other billionaires would consider very, VERY modest.
      We need more Americans like him – and less like you.

      October 6, 2011 at 1:14 pm |
    • Mott the Hoople

      Marc sez: "He was not in the pursuit of 'getting rich.'". He drove a Mercedes, and famously never, ever bought license plates for it, because he could pay the fine (of driving without license plates). For what reason? To save time? No, it takes time to get stopped by the police, time and time and time again. Far more time than just buying a license, and screwing it into the license plate holder. He was obsessed with being above the ordinary person.

      October 6, 2011 at 1:49 pm |
  4. Mike W.

    Best commencement speech ever (Stanford 2005 – Look it up on Youtube). Watch it every couple of months for inspiration. Remembering him as the person he was, not for his accomplishments (iPhone, Ipad, etc.). Great man, great inspiration. “Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish”.

    Mike W

    October 6, 2011 at 1:04 pm |
  5. Sue

    Clearly Steve Jobs is greater and more popular than Christian god and Jesus. He even lives on in not just one offspring, but in many millions of computing appliances, and even when we abuse those offspring, most of them don't die from it.

    And he has a far better and more widespread internet presence than god too. Many of them, in fact. Admittedly, they are not fully generated by him, but he has had more input into them than god has had into the sickeningly cheesy bible thumper websites.

    Also, unlike god of the Christian tales, he has admitted to his illegitmate child (Lisa) and has acknowledged publicly what he accepted as his mistakes.

    Steve Jobs >> god. Even now that Steve is dead. At least there is evidence for Steve Job's existence, and for what he did.

    RIP Steve Jobs

    October 6, 2011 at 12:59 pm |
    • TheTruth72

      Can Steve Jobs wash away your sins? That about sums up my argument right there.

      October 6, 2011 at 1:46 pm |
    • Mott the Hoople

      I'm LOL how the anonymity of the Internet brings the atheists out in droves. And what has atheism brought us? Excessive greed and hedonism. The atheists say that it is religion that has brought misery to the world, but, look deep down, without lying to yourself, you will see that it is all greed, greed, greed.

      October 6, 2011 at 1:53 pm |
    • Chedar

      TheTruth72. First thing, no one will wash your sins away. Buddhism try to avoid getting into sin by knowing the Four Noble Truth and the Eightfold Path. Once you committed that sin. It is yours to keep and no one will be able to wash it from. So the only way to getting those sin is to avoid it. If you think about the sins you and Adam and Eve (yuor forefathers) have committed. It is the five delusion that we posses for eons that you take rebirth. It has nothing to do with Adam and Eve. So be good to yourself. That will save you from future sins.

      October 6, 2011 at 2:27 pm |
    • Chuckles

      @Mott

      Um.....what? When does atheism bring greed? I would encourage you to meet some atheists, maybe get out of oyour church once in a while, too much religion poisons the brain.

      October 6, 2011 at 2:30 pm |
    • tallulah13

      "The atheists say that it is religion that has brought misery to the world, but, look deep down, without lying to yourself, you will see that it is all greed, greed, greed."

      So what you are saying is that religion is greedy? I absolutely agree.

      October 6, 2011 at 11:04 pm |
  6. Kuwait

    To die or not to DIE

    Lord Jesus, you create me for a purpose. I trust in you. I rest my soul and
    my body in your hand. Have mercy on me when it is my time to leave this earth.

    October 6, 2011 at 12:55 pm |
    • hippypoet

      who is the more foolish, the fool or the fool who follows him? eitherway, you are a fool!

      October 6, 2011 at 1:01 pm |
    • AGuest9

      A follower is a bigger fool, regardless.

      October 6, 2011 at 1:30 pm |
    • False Prophet Spotting Service

      Sanctimonious public prayer! ZAp!

      October 6, 2011 at 8:41 pm |
    • tallulah13

      Does your mom know that you are claiming that Jesus created you? Nine months says that she's the one who did all the hard work.

      October 6, 2011 at 11:07 pm |
  7. pierce

    My god can beat up your god because my god as the biggest military.

    October 6, 2011 at 12:45 pm |
  8. JC

    The Zen of Steve Jobs? I'd like to know more about the Snake Handling of Steve Jobs.

    October 6, 2011 at 12:33 pm |
    • Darth Cheney

      Sorry, but since you are obviously clueless, I'd inform you that's more of a fundamentalist Christian freak thing...

      October 6, 2011 at 12:47 pm |
  9. Rick

    Sick. Here we have an obit for a great American businessman, visionary and success story. Instead of condolences we see people trumpeting their religious views and prejudices and inane jokes. Rest in Peace, Mr. Jobs.

    October 6, 2011 at 12:23 pm |
    • Chuckles

      actually his obituary is in the obituary section, this however is posted on the belief blog designed to specifically focus on his religious beliefs and how it coincided with his work and life. If you want to read his obituary I suggest you look elsewhere.

      October 6, 2011 at 12:37 pm |
    • c

      It will probably kill the super duper christians to know that Job's coverted to Buddhism and his biological father (Abdulfatta Jandali was a Syrian born Muslim. His mother (Joanne Simpson) was American born and later married the bio father after she gave him up for adoption. Whatever he is or was he sure was smart and I liked the guy. I Googled this stuff on my Mac.

      October 6, 2011 at 12:48 pm |
  10. Alexander

    Christians Suck..big time..

    October 6, 2011 at 12:23 pm |
    • pastmorm

      Amen!

      October 6, 2011 at 12:30 pm |
    • mjbell8

      you fall into a trap by replying with generalizations and returning stupidity with stupidity. Look to Christ not Christians to find Christianity.

      October 6, 2011 at 12:34 pm |
    • Rick

      mjbell: isn't the concept that man has a sinful nature a generalization?

      October 6, 2011 at 12:37 pm |
    • AGuest9

      It's not him that I have a problem with. It's the travesty that his brother James created and his sheep follow.

      October 6, 2011 at 1:33 pm |
  11. Doug

    Here is what many people who believe in theistic religions can't grasp, Zen Buddhism says NOTHING and I mean NOTHING about the supernatural. In fact, it (as much as can be written about) freely admits and points out that words which are defined concepts logically end up in contradiction. For instance – the term infinity is/cannot be about itself because infinity is by definition undefined (a contradiction if there ever was one). This does not deny that one can believe in infinity or an all powerful infinite God/Jesus. Christians, Muslims, theistic religions rely on faith – a priori self evident truth to support their beliefs. Zen Buddism does not tell you WHICH a priori truth you should believe in, merely that it might be a good idea face your self-evident truths with both eyes open and aware of them, yourself and everything.

    October 6, 2011 at 12:22 pm |
    • Mark

      Good point, Doug. I'm a Christian but I have a tremendous amount of respect for Zen philosophy. Zen Buddhism was actually widely accepted and practiced by Jesuit priests well over a century before it was embraced by the west. I have 2 copies of Suzuki-roshi's "Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind" sitting on my shelf beside me and I don't see that my respect for or even practice of (if I was so inclined) Zen is mutually exclusive to my faith as a Christian.

      October 6, 2011 at 12:43 pm |
  12. Mike

    Go to heaven; come back and tell me all about it.

    October 6, 2011 at 12:11 pm |
  13. Kuwait

    The only way to Heaven is thru Jesus Christ!

    October 6, 2011 at 11:45 am |
    • hippypoet

      get me the spear of destiny and i'll go thru jesus!

      October 6, 2011 at 11:49 am |
    • Mankind99

      Will you "Christians" please shut up? You are an embarassment to those of us who actually follow the teachings of Jesus Christ. "Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love". 1 John 4:8

      October 6, 2011 at 11:54 am |
    • redplanet

      Could we keep this delusion free?

      October 6, 2011 at 11:55 am |
    • Mott the Hoople

      That's actually a very narrow-minded worldview. Christianity (and Judaism and Islam as well) are Abrahamic religions. They view "heaven" as a reward after death. Contrast this with the Dharmic religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism) which view the importance of transforming yourself, of changing your mentality. Not for some hope of a better afterlife, but to experience perfection in this very lifetime (and beyond).

      October 6, 2011 at 11:55 am |
    • Or This

      It is definitely heaven to be through with Jesus. And the other religions too.

      October 6, 2011 at 11:55 am |
    • when

      @ mankind99, Wow! Telling someone to shut up and judging their Christianity, all in one short post. Now that's "love!"

      October 6, 2011 at 12:07 pm |
    • Mike

      Go on to heaven; come back and then tell me all about it

      October 6, 2011 at 12:07 pm |
    • kenny

      it would be really nice if there was a heaven but sadly there isn't. You did not exist for eons before your birth and you will not exist for eternity after your death. the good news is that once you die you won't even know it..... so it would be kinda common sense that you stop wasting your life and others worrying about what happens after ... i know, common sense isn't common but i thought i'd give it anyway.

      October 6, 2011 at 12:09 pm |
    • Johan S

      That may be so, but nothing prevents being shown given a chance after death to be admitted into heaven. I'm sure God has a way to allow those who didnt know Christ in life to have one more chance after death .. especially if they were decent in life. The bible of is full of God being understanding, forgiving, and accepting of repentance.

      October 6, 2011 at 12:09 pm |
    • Doug

      Your statement has nothing to do with what he is talking about. It's as useful to the conversation (this story) as asking what does the color blue taste like. Non-sequiter.

      October 6, 2011 at 12:12 pm |
    • HailOdin

      Mahatma Gandhi–I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.

      October 6, 2011 at 12:18 pm |
    • ComSenseWiz

      Those espousing that the only way to heaven is via Jesus need massive & extensive therapy immediately so as to get a grip on reality and to break free from delusion.

      October 6, 2011 at 12:19 pm |
    • Mott the Hoople

      Johan S says: "The bible of is full of God being understanding, forgiving, and accepting of repentance." I don't know about that! Where do you get that from? The bible teaches us that it conceives of God as vengeful, spiteful and jealous, ready to smite at the drop of a hat. "Believe in Jesus or you will burn in Hell forever!". "Collect firewood on the Sabbath, and you deserve the death penalty." Where is the understanding, forgiveness and acceptance in that?!?

      October 6, 2011 at 12:26 pm |
    • Rick

      Kuwait, your beliefs are only valid for those who share them. Other traditions offer other ways to "heaven". It is hubris to think that yours is the objectivly correct one

      October 6, 2011 at 12:40 pm |
    • pierce

      Jesus never gave me the pony i wanted so I don't believe in that guy anymore.

      October 6, 2011 at 12:49 pm |
  14. Mott the Hoople

    The author of this article is completely glossing over Steve Jobs' interest with Hinduism. In 2005, he mentioned in his commencement speech at Stanford how, when he dropped out of college: "I would walk the 7 miles across town every Sunday night to get one good meal a week at the Hare Krishna temple. I loved it. And much of what I stumbled into by following my curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless later on." He went to India in 1973, not for Buddhism (there are few Buddhists in India), but to see Neem Karoli Baba (the guru of Ram Dass [the author of "Be Here Now"].

    October 6, 2011 at 11:44 am |
  15. GodPot

    America now has fewer Jobs than ever...

    October 6, 2011 at 11:43 am |
    • Chuckles

      HAHAHAHAHA

      You win funniest joke of the day!

      October 6, 2011 at 11:45 am |
    • J.W

      No way! are you saying that was funnier than my atheist jihad?

      October 6, 2011 at 11:47 am |
    • Chuckles

      Sorry JW,

      The pun was just too good! The Atheist jihad comes in a close second, but with Obama currently talking about jobs to congress it was just way too good

      October 6, 2011 at 11:54 am |
    • Kuwait

      🙂 why? because all of the iPod, iPad is made in CHINA

      October 6, 2011 at 11:54 am |
    • J.W

      Oh it is ok. I should have come up with it on Sept. 11 maybe.

      October 6, 2011 at 11:55 am |
    • GodPot

      Don't worry though guys, we'll soon be able to speak with Steve again on our new iPhone Heaven...!!

      October 6, 2011 at 2:10 pm |
  16. longshot

    guy was not spiritual, if he was he'd have used his billions of dollars to actually help people who are suffering in this world, instead of convincing the wealthy that they need more gadgets, and forcing Chinese peasants to work in slave-like conditions. Yea, real spiritual.

    October 6, 2011 at 11:40 am |
    • Sarah

      Being spiritual and being charitable are two different things.

      October 6, 2011 at 11:46 am |
    • wawawa

      if you're not charitable, then you really aren't spiritual (or at least your spirituality is very narrow and selfish and not true spirituality in the global sense)

      October 6, 2011 at 12:18 pm |
    • pastmorm

      longshot...why do you get to decide that being spiritual means giving everything you make or own to someone else to make their life better?

      October 6, 2011 at 12:34 pm |
    • Chedar

      Steve Job may have given compassionately we never know. Those people who give to charity loudly are not doing themselves a favor. It is called attachment to their gift and proud of what they do. Read this for yourself on how Buddhist should provide their compassionate gift to humanity.
      Chapter 4.
      "Furthermore, Subhuti, in the practice of compassion and charity a disciple should be detached. That is to say, he should practice compassion and charity without regard to appearances, without regard to form, without regard to sound, smell, taste, touch, or any quality of any kind. Subhuti, this is how the disciple should practice compassion and charity. Why? Because practicing compassion and charity without attachment is the way to reaching the Highest Perfect Wisdom, it is the way to becoming a living Buddha." -an excerpt from the Diamond Sutra.

      October 6, 2011 at 1:29 pm |
  17. Jav

    Sorry to see him go really. to bad Apple never figured out how to cure hiim or keep his brain in a jar so to speak. I'm sure this sill have a negative impact on the company in the future. it'll get more corporate as the shareholders demand more returns they will finally start making decisions they wouldn't have with SJ there.

    October 6, 2011 at 11:37 am |
  18. Alfonzo Muchanzo

    Both of you all need to get a life, education, or job. Any of the three would suffice.

    October 6, 2011 at 11:32 am |
  19. hippypoet

    second! nana nana boo boo!

    October 6, 2011 at 11:19 am |
  20. Chuckles

    First!

    October 6, 2011 at 11:12 am |
    • hippypoet

      first is the worst, seconds the best, but third is the one with the hairy chest..... oooooooo thats me!

      October 6, 2011 at 11:20 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.