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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. atypical

    no one dies. .
    we simply transform. ..
    wish we'd get that already. . . .

    October 6, 2011 at 3:10 pm |
    • Chuckles

      I get it......

      I call dibs on being Optimus Prime!

      October 6, 2011 at 3:26 pm |
  2. Alex

    An appropriate epitaph: iMiss u

    October 6, 2011 at 3:06 pm |
  3. RossiRossi

    Did they tell you he is an Arab?

    October 6, 2011 at 3:05 pm |
  4. RossiRossi

    And his real father is an Arab and therefore a pure ARAB American. Do you know that?

    October 6, 2011 at 3:04 pm |
  5. Bruce Kasanoff

    How to make Steve Jobs immortal:
    http://nowpossible.com/2011/10/05/make-steve-jobs-immortal/

    October 6, 2011 at 3:03 pm |
  6. RossiRossi

    How many of us here on this board that know that Steve Jobs is actually an Arab? I say this because this is the first time an event happened in which Arabs are not insulted. His real father's name is Abdul-Fatah (Check this as a fact for yourself). I am an Italian jew, but I have to be honest with myself by praising this Arab genius. Let us learn to check our facts and be honest in our utterances.

    October 6, 2011 at 3:00 pm |
    • madandev

      Rossi you are a piece of garbage! Steve was and will remain a revered individual. None of us will be anywhere close to his greatness, and in accomplishment. Forget about Arab and Jew. You are the kind of individuals responsible for all the problems in the world. Remember all religions are piece of garbage – just like you.

      October 6, 2011 at 3:32 pm |
    • Chedar

      Arab, Christian, Jew, Hindu or Buddhism. It is the way we practice that counts. You look at yourself and try to achieve that word "Enlightenment" and that is all it counts.

      October 6, 2011 at 4:15 pm |
  7. Venus

    I'm deeply sorry for your lost, when I purchase my iPod about three years ago I was amazed on how much I can do. However, I enjoyed using my iPot for making a movie about my vacation, My prayers goes out to the family, friends and all the workers who work so hard to make a differenence.

    I leave you this passage:

    Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comfort.

    October 6, 2011 at 2:42 pm |
    • GodPot

      I wouldn't mind smoking some iPot...

      October 6, 2011 at 2:51 pm |
  8. randtm

    Okay, Apple products are beautifully designed. But, the issue shouldn't be that there products are so well designed, the issue is everyone else's is so poorly designed. The Human Factors community is here, has been here, ready to help design products and systems that are tailored to support the user and work they way they want to work. Steve Jobs got that. Apple gets it. Unfortunately, so few companies still get it. How many have Human Factors professionals working on their products to make them work for the user instead of what every their hardware engineers could cram into them? Very few. Apple products should be the rule, not the exception.

    October 6, 2011 at 2:40 pm |
    • Howard

      O.K., so celebrate Apple because they DO get it. And I say that as a loyal PC user (the iPhone4 is the only Apple product I own).

      October 6, 2011 at 2:48 pm |
  9. The Unselfish Meme

    Hmmm.

    Not so sure. Mac OS X by about Tiger 10.4 started to become bloated with Dashboard and other elements in the OS that took up resources and were and still are distractions.

    If you look even closer to Mac OS X Lion, its got several features that complicate things and make you TOY with the OS rather than actually focus on doing work.

    Mac OS 9 did have that zippier focused. The closest thing you can do to get into a "zen-like" work flow is by disabling many of those features through system hacks.

    But there are times when you find yourself having been using the Mac OS for years on a daily professional basis finding a zen-like mastery of every keyboard shortcut, every trick to do work faster than you would on a Windows OS computer for example.

    There's this zen-like mode you find yourself in. Not many can reach that, even though they may even be professionals. It takes almost studying and critically thinking about how you can do something smoother, faster, and repeating those steps, the minimalist steps that Mac OS can allow you to reach for, and find your self in a sort of zen state of working. Everything is fluid, fast, uncluttered and logical. Its not a super perfect OS but sure is damn near close.

    And maybe thats the hidden jewel of Apple's OS and products. They've reached on their products side a zen-like simplicity of connectivity, setting up, focused on what MATTERS in product design with a purpose that even the machines have a feel of utter to the point simplicity.

    So yes, whatever spirituality Jobs had did reach his innovations and products, etc. One of my favorite photos of Steve is the one when he's sitting in his house, photo taken from afar, evening, wooden floors, no furniture, he's sitting on a carpet with legs crossed holding a cup of tea and only with a scant few books and magazines, audiophile speakers and turntable, a few essential records and a gorgeous warm lamp.

    Thats all he needed he said. And THAT to me represents his philosophy. Focus on what matters, simplify your life, so that others can clarify their minds and can focus on being their best.

    October 6, 2011 at 2:39 pm |
  10. Ted Wu, Los Angeles

    I am sad to learn that so many people commenting here show their jealousy of what the late Steve Jobs had achieved. Such as Jona, Simon, Tim, etc. etc.

    October 6, 2011 at 2:29 pm |
  11. Steve-O

    It's too bad Steve forgot the second 'm' in iMortal.

    October 6, 2011 at 2:24 pm |
  12. jona

    OMG.. the deification is sickening. Did Barnum or Bailey receive as much credit?

    October 6, 2011 at 2:04 pm |
    • situational awareness

      It's not diefication to speak the truth.
      He had an idea, he and another guy made it happen. The difference is that this guy made an impact on the world beyond just creating a corporation.
      If you don't like Apple, that's fine. However, a few of these individuals carved the world out as it is right now. Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Paul Allen,Henry Edward Roberts (Altair creator), Steve Wozniak, Bennet Cerf, etc. They might not have created what you consider great, but they created what we know as the world today.

      October 6, 2011 at 2:23 pm |
    • GodPot

      There is far more evidence that Steve Job's created the world, at least the iWorld, than there is that God created anything...

      October 6, 2011 at 2:53 pm |
  13. Tim

    Please, people, stop exalting this guy. He was a first-class designer and marketer.. nothing more. Certainly not a guru, unlike people like Babbage, Boole, Descartes, Shockley, et al., without whose contributions the Apple would never have existed. The Apple is just one more step in the evolution of the human mind. One hundred years from now, maybe less, no one will remember what an Apple looked like just like no one remembers what an Altair looked like today.

    October 6, 2011 at 1:52 pm |
    • Daniel

      I dont agree with you. He was a great technologist. He put together the first apple computers with his bear hands. After that he had the vision to do what other geeks were not able to do: to turn that tech invention into something that the masses would adopt.

      And the way to do that is having marketing skills. Understanding people needs. To me that is really awesome.

      October 6, 2011 at 2:16 pm |
    • Nostalgia

      Daniel, "to turn that tech invention into something that the masses would adopt.
      And the way to do that is having marketing skills."

      ... sort of like what Paul of Tarsus did in his day...

      October 6, 2011 at 2:23 pm |
    • platofish

      quisable – sorry, I mean Tim – you do seem to have such bitterness against marketers and the entrepreneurs. Steve Jobs was clearly very good at what he did (irrespective of how you categorize it). He is/was a household name – as much as Gates or Buffet or Hawking. I agree its sad that only a few people know who Descartes was, but instead of taking an agressive, intellectually superior tone, why not play nice and try to encourage people to go find out. Rather than reinforcing their biases.

      October 6, 2011 at 2:33 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      I'm not on this site for a few days and the DO NOTHINGS are still complaining about folks like Steve that did something with his life and, not only that, changed life for the betterment of all.

      Amen.

      October 6, 2011 at 2:35 pm |
    • The Unselfish Meme

      Tiny TIM... there's a anti-corporate Adbusters chumpy protest you can join RIGHT NOW so, start packing your Coleman INC tent and jump in your corporate car and head out there before its too late. Make a sign about what you feel about Jobs. Punk.

      October 6, 2011 at 2:42 pm |
    • platofish

      Oh, and by the way.....if you are going to demand people direct their adulation to Descartes et al.....what about their work? Wasn't that also an extension of their intellectual forefathers? What about Democritus or Dalton? Would we have silicon chips without their contributions, etc. etc. etc. In short, your argument is very weak (and agenda driven).

      October 6, 2011 at 2:44 pm |
    • John

      Quote "I dont agree with you. He was a great technologist. He put together the first apple computers with his bear hands. After that he had the vision to do what other geeks were not able to do: to turn that tech invention into something that the masses would adopt. "

      I disagree.

      itunes is a nightmare, and IBM and Commodore 64 brought PCs to our homes.
      You sound like an Apple fan boy.

      October 6, 2011 at 2:49 pm |
    • Central Scrutinizer

      @heavensent
      Yay, you are back. I have a question for you, totally legit and I mean no disrespect. Since you sign every post with "Amen", does that mean every one of your posts is a prayer? That confuses me. Thanks!

      October 6, 2011 at 2:49 pm |
    • sevres Blue

      Oh, Tim, Tim, Tim. Try not to be so mean spirited. Because this man was inspiring to people they mourn his death. Is that really so horrible?

      October 6, 2011 at 6:22 pm |
    • rpco

      But the will remember who Steve Jobs was.

      October 6, 2011 at 8:26 pm |
  14. Cathy

    Steve Jobs
    Transformed the way we communicate
    Extended our experiences through the technology he invented
    Visionary, creator, innovator, a genius
    Entrepreneur that entrepreneurs look up to

    Just had the courage to follow his heart and intuition, and...
    One more thing...
    Became one crazy enough to change the world we live in
    Steve Jobs.

    October 6, 2011 at 1:47 pm |
  15. AWOL_Andy

    Anyone who's read and understood Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance immediately recognizes Apple as being one of the only companies that follows its principles. Its an amazing book that teaches us how to pursue Quality in our lives, and Apple is the best example of company that followed the path of Quality. For companies, designers, CEOs who are wondering how Steve took Apple to where it is today, my advice is to read and re-read it.

    October 6, 2011 at 1:41 pm |
  16. John

    Nice way to prove that a son of a Muslim Syrian father has been only successful because being Zen and not because of having a Muslim ancestry. LOL the writer going too far to distract Steve Job's ethnicity. Get a life.You never wrote this when he was alive

    October 6, 2011 at 1:39 pm |
    • Richard

      Maybe they can dispense with the New Age, 1970's B.S.? Jobs was NO different than any other corporate tyrant, and the stupid press is trying to deify him. There are PLENTY of others who have done what he has done. The creators of IBM and MCI (before it was destroyed by Worldcom).

      October 6, 2011 at 1:45 pm |
    • situational awareness

      @Richard, Buddhism is not new age, it was around far before the 1970's.

      The difference between Jobs and "every other corporate tyrrant" (way to lump everyone in the corporate world you dislike...) is there was a given yin and yang he originally was in duo with that drove the entire PC industry for years. It's still there now, thankfully... only between multiple corps and not two individuals.

      This article however is not about the corporate side – we all know about that. This is about him as a person.
      I may not have liked Steve Jobs' ideals all of his life in the business world, but as a person I commend him. I would do the same for Bill Gates, and I feel the same about his ideals.

      This feels like an imbalance in life for most techies of my generation...

      October 6, 2011 at 2:34 pm |
    • BL

      Richard: First of all Buddhism has been around for about 2600 years, and there's nothing "New Age" about it, other than your monumental ignorance. Secondly, Jobs changed the world. You on the other hand, take up space..

      October 6, 2011 at 3:13 pm |
  17. Techie

    Gotta love ya Steve for getting me a UI to read my Bible!

    October 6, 2011 at 1:36 pm |
    • TheTruth72

      Amen to that. I haven't been able to pick up a hardcopy of the NKJV, so I'm using an awesome Bible app on my iPhone.

      October 6, 2011 at 1:40 pm |
    • Observer

      It may not be too surprising that a guy as smart as he is, didn't believe in the Bible.

      October 6, 2011 at 2:01 pm |
  18. DD

    Well spoken & bears repeating. You never know til you try.

    October 6, 2011 at 1:23 pm |
  19. hippypoet

    yeah for mortality!

    October 6, 2011 at 1:19 pm |
    • situational awareness

      As with all things, you too shall end.

      October 6, 2011 at 2:13 pm |
  20. Shan

    Do not stand at my grave and weep,
    I am not there. I do not sleep.
    I am a thousand winds that blow,
    I am the snow on the mountain's rim,
    I am the laughter in children's eyes,
    I am the sand at the water's edge,
    I am the sunlight on ripened grain,
    I am the gentle Autumn rain,
    When you awaken in the morning's hush,
    I am the swift uplifting rush of quiet birds in circled flight,
    I am the star that shines at night,
    Do not stand at my grave and cry,
    I am not there, I did not die.

    October 6, 2011 at 1:09 pm |
    • BL

      Shan,

      Thank you, quite lovely. "i" get it.

      October 6, 2011 at 2:28 pm |
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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.