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The Spiritual Vision of Steve Jobs
October 11, 2011
Since his passing on October 5, the media has paid tribute to Steve Job’s genius, accomplishments, and his contributions to societies around the world. Included in the reporting are two pieces of information that hint at his spiritual inclination. The first is his pilgrimage to India in 1974 when he was 19. Articles describe the difficulties of that trip and his subsequent disappointment. But they also note how it influenced his world-view and that he returned home a Buddhist, complete with shaved head. The second is his briefly noted marriage in 1991 in a Zen ceremony in Yosemite National Park. Not well known is the depth of Steve’s spiritual orientation, the time he spent exploring and practicing Zen Buddhism in the mid-‘70's, and how his practice influenced the design of the Apple products of the past 35 years.
In 1975, Steve came to Haiku Zendo, a small meditation hall in a converted garage of a home in Los Altos, California, his hometown. Haiku Zendo was the forerunner of the present Kannon Do Zen Center in Mountain View, California. It was founded in 1962 by Zen master Shunryu Suzuki - known as Suzuki-roshi - who came to the United States in the mid 1950's  and eventually founded the San Francisco Zen Center and Tassajara monastery. His 1971 book, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, has become a bible of sorts to Zen followers around the world.
At the time, the teacher and spiritual leader at Haiku Zendo was the Zen priest Kobun Chino, who had come from Japan in 1971. Kobun, as he was affectionately known, was a caring, intuitive, warm individual. People delighted to be in his presence. Steve admired Kobun and they developed a close student-teacher relationship. The two of them had long, private talks at midnight, walking the quiet streets of Los Altos.
I met Steve during this time as we practiced together at Haiku Zendo. He was twenty at the time, a college dropout and a spiritual seeker. I was in my forties, working for IBM and raising a family. And I had also been ordained four years earlier as a Zen priest by Suzuki-roshi and so had “dual careers.” Even though Steve was still a “hippie” in many ways and I was part of an older generation, living a button-down middle class life, he came to me with a number of fundamental questions, and concerns, about life. I still can recall our first discussion around the question: “What is work, what is its value, does it have meaning?” Initially, I thought the question to be naive, but I recognized that he was a deep thinker who wanted to understand the fundamental nature of life and how to find his place in the world. We had a number of conversations that year about work and life.
In those days, most Zen students in San Francisco were products of the ‘60's, trying to establish an alternate life style, skeptical of middle class values, and skeptical of me. In particular, they were dubious of my “dual careers,” that I could not be an authentic Zen priest.
Steve was not like that in our relationship - there was no such alienation. Rather, he seemed eager to learn from my experiences. He was interested in my “dual careers,” of my interest in exploring how to express spirituality at work. He had doubts about it. “How can it be done,” “How can spirituality exist in a competitive business environment?” I did not have good answers then, and could only say that I had to pursue the question.
Steve left Haiku Zendo after one year, devoting himself to his new found direction in the high-tech. world.
On a Saturday afternoon in 1976, Steve showed up at my house unexpectedly. He had with him a folder of schematic diagrams that he asked me to review. But he would not tell me what they were about; he just wanted to know what I thought. Even though I had started work at IBM as an electrical engineer, years earlier I recognized that I was not excited by designing circuits. Instead, I realized that my interest was in working face to face, and in developing relationships with people, not things. I had transferred from engineering to marketing via the IBM San Joses’ sales office. I was now in management, far removed from electronic circuits. So I gave the schematics back to Steve, with apologies. Looking back, those diagrams might have been the first Apple Computer. Steve came to me for my opinion about the design, but my interests had shifted dramatically. I didn’t see him again for the next 20 years.
By 1998, Apple had become very successful. In that year, I started the Meditation at Work program for organizations in Silicon Valley. The goal of the program is to introduce people to meditation practice and its relevance to issues in the work environment. My steadiest client has been Apple. A number of times over the years, I was able to meet with Steve for lunch in the company cafeteria after class. Steve liked that I was bringing Meditation at Work to Apple. He had continued his Zen practice - “occasionally,” as he told me - and continued to be influenced by its principles.
We talked about dedicating a room for mediation at the Cupertino site, as a way to institutionalize the practice at the company. Steve jumped at the idea. He took me on a tour of the Apple campus to look at possible rooms for the class. He asked his VP of Human Resources to help. We developed a plan to have Apple engineers take the program on a voluntary basis, one work group at a time. But high priority work schedules intervened and rooms were scarce. Although Steve was supportive, the plan never got off the ground.
Steve called me one night shortly after Kobun died in 2002 in a tragic drowning accident. He was in tears. He loved Kobun, who was a significant influence in his life.
Steve continued to explore the question of spirituality and Zen practice in the workplace. He resolved it in his own unique way, through the design and function of Apple products. As their devotees and the rest of the world acknowledge, the products reflect simplicity, imagination, and creativity, along with uncompromising quality. He insisted that they be more than merely one feature better than the competition. And they had the end user in mind, not simply as customers, but as people whose lives could be made better. The products born of Steve’s vision and energy broke the limits of what was felt to be possible. He provided his own answer to the question of spirituality and work.
In his commencement address at Stanford in 2005, Steve said: You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. He was telling the graduates to devote themselves to something outside of themselves, to something bigger, to their spiritual self.
Referring to his firing from Apple in 1985, he also said: "The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life." Here Steve was acknowledging the wisdom of the Soto Zen practice of cultivating “Beginners Mind.” As Suzuki-roshi stated, “In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, in the expert's mind there are few.”
And he told the graduating class: "All external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure - these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. 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."
It was an expression of the Buddhist teachings of impermanence and transience and no-self. It is the language of Buddha himself.
Yet a shadow crosses the beauty of the products fashioned of Steve’s creative genius and spiritual sense of things. Through the internet and wi-fi, these products provide us information that enable us to be more effective and productive, and to connect with each other instantly over long distances from virtually anywhere. But we have become infatuated with the devices and the sense of empowerment they offer. They can command our attention in ways that cause us to turn inward and shut out others. They are efficient and they are “cool,” and so can distract us from paying attention to the human being in front of us. Ironically, they make us less spiritual, if we are not mindful of their potential downside.
It is up to us to use these gifts wisely, to avoid being carried away with their novelty and their power. We have to be careful to use them in ways that do not diminish our personal relationships. We all want to feel our spirituality and express it in our everyday life. Can we do it in our new connected environment? As Steve asked, “Can it be done?” Let it be our new, collective challenge.
Les Kaye is the abbot of the Kannon Do Zen Center in Mountain View, CA. He is the author of Zen at Work and Joyously Through the Days: Living the Journey of Spiritual Practice.