The Zen of “The Zen of Steve Jobs”

The Buddha, the Godhead, resides quite as comfortably in the circuits of a digital computer or the gears of a cycle transmission as he does at the top of a mountain or in the petals of a flower. To think otherwise is to demean the Buddha—which is to demean oneself (26).

—Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values

I read Walter Isaacson’s biography Steve Jobs with one end in mind, really. I wanted to see how the influence of Zen on Jobs’ thinking was portrayed in the book. And the main reason I wanted to do that is because I wanted to write about the graphic narrative, The Zen of Steve Jobs, sponsored by Forbes and produced by the creative agency Jess3. But I felt that I needed a bit more background in order to do so.

The Zen of Steve Jobs is a “reimagining” of the friendship between Jobs and Kobun Chino Otogawa, a Zen priest and close friend and teacher to Jobs for many years. Our story begins with Jobs seeking out Otogawa after his departure from Apple in 1985, and after a ten-year absence from the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center. He arrives at Tassajara with the intent of learning about ma, one of the underlying principles informing Zen aesthetics. He explains to Otogawa that the computers he’ll be creating at his new company, NeXT, will be superior products not just because of their technological features, but also because of their perfected design—and asks Otogawa to help him understand in greater depth the relationship between objects and the complementary space they inhabit. Otogawa responds, “I cannot. You must experience ma.” He then proceeds to teach Jobs kinhin, or walking meditation.

The Zen of Steve Jobs is an example of ma in its own way. The boundaries of an image’s form are at times expressed through solid blocks of colour, without a line to contain and circumscribe them. The “monochromatic palette” changes colour with each scene in the story, providing an interesting variety of vivid pastel hues.

This is no ordinary graphic narrative; it is based largely on interviews with former students of Otogawa who also knew Jobs. Those interviews were then rendered to capture the pith of their friendship in an illustrated format. This is no small feat. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures.” To the extent that The Zen of Steve Jobs treats Jobs’ relationship to Zen and Otogawa far more sensitively than did Walter Isaacson’s biography Steve Jobs, this must indeed be the case.

Was Steve Jobs a Buddhist?

The central question that I’m asking in this exploration involves Jobs’ relationship to Buddhism later on in his life. Popular media often describe Jobs by as a Buddhist, but it’s unclear to me the extent to which this statement was true as Jobs grew older. The goal here is no to attack Jobs as a “bad Buddhist,” but to use him as an informal and incomplete case study for what being a Buddhist may actually mean.

Following his wedding to Laurene Powell (officiated by Otogawa), to what extent did Jobs continue to self-identify as a Buddhist? Did he meditate? How often? Jobs clearly brought tremendous focus to the design and execution of his products, often to the detriment of other areas in his life. Though he may have practiced mindfulness and skilful means to an extreme degree in his work, he also lacked compassion and an empathic awareness of others’ sensitivities, as has been well documented elsewhere.

Did Jobs ever take part in a Refuge Vow ceremony, recognized as a formal indoctrination into the Buddhist path? The vow, also known as taking refuge in the Three Jewels—the Buddha, the sangha (community of Buddhist practitioners), and the dharma (the teachings of the Buddha, and/or “reality”)—is a commitment to being a practicing Buddhist. I suspect that most probably Jobs did take this vow as a young man, enraptured as he was with Zen meditation. Would this not have been a significant event for Jobs, one to be reported in his biography?

Did Jobs earnestly practice the Bodhisattva Vow? If one of the central precepts of Mahayana Buddhist ethics is to not cause harm, can Jobs actually be viewed as a Buddhist? How do we weigh Jobs’ positive contributions to humanity against his negative actions towards others, in terms of his commitment to Buddhism? Does Jobs’ extreme adherence to a Zen-inspired aesthetic compensate for the ethical vacuum within which he often operated on an interpersonal level?

Even after reading Isaacson’s Steve Jobs and Stephen Silberman’s article, “What Kind of Buddhist was Steve Jobs, Really?,” the extent to which Jobs’ early Buddhist practice continued later on in life remains unclear. The Zen of Steve Jobs seems to suggest that Jobs had minimal engagement with the practice as he grew older, even with Otogawa’s infrequent promptings to resume regular meditation practice and to return to the zendo. Author Caleb Melby’s commentary at the end of The Zen of Steve Jobs attributes the falling out of Jobs and Otogawa to Job’s zealous pursuit of perfection in his products, compared with Otogawa’s own tempered view of perfection.

But did Jobs’ aspiring toward perfection in his work make him no longer a Buddhist? Let’s explore more closely Jobs’ relationship to his teacher, and to Zen.

Kobun Chino Otogawa

In his article, Stephen Silberman suggests

The only regrettable aspect of Isaacson’s account [of Jobs’ Buddhist influences] is his clownish portrayal of Jobs’ teacher and friend for two decades, Kobun Chino Otogawa, as a hapless bore who spoke in needlessly cryptic “haiku.”

Silberman does not acknowledge that the speaking “in a kind of haiku” reference is an excerpted quote from an interview with Daniel Kottke. Though Otogawa’s characterization in this passage is not especially favorable, nor does the description suggest that Kottke had a deep connection to Zen. In the same passage, Kottke downplays his involvement with Zen with the admission that he treated “…the whole thing as a kind of lighthearted interlude” (Isaacson, 49), compared with Elizabeth Holmes and Steve Jobs, who took the Zen practice and training more seriously.

Whatever the case, The Zen of Steve Jobs makes up for Isaacson’s perceived authorial deficit in spades. The book depicts Otogawa as a wry and maverick Zen Buddhist, and also as an anchor for Jobs. As readers, we learn about Jobs’ and Otogawa’s time together, and we also learn a little bit about Zen Buddhism along the way.

The one feature of Otogawa that I challenge as presented  in The Zen of Steve Jobs is his being attributed with the quotation “In the expert’s mind, there are few possibilities. In the beginner’s mind, there are many.” Surely Caleb Melby is aware that these words were originally spoken by Shunryu Suzuki Roshi. However, there is no reference to Suzuki where the quote is included (p. 54), making it look as though the quote was first spoken by Chino Otogawa.

In the article, “The Zen of Steve Jobs: Right Livelihood,” author Lama Surya Das remarks,

Kobun seemed focussed too much on cold and clear emptiness, not enough on warm and empathic compassion, attitude-transforming loving-kindness practice. Too much head and not enough heart, a common critique of some Zen Buddhist lineages.

In The Zen of Steve Jobs, Jobs’ primary attraction to Otogawa when he first meets him is explained by way of the priest’s notoriety for breaking with tradition. However, Otogawa’s dispassionate attitude may be equally what led to the long-term mutual respect between Jobs and Otogawa, as Jobs is also well known for his coldness.

Apple, Buddhism, and creativity: learning the ABC’s

What Zen Taught Silicon Valley (And Steve Jobs) About Innovation” by Warren Berger is a reflection on the influence that Zen may have on business endeavours, in particular within the technology sector. According to Berger, Jobs claimed that his Zen practice increased concentration, and that his employees might also benefit from practising Zen.

Berger quotes Jess3 Thomas, the artist for The Zen of Steve Jobs as saying,

Conceptualizing and prototyping the path of a user’s experience takes a lot of concentration…The Zen approach can help focus on the vision for the experience of the customer.

Thomas believes that Zen is a means by which designers may yield greater insights into the user perspective and experience.

By way of visual metaphor, The Zen of Steve Jobs attributes the architectural design of Apple Campus with Jobs’ time practicing kinhin. Berger mentions that the creation of the iPod trackwheel has been attributed to various inspirations, including the ensō.

There are many examples of Zen practice inspiring creativity in artists. Consider the following books on the subject, to name a few:

  • Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg (Shambhala, 1986)
  • Brush Mind by Kaz Tanahashi (Parallax Press, 1990); and
  • The Zen of Creativity by John Daido Loori (Ballantine, 2005), but to name a few.

However, “no striving” is an essential ingredient in Zen meditation practice, and contradicts the notion that Zen embraces aspiring toward any end other than the practice itself. The Sōtō tradition, tracing its roots back to Ehei Dōgen, takes as its starting point that meditation practice is an expression of enlightened activity in the present moment—not that enlightenment is some alternate state of consciousness to be realized in a distant future.

Among other perceptive remarks, contributors to the comments section of Berger’s article pointed out:

  • Zen does not hold a monopoly on simplicity. We can find examples of the value of simplicity embedded in the principle of Occam’s Razor (Western philosophy); parsimony (scientific research) and KISS (keep it simple, stupid) as well (Tim Anderson, posted 04/10/2012).
  • No mention is made in Isaacson’s biography of the Zen principle of wabi-sabi: “the embrace of the impermanent, imperfect, and incomplete” (Nick Gall, posted 04/12/2012)
  • Zen practice is not concerned with outputs, but more with honouring the process: “the act is the goal” (Maxine Shapiro, posted 04/10/2012).
  • Possible inspirations for the circular scroll wheel include not only kinhin (walking meditation) and the enso (Evildoerplatypus, posted 04/09/2012); but also Braun design features (Mike Lee, posted 04/12/2012)—“Or perhaps sometimes a circle is just a circle” (Tim Anderson, posted 04/10/2012).

Randy Komisar is “a Zen practitioner who’s also a partner with the Silicon Valley venture capitalist firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.” In Warren Berger’s article, Komisar suggests:

Steve had an unusual relationship with Zen. He got the artistic side of it but not the Buddhist side—the art, but not the heart.

Lama Surya Das identifies an inverse relationship between Jobs’ rude behaviour and the drive towards minimalism in his product design:

Some wonder exactly what kind of Buddhist could be so famously impatient, rude and demanding. How could he be so emotional, even throwing tantrums? Relentlessly stubborn, he could be brutal to close friends, family and colleagues, act ruthlessly in both business and personal affairs and claim credit for others’ ideas. Speaking as a fellow Buddhist, albeit of a different lineage, I have no easy answer or apology to offer for him in this respect. I think his having been adopted played into it—the master of design simplicity had some very messy elements of his personal life. We teach what we need to learn, as the saying goes.

Maybe that’s why this very complex and even contradictory personality so assiduously sought and loved simplicity.

Isaacson’s biography and the Wired magazine article “The Story of Steve Jobs: An Inspiration or a Cautionary Tale?” (Wired, August 2012) by Ben Austen point out that “dozens” of interview subjects attest to having been pushed to personal limits far beyond what they envisioned were possible, thanks to Jobs’ uncompromising attitude when it came to realizing his ideals for product design and manufacture. Maybe Jobs was practicing his own skewed version of crazy wisdom, albeit an impure strain, on anyone willing to put up with his emotional bullying and manipulation.

Whatever the case, it would appear that Jobs accepted his temperament unapologetically, which could be viewed as his exercising a form of extreme loving-kindness towards himself.

Being a Buddhist

In What Makes You Not a Buddhist (Shambhala, 2006), author Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse suggests that one cannot fully espouse Buddhism without accepting the truth of the Four Seals. According to Khyentse, if the four following questions can be answered affirmatively, then one may be said to identify with the Buddhist worldview.

  1. Can you accept that all things are impermanent and that there is no essential substance or concept that is permanent?
  2. Can you accept that all emotions bring pain and suffering and that there is no emotion that is purely pleasurable?
  3. Can you accept that all phenomena are illusory and empty?
  4. Can you accept that enlightenment is beyond concepts; that it’s not a perfect blissful heaven, but instead a release from delusion?

Dzongsar Khyentse suggests that just because these principles have been accepted as truth, one need not continually consciously reflect on them in order to consider oneself a Buddhist. Nonetheless, once accepted, it is possible for the four seals to always remain present in one’s mind:

You don’t walk around persistently remembering your own name, but when someone asks your name, you remember it instantly. There is no doubt. Anyone who accepts these four seals, even independently of Buddha’s teachings, even never having heard the name Shakyamuni Buddha, can be considered to be on the same path as he (Khyentse, 53).

Did Jobs unequivocally accept the truth of these four maxims? In the Steve Jobs biography, Isaacson notes that Jobs’ one-time girlfriend Jennifer Egan used to argue about the hypocrisy of Jobs’ insisting that an attachment to material possessions was unhealthy, contrasted with his drive to create perfect products for economic consumption. Did Jobs actually accept that all phenomena are illusory and empty? Isaacson acknowledges that Jobs’ pride in his creations was greater than his insistence that one ought to admonish a craving even for commodities produced to exemplary standards (Steve Jobs, 262).

Jobs didn’t sparsely furnish his surroundings out of some sort of ascetic mentality, but because he could find little in the way of furniture that met his standards of perfection (Zen of Steve Jobs, p. 31). He may not have been attached to worldly possessions, but he was most certainly attached to ideals. Jobs’ “reality distortion field” may have swayed others to believe in his vision of the world, but fundamentally, Jobs’ frustrations with others arose out of an inability to accept the world on its own terms. This disconnect is what led Steve Jobs to inflict psychological violence on others:

The Buddhist practice of nonviolence is not merely submissiveness with a smile or meek thoughtfulness. The fundamental cause of violence is when one is fixated on an extreme idea, such as justice or morality. This fixation usually stems from a habit of buying into dualistic views, such as bad and good, ugly and beautiful, moral and immoral. One’s inflexible self-righteousness takes up all the space that would allow empathy for others. Sanity is lost (Khyentse, 55).

One of Jobs’ prime weaknesses, then, was a fixation with beauty as manifested in design—and by extension, with the avoidance of ugliness. Jobs may have suffered tremendously from the pain that his uncompromising attitude caused not just to others, but also to himself. And it may very well be that he sought out Buddhism to begin with at least in part to remedy his afflictions, in addition to his pursuing Primal Scream Therapy.


Jobs was not one to impart his financial wealth to others, in the interests of relieving their suffering. Dzongsar Khyentse is careful to point out that if a person donates thousands or millions of dollars to charities or people in need, but the primary intent behind doing so is to look good, the motivation behind this act is little more than righteousness. Perhaps Jobs’ recognized this, and avoided donating money for this reason.

Jobs’ wife Laurene Powell co-founded a program called College Track, designed to help disenfranchised students finish high school and continue onto college. Jobs never went to visit it, and he generally did not support philanthropic pursuits, though he was supportive of Powell’s efforts from a distance (Isaacson, 543).

Jobs did agree to issue a special iPod in support of Bono’s campaign to raise funds and promote education about AIDS in Africa (Isaacson, 423). And as reported by Lama Surya Das, in 1979 Jobs contributed $5,000 donation that helped establish the SEVA foundation.

Generally speaking, however, it would appear from Isaacson’s biography that Jobs didn’t go out of his way to spread his wealth to those in need—though it’s worth acknowledging that he supported his family as well as thousands of employees, whose livelihood was and continues to be a direct result of many of the business decisions that Jobs made for Apple.


Surya Das speculates that in terms of the Eightfold Path, Steve Jobs most embodied the principles of “Right Livelihood and True Vocation” through his impassioned commitment to creating exemplary, beautiful products, and through his ability to interweave his personal and professional talents into a unified vision.

Jobs was committed to supporting an integrated user experience in every aspect of his products’ design, right down to the packaging and instructions. It was a holistic approach to product engineering and construction inspired by Zen aesthetics. He placed great value on his own intuition, a key principle in Zen understanding (Steve Jobs, 35, 564). At times his convictions placed him at odds with others, they who believed the realization of his vision impossible or irresponsible.

For all of Jobs’ early Zen practice and its corollary benefits to Jobs over time, his personal commitment to Buddhism later on in life appears negligible. Was he still a Buddhist? Rather than answer the question directly, let us consider the following advice, attributed to Shakyamuni Buddha, “the awakened one,” also known as the historical Buddha:

Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it.

Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many.

Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books.

Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders.

Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations.

But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.

—(Kalama Sutta, Anguttara Nikaya Vol. 1, 188-193 P.T.S. Ed.)

1 Response to “The Zen of “The Zen of Steve Jobs””

  1. 1 dpllewis September 15, 2013 at 7:38 pm

    Great article. I have just finished reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maitenance and I’m a long-time fan of the way Apple do things. I think Jobs was not a Buddhist but clearly inspired by the various Zen teachings. Pirsig wrote about the Quality of things, something found in all other religions and thus approached in different ways. Neither Jobs or Pirsig suggest following the rites and rituals of anything, just to instead see the quality and thoroughness of everything, and to work out what’s the truly important aspect. For Jobs that Quality, that Zen nature, of Apple technology was user experience, and his company’s products were top of class for that. I find it’s also interesting to hear how Jony Ive talks about the ‘harmony’ of the products, and about how the technological object just ‘disappears’.

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