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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. esl jobs

    it is good one .Awesome read. I just passed this onto a friend who was doing some research on that. He actually bought me lunch because I found it for him! So let me rephrase: thank you for lunch!

    October 9, 2011 at 1:45 am |
  2. mittra

    Smurfs. The color blue tastes like Smurfs.

    October 9, 2011 at 12:48 am |
  3. Realtor Charlie

    The 18 year old Ecuadorian girl named Angelica Zambrano visited hell and heaven. She saw Michael Jackson and Pope John Paul
    in hell. After watching her video, somehow I believed her story. If Stve Jobs is really a true disciple of the only THE way, then he
    should be in heaven.

    October 8, 2011 at 11:07 pm |
  4. esl jobs

    weldone Good – I should definitely say I'm impressed with your blog.
    I had no trouble navigating through all the tabs as well as related info.
    The site ended up being truly simple to access. Excellent job..

    October 8, 2011 at 4:29 pm |
  5. esl jobs

    Good – I should definitely say I'm impressed with your blog.
    I had no trouble navigating through all the tabs as well as related info.
    The site ended up being truly simple to access. Excellent job..

    October 8, 2011 at 1:31 pm |
  6. Zen

    "a philosophy of how one can be good without God, pulling oneself up by one’s own moral bootstraps. Its allurement is obvious. In a very subtle way it is the ultimate crowning of the individual with total autonomy, while at the same time it declares that the self is an illusion"

    Attaining Nirvana by relying in one own self and by breaking attachments cannot redeem mankind, Man is redemeemed only because of that supreme sacrifice on the Cross by Christ

    October 8, 2011 at 12:27 pm |
    • Zenyatta

      >>Attaining Nirvana.......>>

      Or.....not.

      October 8, 2011 at 5:07 pm |
    • I have all the answers

      Krishna redeems mankind, so says my flying spaghetti monster...

      October 8, 2011 at 7:22 pm |
  7. mikey

    are not*

    October 8, 2011 at 10:31 am |
  8. mikey

    To say a christian is scared of death...you are foolish...i am a christian and i look forward to that day! IT WILL BE FAR GREATER, in the presence of the ONE Who always loved me.

    God doesn't believe in Athiest's.
    So therefore Athiest's don't exist.

    You would say that it isn't true because, well atheist's are here.
    But, it's the same argument the other way around.
    God is real, just like you and me.

    Be blessed. Ask to feel Him, if you are arrogant, or doing it to "prove" your point He might just show up.

    October 8, 2011 at 10:30 am |
  9. qapla

    Artist: McGraw Tim
    Song: Live Like You Were Dying
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XiOcW_YR1G8

    He said: "I was in my early forties,
    "With a lot of life before me,
    "An' a moment came that stopped me on a dime.
    "I spent most of the next days,
    "Looking at the x-rays,
    "An' talking 'bout the options an' talkin’ ‘bout sweet time."
    I asked him when it sank in,
    That this might really be the real end?
    How’s it hit you when you get that kind of news?
    Man whatcha do?

    An' he said: "I went sky diving, I went rocky mountain climbing,
    "I went two point seven seconds on a bull named Fu Man Chu.
    "And I loved deeper and I spoke sweeter,
    "And I gave forgiveness I'd been denying."
    An' he said: "Some day, I hope you get the chance,
    "To live like you were dyin'."

    He said "I was finally the husband,
    "That most the time I wasn’t.
    "An' I became a friend a friend would like to have.
    "And all of a sudden goin' fishin’,
    "Wasn’t such an imposition,
    "And I went three times that year I lost my Dad.
    "Well, I finally read the Good Book,
    "And I took a good long hard look,
    "At what I'd do if I could do it all again,
    "And then:

    "I went sky diving, I went rocky mountain climbing,
    "I went two point seven seconds on a bull named Fu Man Chu.
    "And I loved deeper and I spoke sweeter,
    "And I gave forgiveness I'd been denying."
    An' he said: "Some day, I hope you get the chance,
    "To live like you were dyin'."

    Like tomorrow was a gift,
    And you got eternity,
    To think about what you’d do with it.
    An' what did you do with it?
    An' what can I do with it?
    An' what would I do with it?

    "Sky diving, I went rocky mountain climbing,
    "I went two point seven seconds on a bull named Fu Man Chu.
    "And then I loved deeper and I spoke sweeter,
    "And I watched Eagle as it was flyin'."
    An' he said: "Some day, I hope you get the chance,
    "To live like you were dyin'."

    "To live like you were dyin'."
    "To live like you were dyin'."
    "To live like you were dyin'."
    "To live like you were dyin'."

    October 8, 2011 at 8:24 am |
  10. Minorkle

    Es una lástima que trabajos realmente aprendieron tan poco de Zen. Cosas como no contratar trabajadores infantiles, no exponer a los trabajadores a sustancias químicas tóxicas y les trabajar como animales

    October 7, 2011 at 7:43 pm |
  11. Sue

    fred, you get an absolute FAIL on your attempt at listing predictions with dates. You scored exactly zero.

    Show the predictions with exact days that they are supposed to have happened on. Quote the prediction including the day that it was supposed to happen on, and then reference exactly what happened on that day that correlates with it.

    We're still waiting. Stow the pleasantries, and just try sincerely to deliver, for a change. We'll try hard not to laugh.

    October 7, 2011 at 4:44 pm |
  12. Apple

    O the saga of the Apples-Eve's Apple, Newton's Apple and now Steve's Apple....

    October 7, 2011 at 4:40 pm |
    • John Richardson

      Don't forget the Beatle's Apple!

      October 7, 2011 at 8:32 pm |
  13. DJ

    Wonder if he escaped samsara.

    October 7, 2011 at 1:30 pm |
    • Chuckles

      With that much money, he could buy his way out of Samsara......wait......

      October 7, 2011 at 1:32 pm |
  14. hippypoet

    i wonder if the bugs like the way his flesh tastes....afterall thats is the only thing that happens after you die, no heaven, no hell, no after life – execpt for your energy transferring into other... containers if you will. we eat the antalope, then when we die, our bodies become the grass, and the antalope eat the grass...ahh the great circle life.

    October 7, 2011 at 8:56 am |
  15. hesalive

    Nobody knows what happened between Jobs and Jesus before the former died, but anyone who rejects God's majestic Son in this life will be rejected in the next life. What does it profit a man to gain the whole world but lose his soul?

    October 7, 2011 at 6:27 am |
    • Jimtanker

      IF your god/son exist that is.

      October 7, 2011 at 6:35 am |
    • John Richardson

      Don't know, but it sounds like YOU'LL be finding out.

      October 7, 2011 at 6:45 am |
    • TruthPrevails

      Even if Jobs claimed in his dying moments to have found jesus, it means nothing...drugs are amazing at helping the mind conjure up things that are not realistic. I would sincerely hope that Jobs was suffering no pain in his final moments of the only life he had and in his death, may his memory and work live on. Jobs was a Buddhist, thus he believed in reincarnation not heaven or hell.

      Then stands the point that you claim there to be a god, where is your proof?

      October 7, 2011 at 8:04 am |
    • hippypoet

      your undieing soul is really just the energy that makes you up, so when you die the heat that is given off plus the bugs that eat your flesh are taking in your energy... so being "bad" in the christian sense is very very vauge – but in reality it only has meaning if he broke the law and was caught. then he would be punished, but your idea of a lost soul because of a gluttoniess way of life is funny – most monks that wrote the sins into daily life also had a room to go where they got drunk and ate fatty foods. this guy is just one of many that live in the now, you live in hopes and in dreams of an afterlife....kinda like a child who was told to be good or they won't get desert.
      LOL silly rabbit, tricks are for kids!

      October 7, 2011 at 8:50 am |
    • AtheistSteve

      "anyone who rejects God's majestic Son in this life will be rejected in the next life."

      Such utter nonsense. What next life? And you know about this how? By fairytale stories written centuries ago by ignorant peasants? Boy are you gullible. This all boils down to the fear of death held by religious people everywhere. Too cowardly to accept the oblivion that follows death. Would you still worship a God if he was indeed responsible for creating the universe but didn't offer eternal life? If a deity set all the pieces in motion that eventually culminated in us but that we don't possess a soul and there isn't any afterlife? I think not... after all what would be the point? No...if the lure of somehow being able to cheat death wasn't on the plate then precious few would be heading to church every Sunday. You have all been lied to and your ego fed to believe you are chosen above all other life on this planet or anyplace else in the cosmos. You probably don't even realize that the real dominant lifeform on Earth is bacteria. They are everywhere and outmass all other life on Earth by a factor of 10. But just because you evolved a brain and mastered a few tricks, that somehow makes you less insignificant than you really are. So how does this not reflect "pride" which by your own admission is a sin. Oh how ironically hypocritical.

      October 7, 2011 at 9:00 am |
    • Reality

      Most contemporary NT scholars have analyzed Mark 8: 36 "......... lose one's soul". Many of these scholars have concluded that it was not uttered by the historical Jesus.

      e.g.

      See http://wiki.faithfutures.org/index.php?ti-tle=241_What_Profit and Professor Gerd Ludemann in his book, Jesus After 2000 Years, pp. 57-58 and pp. 694-695.

      October 7, 2011 at 5:04 pm |
    • .........

      plz hit report abuse on all reality postings

      October 7, 2011 at 8:36 pm |
    • Christian

      Yep, you're right man. He lived a prosperous life, made many people happy, but i'd hate to be him on judgement day!

      October 8, 2011 at 6:45 pm |
  16. Zenmonk

    It's a shame that Jobs really learned so little of Zen. Things such as not hiring child labourers, not exposing your workers to toxic chemicals and working them like animals.

    October 7, 2011 at 6:18 am |
  17. TruthPrevails

    Wow, some of the comments are completely outrageous and unfortunate to see at a loss of such a man. Steve Jobs is proof of a life well lived and I can only wish his family much love at this time. RIP Steve...your life's work will not be forgotten.

    October 7, 2011 at 5:47 am |
    • Harish Tailor

      I guess Steve Jobs was a true human who ever lived on the planet. He has changed millions of people's lives in good way. RIP Steve. Miss you a lot.

      October 7, 2011 at 3:33 pm |
  18. kimsland

    So rubbing the Buddha's tummy does make you rich.
    Well Zen Buddhism is not as bad as a couple of others that I know of (but too disgusted to speak of)

    Wow, he started Apple in his parents garage when he was 20, and was a billionaire (or close to) 10 years later.
    There is something to say live everyday to its fullest. As just one man, he certainly changed the world.

    October 7, 2011 at 1:02 am |
    • TruthPrevails

      He was an atheist at heart with the one little absurdity of a belief in reincarnation...closer to us than any christian belief ever will be. 🙂

      October 7, 2011 at 8:05 am |
  19. Jimtanker

    What a great man and a great atheist.

    October 7, 2011 at 12:50 am |
  20. tensai13

    Steve Jobs – As a true disciple of the way, you took a big bite from the apple of knowledge but left plenty for the next person. Thanks! Job 36:24

    October 6, 2011 at 9:49 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.