The Zen of Steve Jobs

On a recent flight from Atlanta to San Francisco, I sat next to a generous and mindful Korean girl on her first trip to America. She bubbled over with excitement about visiting Silicon Valley, though she wasn’t sure if Silicon Valley was a city or a catch phrase. Mostly, she wanted to visit Apple.

“You look like Steve Jobs,” she told me. (I don’t look like Steve Jobs.)

“He was a hippie, right?” she asked. (Oh, I see, I do have long hair.)

“Yes–and a Buddhist,” I replied.

This fact would not have come to mind if I hadn’t recently read about the Apple founder’s Zen quest for enlightenment–or at least a better iPod–in the graphic novel The Zen of Steve Jobs (Wiley, 2012).

The Zen of Steve Jobs is a brief, creative re-imagining of Jobs’ relationship with the non-traditional San Francisco Zen teacher Kobun Chino Otogawa. It portrays the quirky tech mogul’s attempts to understand simplicity and emptiness and incorporate that Zen insight into building a more profitable computer-making company.

The quasi-fictional story credits Apple’s philosophy of producing only a few types of computers to Jobs’ Zen meditation experience, and it attributes the design of the iPod to a less-is-more, Eastern understanding of the value of empty spaces.

In doing extended periods of zazen (“just sitting” meditation) with his master and visiting Tassajara, a California monastery, Jobs supposedly attained deep insight, developing sensibilities that shaped the future the tech world.

On the flip side of that purported enlightenment, this comic yin-yangs to the darker side of Jobs’ nature, showing his kensho (deep Zen insight) and Mac-based success did not make him an infinitely kind and generous bodhisattva. His exploits in Apple’s Cupertino headquarters paint him as an impatient, cutthroat corporate dictator. Undoubtedly, he would have benefited from more time on the zafu (meditation cushion).

Milarepa, the most famous Buddhist saint, once said, “The affairs of the world will go on forever. Do not delay the practice of meditation.”

But would the world have been better off with a kinder, gentler, more monkish version of Jobs, tucked away in a Zen mountain monastery, conducting sesshins and chanting inscrutable phrases like “that which is form is emptiness, that which is emptiness form,” leaving the cares of the corporate world behind?

A less-stressed, more-wise Jobs would likely still be alive, but I’d be typing this on a computer crippled with viruses while listening to music on some hideous contraption called a Zune.

Unfulfilled potential for infinite wisdom aside, I, for one, am happy he came down from the mountain.

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