What Kind of Buddhist was Steve Jobs, Really?

Kobun Chino Otogawa, Steve Jobs' Zen teacher. Courtesy kobun-sama.org.

At PLOS, Steve Silberman goes in depth into the influence that Steve's Buddhist teachers had on Apple's mission and its products.

"I found myself in a unique position to write it, since I knew Jobs' teacher Kobun Chino, and studied at Zen Center around the same time that Steve did," Silberman tells Boing Boing. "I include a quote from a never-published interview with Steve at the end."

As a young seeker in the ’70s, Jobs didn’t just dabble in Zen, appropriating its elliptical aesthetic as a kind of exotic cologne. He turns out to have been a serious, diligent practitioner who undertook lengthy meditation retreats at Tassajara — the first Zen monastery in America, located at the end of a twisting dirt road in the mountains above Carmel — spending weeks on end “facing the wall,” as Zen students say, to observe the activity of his own mind.

Why would a former phone phreak who perseverated over the design of motherboards be interested in doing that? Using the mind to watch the mind, and ultimately to change how the mind works, is known in cognitive psychology as metacognition. Beneath the poetic cultural trappings of Buddhism, what intensive meditation offers to long-term practitioners is a kind of metacognitive hack of the human operating system (a metaphor that probably crossed Jobs’ mind at some point.) Sitting zazen offered Jobs a practical technique for upgrading the motherboard in his head.

Read the full article here.


        1. Buddhism is religion. Zen is philosophy.  You cannot have buddhizm without zen, but you can have zen without buddhism. I mean, insofar as you can have anything.

          1. Buddhism is religion. Zen is philosophy.  You cannot have buddhizm without zen, but you can have zen without buddhism. I mean, insofar as you can have anything.

            Actually, you can’t. This is an American misunderstanding (caused by ignorance of Zen and history, as well as Buddhism) of what Zen is.

          2. You can, however, have mindfulness practice without Buddhism, as the evidence-based benefits of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction in pain clinics and hospitals proves.

          3. You can have mindfulness practice without Buddhism but it is a fairly shallow (if useful) thing in comparison to what the Dharma actually teaches people.

            Secular mindfulness techniques are a means of coping with mental and physical troubles in a stressful world. They aren’t going to lead to liberation.

          4. I hear you, but have you ever met a fully “liberated” person?  I’ve met and learned from many seasoned Buddhist practitioners, who seemed wonderfully at ease and content, but… well, it’s something I think about, being an evidence-based science guy as well as a longtime meditator.

          5. Yes, Steve, I’ve met a few fully liberated persons in my time.

            I’ve met others who made the claim, which may or may not have been justified. If you look at my blog at http://www.openbuddha.com, I talk about one of them, Daniel Ingram, in two of the posts on the front page. He claims to be an arhat coming out of the Theravadan tradition of practice.

            We have to evaluate people as they come but I’m definitely not in the camp that thinks that liberation is some strange thing that only the Buddha or a few people hundreds or thousands of years ago could achieve.

          6. I will read it, thank you.  I’m not in any “camp” on the liberation question, per se.  I have an open mind about it, kept open by the experience of having several of my former teachers (including Trungpa and Baker-roshi) publicly excoriated for their faults and excesses, while they were still powerful teachers.

          7. Sure, I understand. My main teachers are all normal human beings with personal faults. So am I so I find it helpful and empowering to see that they struggle with issues as well.

            Baker and Trungpa have both served as positive *and* negative expressions of great teachers who are/were deeply flawed human beings as well.

          8. Yep, I agree.  Ingram looks interesting and smart — it’s quite something that he authored a book billing himself as “the Arahat Daniel Ingram,” I’ve never seen that before.  I’d love to go to one of those SF-based Buddhist Geek dinners.

          9. If you’re interested in his book, he has a PDF of it up at http://www.interactivebuddha.com/mctb.shtml, along with links to a Wiki version. A Kindle and ePub version is out from the usual suspects. There is  three part interview with him on Vimeo as well at http://www.pragmaticdharma.com/2011/05/daniel-ingram-on-pragmatic-dharma/.

            As to Buddhist Geeks and SF, they are organizing an SF group with Kenneth Folk (another teacher who shared primary teachers with Daniel), probably meeting weekly. You can e-mail me at albill@openbuddha.com if you’d like me to keep you up to date on what happens with that (it is still organizing itself). In the Bay Area, I’ve just started organizing open retreats as part of the Bay Area Open Sangha as a form of unorganization, bottom up, to do retreats, sitting, etc. See http://bayarea.opensangha.org.

          10. You cannot have buddhizm without zen…

            The Vajrayanists and Theravedans would disagree with you, to name just two huge and ancient Buddhist groups.

          11. Well, Trungpa was probably the most influential Vajrayana teacher of our era, and he not only enjoyed a profound friendship with Suzuki-roshi, he incorporated many Zen practices (such as use of oryoki in the zendo, and an emphasis on shamatha/vipassana meditation) (sorry for the jargon, non-Buddhist readers) in his presentation of Vajrayana.  So the lines aren’t as tidy as all that, particularly in America.

          12. The lines may not be very tidy, but the idea that you can’t have Buddhism without Zen is a pretty defeatable notion.  Buddhism had been around and well-established for nearly a millennium years before Bodhidharma, the traditional founder of the Chan school.

    1. Unfortunately, it’s too often that philanthropy, as good and necessary as it is, becomes a crutch for the worst of our society to lean on as some sort of karmic offset. The world just needs more overall balance is what I’m saying.

    2. “Religion is an excuse to disavow social justice.”

      I think you mean that religion can be used as an excuse not to help people in need. That is true. E.g. there are evangelicals such as William Lane Craig who make theological arguments for accepting genocide. The topic of “works” has been a hot potato in Christianity since the Middle Ages. However, this does not mean that everyone always uses these kind of excuses.

      In Zen, where this is possible is in misuse of the concept of emptiness. Naive people can take this to imply that nothing matters and one thing is as good as another. The main reason they do this is because they are looking for such an excuse, if you ask my opinion. In fact this is a mistaken view, and a monk friend said to me that emptiness theory is like “handling snakes” for this reason.

      “Philanthropy is better than Zen if Zen does not bring about social good.”

      What is good is helping people to get what they want, though of course that is putting it extremely simply to avoid having to write an essay on the foundations of morality.

      If you want to compare two social institutions and see which does more to help people, then fine. Zen Buddhist institutions around the world will do worse than many charities and better than some.

      If the implication is that time spent on Zen study is an unjustifiable distraction from helping people, then I admire your single-minded determination to good works. I do know people who think this way, and while I have deep respect for them, I also feel very sorry for them. They are so kind but their lives are full of stress and worry. Sometimes I think they would have more energy and ability for their good works if they took some time during the day to relax and enjoy the universe.

      I will say that I personally believe studying Zen can help one to be calmer and avoid depression. So I think intrinsically it has worth even if it takes time away from philanthropy.

    3. @Haz: philanthropy is not the purpose of zen.  You can be philanthropic or not, practice buddhism or not, freely.  The point is not to “make yourself better,” it’s to learn about yourself and the world.  What you do from there is your call.  I am an atheist and practice buddhist techniques because they are very helpful.  

  1. He was a Zen buddhist, so basicly he didn’t have to give to charity or help the sick and poor unless his personal meditation told him to.

    And apperently his personal meditation told him to draw a massive salary, exploit workers overseas, and how to arrange furniture.

    1. He was a Zen buddhist, so basicly he didn’t have to give to charity or help the sick and poor unless his personal meditation told him to.

      Philanthropy as a religious obligation is not philanthropy at all – it is a way for the rich to buy their way into heaven. If one has no intrinsic desire to help people in need, one should not do it, so as to avoid perverting the process.

      1. Philanthropy as a religious obligation is not philanthropy at all – it is a way for the rich to buy their way into heaven. If one has no intrinsic desire to help people in need, one should not do it, so as to avoid perverting the process.

        Let’s not encourage more people to obsess on personal enlightenment to the detriment of charitable works.

    1. No you don’t, Wendy. You bought in to a story, hook line and sinker.

      Foxconn makes products for all sorts of companies, including Apple. But 17 suicides over 5 years and 1 million workers – what do you think the suicide rate is at typical college campus? It’s 13x higher. Or the cities surrounding the foxconn factories?  It’s 24x higher. Gather some facts & think for your self, and if someone has misled you, question their motives.


      1. That’s a thoughtful, well-written article. It’s also an article written after a trip to a factory where the author is squired around by management, quotes only management, and offers the management perspective. If Joel Johnson really wanted to investigate the welfare of workers at that Foxconn plant, why didn’t he talk to a few? I’m sure you could paint a rosy picture of, say, Goldman-Sachs if you limited your investigation to chatting with board members. I don’t know that that factory is or isn’t a hellhole, but the source you’re quoting  is not credible.

        1. I totally agree with you. That omission deals a major blow to the credibility of the article. It’s something that any half-decent journalist should have done, and it could have swayed the opinion either way.  So, I was only using the article (and the first commenter) as a reference for the number of suicides – not a broader picture of working conditions.

  2. Does it matter? From accounts that I have read, he was an extremely unpleasant, greedy narcissist who use to park in disabled places and took pleasure in humiliating people. I run Linux and Android, but I’d rather use Windows than any products from the Apple empire, purely because their emperor was so loathsome.

    1. That’s as self-defeating as refusing to use money because Alan Greenspan is a douche.

      Lots of better reasons, none of which hinge on your own righteousness.

  3. As a yoga and meditation teacher, I’ve run into quite a few Type A, tight-assed, furious, dogmatic Zen Buddhists.  They can be quite as doctrinaire as the Catholic Church about how their purity of practice is the only fucking purity of practice that counts, bitches.  Of course, that might only be the American ones.

      1. Travel much?

        Not in a way that gives me the opportunity to find out what philosophy people (claim to) follow. Westerners have a rich tradition of changing the content of Eastern philosophies without the courtesy of also changing the name.

  4. A tyrannical, jerk-faced, Zen Buddhist, control freak hellbent on building closed systems?

    I sincerely hope that he did not recite “Be the change that you want to see in the world” as a mantra.

    1. Jobs wanted to build beautiful things people would enjoy, blending the functionality computing with aesthetics in a package designed to be easy for everyone to use.  He genuinely believed building these things would make the world a better place. But haters gonna hate.

      1. Beautiful on the outside. The i-device architecture is locked down like a supermax with electrical issues, the tech support team avoid/deny/delete comments about security & privacy issues like a Pravda editor, and they won’t support useful programs like Java that won’t directly make them money.

        Have you read Saki’s “the Mappined Life”?
        Given sufficient illusion most creatures will find satisfaction in an amusing farce.

        1. We can no longer fix radios like we did in the 50’s either, but you’re welcome to go back to lamp radio’s if you like. You want open? Great, knock yourself out and go and buy an open device but understand that the rest of us might want something that just works well and looks nice. This is not us being put into a jail, this is us buying a house in a walled city. Don’t force your preferences on me please.

          1. No, it is you being put into a jail. It’s just – as many homeowners with HOAs have discovered – a jail you like… at first.

          2. There are significant costs to moving workflows and data across platforms. Investment in apps is lost. And one of the things that makes it a jail in the first place is that Apple makes this difficult. Mind you, I’m typing this on a Mac. I don’t dislike everything they do. But they were and are definitely moving to a more and more closed system. Not just technically, but politically. And most of that came directly from the top. Steve Jobs was a control freak.

          3. > There are significant costs to moving workflows and data across platforms.

            Same as it has ever been. I went from c64 to Amiga to PC to Mac. You lose some things, you bring some things, it’s not a disaster. In fact the situation now is better as a lot of formats are standardized (html, xml, mp3, jpg) and able to be transferred/stored through the web. So you leave the apps behind, I can still bring the data that’s truly important: my pictures, music, contacts, etc. I’m not locked into my iDevice in any real sense, less than I was on my microsoft PC in any case.

          4. I think the point is that you can’t always take everything with you when you want to go in the same manner you would were you to pack a bag when leaving home.
            The whole idea has been to make the devices interact in a way that they actively exclude and hamper their inter-operation with other devices and systems. 

            Additionally, the policy is to make this appear attractive and hide the limitations.

            Other than the philosophical and ethical issues around this, personally I don’t like the style of Apple products – I’m not a big fan of my devices being the same colour as my fridge (joke) or looking plasticky like that.

            I get the notion that they’re glossy and shiny, like my fridge (yup, another joke), but it doesn’t suit me. It does appeal to lots of people (obviously) and Apple have succeeded in selling simplicity in complex devices. In effect making them more like appliances – you don’t need to understand a fridge to use it.

            However, the notion of Apple devices being ‘easier to use’ is more guff then fact. Glossy? Yes, Well promoted? Yes, Hyphed? Yes. Easier in general? Can’t agree.

            My mother-in-law has a Mac book and desktop thingo. She’s clueless despite having owned the desktop machine for five years. My children (three under 11) are more au fai the operation of their machines and they have Linux machines.

          5. yeah, okay. I’ve never needed to call an IT professional once nor caught a virus or had a security breach in 30 years of owning Apples.

            Zero downtime.

            i’m sure you androids and PCs are just jealous of what a proper control freak can pull off.

          6. Jesus, what a mindless fanboy you are. It might surprise you to learn I’m typing this from a Mac. In fact, I own nothing but Macs, and recommend all my friends & relatives do the same. Apple does some good things, and a reliable and relatively secure OS running on quality hardware is one of them. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have a dark side. They like to lock you in. That’s fine as long as they’re going where you want, but as the users of Final Cut Pro recently learned, that can really cost you when they decide to go off in another direction.

          7. yeah, okay. I’ve never needed to call an IT professional once nor caught a virus or had a security breach in 30 years of owning Apples.

            I could — honestly — say the same thing, as I’ve never had any issues running open-source software (mostly Linux, but some FreeBSD), although that’s only been since 94 (17 years).

            Really, your comment is kind of irrelevant, since it actually speaks to the technical merits of a platform more than the ideology behind it.

            I’m not a fan of the ideology of Apple — I’m an Open Source guy, after all — but from all I’ve heard the platform is solid. Solid technology doesn’t really conflict with squirrelly ideology. And that applies across the board; the same could be said in RMS in my opinion (not being a fanatic, I find his ideology a bit squirrelly too).

          8. Ah, but I can build the radio myself. Unless the information is patented and made a trade secret. Not that I’d be able to purchase the necessary components because the license would cost too much.

            That’s your money at work forcing a tech industry’s preferences on me in a silly scenario using early 20th century technology as an example.

            Hopefully open devices will be able to learn from Steve’s user interface id/genius to make devices that most can use and most can afford and most can customize to fit their needs. However, if Apple patents ridiculous things like mouse clicks and use of primary shapes in design, that may never happen in the US.

            (Note to your above comment which I feel was mostly addressed in this post: I have a Gen4 iPod touch. I enjoyed the games on it and it plays music satisfactorily but I did not enjoy putting Itunes onto my laptop so that the damn thing would function. My next personal device will not be made by Apple.)

          9. Actually its even better than that. With the GNUradio software defined radio technology you can even redefine the radio and make it do things the creator of the hardware and software never conceived of.
            This is the real glory of open source/open hardware as opposed to the locked down nature of Jobs products.

      2. I guess Job$ wanted to make the world a better place so much that he had his toys manufactured in toxic hell-hole labor factories in that ant-hive bastion of human-rights, China, which brutally and violently suppresses a country of real Buddhists, Tibet.   

  5. You can add Steve Jobs to the list of Things I don’t Care About, especially after the internet circle-jerk surrounding his death. He was an ass.

    1. Maybe he was an ass but he is an ass that changed my life in ways that others could not. 
      It is all very strange then, no?

  6. Antinous, ever met any uptight Jews? Holier-than-thou Christians? Muslims who were dicks?  Presbyterians who didn’t give a damn about other people’s feelings? Shallow Mormons? Bitchy Hindus? These kinds of behaviors don’t seem to be restricted to any particular group.

    1. Antinous, ever met any uptight Jews? Holier-than-thou Christians? Muslims who were dicks? Presbyterians who didn’t give a damn about other people’s feelings? Shallow Mormons? Bitchy Hindus? These kinds of behaviors don’t seem to be restricted to any particular group.

      But most of them aren’t pretending to be all serene and shit. Hateful Christians do stand out as particularly ironic, but most religions don’t actually make much pretense about that sort of thing. If you’re uptight and angry about how other people are supposed to be meditating, ur doin it rong.

        1. Sounds like you got your hate on for Zen folks.

          No, but you haven’t exactly busted the stereotype for me.

      1. I will point out that your constructing a classic straw man of what you think a Zen person is (“uptight and angry about how other people are supposed to be meditating”) and then knocking it down.

        I’ve been on quite a few Zen retreats with a lot of people. That doesn’t match any Zen people I’ve ever met.

        We all have anecdotes, I guess.

      2. But most of them aren’t pretending to be all serene and shit. Hateful Christians do stand out as particularly ironic…

        If you’ve ever read the bible they do.

    2. I have to agree. People’s religious views or spiritual values do not preclude them from being an arse.  Often what it can do it allow them a self-deluding sense of superiority. This is also the case with any form of ‘self-examination’ which merely ends in a condescending notion of having no responsibility to the rest of the community and a failure to recognise how much sheer blind luck plays in all successes.

      When I think of people like that it reminds me Celemine’s soliloquy in Moliere’s “The Misanthrope”:”She prays incessantly’; but then, they say,
      ‘She beats her maids and cheats them of their pay;
      She shows her zeal in every holy place,
      But still she’s vain enough to paint her face”The whole soliloquy is fantastically funny and very telling.

  7. He did donate, before he was a millionaire, which is somehow more honorable than billionaire “philantropists” in my opinion : http://www.seva.ca/ourhistory.htm

    But he wasn’t a fan. According to the biography : “He discovered that it was annoying to have to deal with the person he had hired to run [his foundation], who kept talking about ‘venture’ philanthropy and how to ‘leverage’ giving” and “[Jobs was] contemptuous of people who made a display of philanthropy or thinking they could reinvent it.”

    American style philanthropy is bullshit anyway. Just a bunch of billionaires spending a fraction of their ill-gotten gains to get in with the right crowd and expand their influence and that of their company.

    1. > The Apple fanclub appears to have better places to be than defending Jobs on the internet during a Friday night.

      I’m at work actually :-) I’m not religious but I believe in looking at the beam in your own eye so I tend not to judge. I take it you’re not a fan of the man but read his biography, it definitely doesn’t sugarcoat his shortcomings and might give you some insight in what he tried to do and how he was just another flawed messed up human being just like the rest of us.

      1. I’ll read it after the hype shushes down. It’s hard to hear one’s inner-voice through a good publicity campaign’s noise (not that they need one when journalists are doing it for free).

        My understanding of Mr. Jobs is that I would have never liked him from an employee perspective and only admired his goals pre-00s. I understand that he wanted to make beautiful products even at the expense of all else. However, I am one of those affected by the all else of his decisions and unfortunately so are his users whether they know how to acknowledge it or not.

        And so if I must pick an odious group, I choose Linus/Stallman’s accesible, open platforms that will be of utilitarian use to society long after we’re dust to Steve’s pretty, little, unfixable, blinky devices.

        I’m not religious but I am political.

        1. > I am one of those affected by the all else of his decisions

          Explain to me exactly how you are affected by Job’s decisions since you say you don’t use Apple products ? You’ve got Linux, Meego and all the rest of it, enjoy it.

          > I choose Linus/Stallman’s accesible, open platforms that will be of
          utilitarian use to society long after we’re dust to Steve’s pretty,
          little, unfixable, blinky devices.

          It’s pretty ironic that people who think like this (most open source advocates seem to) complain about Jobs being megalomaniacal. We’ll see how it turns out but I’m sceptical towards any movement that espouses this kind of exceptionalism.

          1. > Here is the open community in a few pages

            I’m a unix sysadmin and I own a copy of “Open Sources: Voices from the Open Source Revolution” believe it or not.  I know the arguments, I respect the people involved and what they are trying to achieve even when I don’t agree but it’s just not for me.

        2. I would like a computer with software that does not outpace the hardware, so that it runs fast, does not get bogged down by the OS or applications, and typing software that is as straightforward to use as Word 5.1 or Lotus 1-2-3.  Currently, we are laden with bloatware. 

          To my chagrin every single day, because I am a programmer and writer, I must wait a million little moments for the OS to catch up to my thought, which has by then started to curdle and twist into a sour, rotten shape, and I am pursing my lips at the screen, wondering when the damn thing will respond.

          This is my dream.  Not only a beautiful machine, but one as responsive as a Porsche to every twist and hairpin turn of my mind, showing me the silky fluidity of an impeccable machine-works, like how an Ikebana vase fits under the arrangement.

          We don’t have that.  It’s not Steve’s fault. He really tried.

          1. (Didn’t mean to ignore you.)

            Unfortunately, software always seems to outpace hardware. I’m not sure anyone will ever slice that Gordian knot as it has more to do with constantly adjusting luxuries into our reality.

            I’m told that a cell phone should be able to generate a 1080p video signal and that broadband connections on aeroplanes aren’t fast/reliable enough to stream Netflix adequately for a papermill executive’s expectations. I’m told a supercomputer from 1995 is now submersible in water and used to take pictures of sea urchins and that there’s more computing power in those original Gameboys than what was in the US space shuttle that was recently decommissioned.

            Blaming Steve Jobs for not creating the device you want is similar to blaming Jesus for not ending greed.

          2. I agree.  We are, at least in our current culture, both subject and object of the expectation that we need to constantly adjust new luxuries into our lives.  That was well-put, how you said that.

            My iPhone 3GS used to be snappy, responsive and lean. Now, it’s sluggish, unresponsive and bogged.  I haven’t laden it with apps- I have a few that I use.  It’s the OS that has made this thing “need to be replaced.”  But I won’t buy an iPhone 4S.  Not out of some petulant “I hate Apple” kind of thing.  But out of this esthetic that I described in my previous post.  

            I want a device that responds to me in real time and a situation that doesn’t require me to sign a long contract.  …At the end of which, my iPhone 4S will suffer the same slowness as this 3GS because of all the updates to iOS between now and then. 

            I feel like I would be signing a contract with the Devil, because the 4S would be super snazzy and great right now, but in a year, it’ll suck, and I’ve still got another year to go on the contract, and then the iPhone 5 is out, so I gotta re-up the thing for another 2 years, spend more money… always on a chase.  I detest that feeling.

            So the real innovation would be something with the look and feel of Apple or Bang&Olufsen, the reliability of a Honda or a Maytag, but the *consistency of experience over time*, like, say, a Kitchen Aid or Cuisinart.  My Cuisinart is not slower than it was 4 years ago.  It is just as sharp, just as fast, just as responsive as ever.

            A computational device could be like that too.  There is no reason why a brilliant person could not engineer that kind of reliability and consistency.

          3. That’s a wonderful vision. The first designer to do it wins Steve’s throne, crown, fortune, and followers.

            As Steve was always pushing the limits of form there wasn’t much room for overhead (the perhaps apocryphal story of Steve dropping an iPod prototype into a fish tank and complaining about  air bubbles is a fine example) and so wasn’t able to adapt to oncoming software challenges adequately.

            His unreasonableness was both a strength and weakness. I will now go meditate over a cup of coffee on this. ;)

          4. Funny you should say the 3GS is slow since most reports say that it’s actually faster with iOS 5 than 4.

        3. To me, the level of openness of any technology, platform, society, or group is determined by how easy it is to join and to leave and how transparent its rules are. That way, I can exercise my freedom in an informed manner to choose between ‘packages’/experiences with different visions and tradeoffs.

          All other rules are diversity, and diversity is a virtue – it is critical to both innovation and survival.

  8. the first tenet of Buddhism is that attachment is the cause of all suffering.  I really doubt Jobs ever apprehended that.

    1. I don’t know. I get the sense that if he could have got rid of power cables from his machines he would have.

  9. It seems we are well past the point of giving Steve a break just because he died. If the stuff in his biography is true he was one obsessed and messed up genius. A Zen Buddhist he may have been, but bring him peace it did not. His family seems to be left with a bazillion dollars and a book, about as much understanding of him as the rest of us have.

  10. I see a Lot more complaints from people trying to transfer their data between two Apple products or even OS versions on their own machines/phones than any other software/hardware platform.

    It was Apple who came out with the iMac (sans floppy disk drive), and somehow expected people to transfer their data via the web (in the days of dial-up) or CD (when burners were incredibly expensive). Not all of Steve’s decisions were good ones, some of them hurt his users quite a bit.

    1. I’m curious whether the file transfer problems are mostly equipment issues or user incompetence. The usability voice in my head says that any lack of clarity is the equipment and ultimately designers’ fault buttttt…

    1. “I think Zen Buddhism (or any form of Buddhism, for that matter) frowns on being an asshole.”

      It depends, really. I read a book about the Zen Master Hakuin, one of the greatest, and he was famous for cursing out his students, telling them that they’ll never be enlightened in a million lifetimes, that they couldn’t handle five minutes practicing with his teacher, that they are a disgrace to the dharma, and on and on. But his students loved the old bastard. :)

  11. How did a post on Steve Jobs’ Buddhism (or potential lack thereof for some) get taking over by the Stallman squad? Can’t you all go hijack another Steve Jobs thread so the rest of us can fight about Zen?

    Damn people.

    1. Stallman squad here,

      If the Apple fan club had been here to get the thread rolling instead of out doing lines off of Foxconn employees’ backs or whatever it is social people do on the Friday night before Halloween this thread could have been whatever they wanted it to be as long as there were hushed tones of worship and hymns to idevice beauty.

      the Stallman Squad

      P.S. the beatification is over, game’s on yo.

      1. Fortunatley, we have lives. Otherwise occupied, but not with anything technical. Busy with things not involving our computers or bitching about them, or slapping them on the table to show ours is bigger,

         on a Friday night. Yes, we were otherwise occupied.

      2. the beatification is over, game’s on yo.

        The funny thing is that I’m not an Apple fan boy.

        I’m a Zen guy who works in Silicon Valley. I’m more interested in the Zen than watching another stupid fight between Freetards and Apple folks over open and closed source systems in a thread on Steve Jobs’ Buddhism.

          1. Hey, if the size of Steve Jobs’ fame and fortune gets a few more people to ponder Zen, maybe read a book, and come sit with us, I’m all for it, potentate or not. It’s all good.

          2. Sure Al, I agree — but I didn’t write this article because of the size of Steve Jobs’ fame and fortune. If so, I’d be writing about Carlos Slim, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and Sam Zell.

          3. Sure Al, I agree — but I didn’t write this article because of the size of Steve Jobs’ fame and fortune. If so, I’d be writing about Carlos Slim, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and Sam Zell.

            Why you wrote it has little to do with why we read it or are discussing it, really. :-) Things have a life of their own.

            If it wasn’t for the size of Jobs’ fame and fortune, no one would care about some software dude’s legacy of Zen sitting.

          4. Sure Al — if the craft of writing means nothing. And yet, I’ve read compelling pieces (particularly in the New Yorker) about people who weren’t stars or millionaires and learned from them.  One of my favorite magazine pieces of all time was Malcolm Gladwell’s “Six Degrees of Lois Weisberg” (http://www.gladwell.com/1999/1999_01_11_a_weisberg.htm ), about a relative “nobody” examined in a fascinating way.  If you ask me, Gladwell’s a lot less interesting when he writes about tycoons!

          5. If readers read a piece with a different intent or for a different reason than you intended as an author, it is not a failure on your part or their part. Be happy that they found it interesting, that they’re talking about it elsewhere (like Boing Boing), and that it promotes dialogue.

  12. We Buddhists get excited about famous people choosing our religion. We want people to love us. It’s a bit pathetic really. Jobs was no saint, and not the poster boy I would choose for Buddhism. He had a reputation for treating his co-workers poorly, for having a short temper, and he died a multi-billionaire. I mean even Bill Gates has a created a philanthropic organisation to give his money away. His products were highly proprietary and stifled open computing.  What’s more his products were *always* aimed at the affluent – no cheap tablet for the third world from Apple.

  13. This reads like Zen Buddhism as marketed by Steve Jobs, lol. Maybe Steve Jobs is the killer app that will skyrocket the market share of Zen Buddhism.

  14. “Why would a former phone phreak who perseverated over the design of motherboards be interested in doing that?”
    Um… could somebody explain this line to me? I’m sure it’s based on some stereotype of what a phone phreak is/was (hmm, I didn’t know Jobs was into that), and what somebody who would be interested in meditation would be, but I’m totally drawing blanks on in what way they would be opposites of each other. Dunno, I just think geeks of all kinds tend to be interested in philosophical issues and therefore also interested in exploring their own minds, and that line seriously rubs me the wrong way… or at least what I parsed it to mean… I’m still not sure if I understood it right.

    1. Sure, CH. It’s a response to the stereotype of hardcore geeks who reflexively dismiss anything that can’t be explained rationally as “woo.” After 14 years at Wired magazine, I can tell you that they’re as common as the more philosophical geeks you mention.  You’re quite right that many geeks are interested in philosophy. But the ones who aren’t, really aren’t, and they’re the ones I had in mind when I wrote this line.

  15. Zen  Buddhism is an organized religion, but it is not very widespread as such. It is most organized in Japan, and then it exists in probably all Western countries on a smaller scale. There is no real reason to insist it is not a religion when in Japan it is functionally indistinguishable from other religions. In Japan they will pray for your soul (so to speak) and there are plenty of “supernatural” elements to it.

    Zen literature is more widespread than such organized practice in Western countries, and people who read it don’t usually follow Zen as an organized religion. This is like, I dunno, reading CS Lewis but not going to church.

    Within Zen literature you find a lot of deprecation of the organized religion aspect of Zen Buddhism. However, it’s not universal. The presence of such writings doesn’t stop Zen Buddhism being a religion when it’s practiced in the form of one.

    The subject of Zen is the mind, mainly, and it has a whole lot of history of analysis and interpretation on that topic. The usefulness of organized practice in gaining understanding of the Zen take on the mind is up for debate. In the end I think it is up to the individual to see what works.

    1. Mujokan, if you’re in Japan, I can see why things look that way from your perspective. As someone who basically grew up practicing Zen in America, I was actually surprised at how much Zen in Japan was “merely” a religion when I finally went there, particularly to young people. It seemed like for young Japanese folks, Zen was something you called upon when it was time to have a funeral. By contrast, Zen centers in the US — like the ones Jobs and I were going to — are radically practice-oriented. Reading books and talking about Zen on a strictly philosophical basis was actively discouraged. It may seem to you that Zen is only a marginal, primarily philosophical niche interest in the US, but there are hundreds if not thousands of Zen centers flourishing from coast to coast, so even if that’s marginal compared to, say, Mormon churches, it’s still a sizeable phenomenon — and quite different in tone, emphasis, and vitality from Zen in Japan.

      1. “Reading books and talking about Zen on a strictly philosophical basis was actively discouraged.”

        Yes, I get that feeling. I think it makes things much, much harder than they need to be.

        Everyone who feels they want to commit to Zen ought to read good, annotated translations of the original texts of the various big names from China, unless they are not language-oriented at all and have trouble understanding  anything written.

        In Japan I like Dogen but he is not for beginners except maybe the Eihei Koroku. Other Japanese guys I think are not likely to be as useful as the earlier Chinese stuff. Collections of koans with commentaries like the Blue Cliff Record or the Mumonkan should also be kept till later. And studying single koans out of context is almost a complete waste of time. Reading modern writers will be hit or miss. Anyway the only essentials are the Chinese records of sermons and other writings.

        I think maybe the “practice only” philosophy of Western organized Zen Buddhism comes from Dogen’s approach to running his monastery, filtered through the Soto sect (who run the SF Zen Center and other big centers in the States). However he was kind of a harsh guy. He himself wrote plenty, though it is impossible to understand without explanatory notes unless you grew up in a monastery or something and know all the old texts by heart.

        Regarding the classification of Western organized Zen Buddhism, for my money, if you are part of a community, all sitting in a hall together chanting sutras every week for ten years, you might as well call it a religion. You can be a physicalist and go along to Zen practice without believing in reincarnation or worrying about arhats or bodhisattvas. But just by my way of thinking, it seems like a religion still.

        1. I agree with your caution about single koans, but I’ve always loved the Blue Cliff Record, myself, even when I was a beginning student. One virtue of practice-oriented Zen is that it cuts through students indulging in lot of uninformed speculation based on (mis)readings of the abstruse texts. But sitting? Seems to me to be a good idea for anyone who’s interested.  I’m not quibbling about whether or not Zen is a “religion.” That question doesn’t engage me so much.

          1. “One virtue of practice-oriented Zen is that it cuts through students indulging in lot of uninformed speculation based on (mis)readings of the abstruse texts.”

            Yes, it is a good risk-reduction strategy to deal with the problem of finding enough good teachers. However I don’t think it should be actively discouraged unless that’s a big worry. Chinese Zen Masters are scathing about monks who focus exclusively on practice.

          2. One virtue of practice-oriented Zen is that it cuts through students indulging in lot of uninformed speculation based on (mis)readings of the abstruse texts.

            Ah.  So it’s like medieval Christianity.

          3. Wow, you may be a moderator, but you’ve sure got a lot of agendas about Zen going in this thread. For all your industrious disparaging of other people’s personalities and practices, you might try tackling some of your frozen notions of how other people are supposed to behave. So today it’s “Westerners” that are bugging you?

          4. Wow, you may be a moderator, but you’ve sure got a lot of agendas about Zen going in this thread.

            Ignoring your Trolling For Dummies comment about me being a moderator, I’m interested to know the following:
            –  Why should a statement about not letting practitioners read the original texts be viewed any differently than the Catholic Church doing the same with the Bible?
            –  Why should Zen Buddhism get more respect than Catholicism, Mormonism, Scientology or any other religion? 
            –  What exactly is the point of the whole thing if you’re still so defensive about criticism?

          5. What? He has to be already enlightened before he’s allowed to dislike uninformed criticism?

            As far as “letting” practitioners read original texts, I never met a Zen teacher or group that stopped anyone from doing so. Some groups just don’t encourage it as it is seen as over intellectualizing and they suggest people should focus on actual practice, not reading books of theory or about practice.

          6. “Ah.  So it’s like medieval Christianity.”

            Not exactly. Keeping everything in Latin mainly had the aim of strengthening the power of the  clergy. Teachers in modern Western Zen Buddhism don’t have this aim when they discourage studying the texts. It comes more from a lack of belief in the ability of students (and themselves) to fully understand the theory. They themselves don’t make a detailed study of the texts in order to dominate their students (which would be required for a full parallel with the medieval Church).

            I think another reason is that they don’t really understand the comments in Zen about not relying on scriptures and so forth. There is this Western idea that Zen is about “absurdity” and things are actually better when they don’t make sense. This is a natural view for people who never study texts and therefore don’t get the references that are being made. If you don’t know what an image is referring to, it becomes simply “absurd”. But it is better to understand both the benefits and limits of talking about the nature of the mind rather than saying one can never talk about it.

            In fact Zen theory is actually very hard to understand, and very detailed and complicated. So in a way they sort of have a point. But never looking at any of the original texts is letting hundreds of years of analysis by very smart people go to waste. It’s like hobbling yourself out of fear you will run too fast and fall over. They end up relying very heavily on codified ritual practice according to whatever sect they happen to end up following.

          7. Keeping everything in Latin mainly had the aim of strengthening the power of the  clergy. Teachers in modern Western Zen Buddhism don’t have this aim when they discourage studying the texts. It comes more from a lack of belief in the ability of students (and themselves) to fully understand the theory.

            Don’t you think that’s what Catholic priests said were their reasons?  Nobody ever thinks that he’s the bad guy.

          8. In that case, they treated attempts to translate liturgy into vulgar languages as a crime because they wanted to keep centralized control over the clergy. But nobody ever got punished for reading Joshu. At worst you will get some snobby remark about relying on intellectual interpretations.

            Western Zen Buddhism doesn’t gain any form of control over anyone by having a certain tendency (how strong is a matter of opinion) to say that you don’t need to bother reading about Zen. You aren’t going to be able to go off and start your own sect without the blessing of the Pope just because you read what some old monks said.

            It does, I suppose, give you less ammunition to challenge your teacher. Old-school Zen can be kind of like a game of verbal jousting where you score a point by eloquently expressing “the matter at hand”. Bad teachers have a certain incentive to keep you in the dark I suppose, but I don’t think this is a widespread problem.

  16. Wasn’t there a big Internet trend of articles identifying his religion as Nazilike (complete with “our race the greats, the other race lowly rat servants” ) and tyrannical when that guy made that FREAKING AWESOME Stalin wet dream Sim City level where everyone was a 24/7 slave cog in the machine of the world he created, and he thought it was consistent with his pure “Zen” philosophy

    P.s. I’ll blow anyone who can link to a downloadable version of that video. It had cool ominous music and it was very minecrafty-before-minecraft. It reminded me of something the pinhead guy from hell raiser (come to think if it, was he Buddhist?

  17. I am not Buddhist–I use Irish whiskey–but my late wife Jeanne was a Soto Zen priest (dharma name: Buchi Eihei).  We both visited Tassajara often, and Green Gulch Farm, and Zen Center on Page Street. The attitude I found most common among Soto Zen Buddhists was eloquently expressed by the founder of all three monasteries, Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, and I urge posters to this thread to think on it.  Suzuki said, “People with opinions just go around bothering one another.”  

    I’ve never heard of any Zen teacher forbidding students to read original texts, though I have heard several urge students not to get hung up on them.  No Zen person has EVER told me how I should meditate, unless I asked their advice. Uptight Zennies certainly exist–but I have found them far less common than uptight moderators.  (An observation, rather than an opinion)

  18. You don’t practice Zen because you’re a saint, you do it because you need to do something about yourself.

  19. Know != say
    Say != know

    Jobs != employment
    except for media phreaques who shovel this  stuff in like marketables and dump it out in phantasmal piles

  20. “-  Why should Zen Buddhism get more respect than Catholicism, Mormonism, Scientology or any other religion? ”

    Because it’s Eastern, which gives it a special legitimacy to Westerners for some reason, and it makes them feel intellectual and cultured.

  21. I think much of the resentment shown in the comments here has to do with witnessing the irony in retrofitting the trappings of eastern spiritualism upon the life of someone who was ultimately an exceedingly savvy businessman (but nothing more) so as to somehow provide insight on why he was so good at furthering materialist obsession and consumption. Sprinkling “Zen” over the persona of Steve Jobs is an effective story-telling device, but it is intellectually dishonest.

    The reality is simply this: if Jobs was such an enduring adherent of Zen philosophy, it would stand to reason that his actions over the course of his lifetime would reflect a growing understanding of loving kindness, compassion and selflessness, after all, if Buddhism can be distilled in any meaningful way, it is to the cultivation of these three traits. Why then, has Steve Jobs been shown to be an ill-tempered individual, prone to extreme anger and viscious verbal tirades, and most tellingly, someone supremely egotistical with strong-handed business practices (incorporating personal vendettas)? Where had all the fruit of his “sitting zazen” all these years, under the privileged tutelage of highly regarded practitioners no less, gotten him? While it is indeed all about the path, and not the end result, I would think that someone turned on to Buddhism, much less a long-time adherent, would resist from engaging in, among other things, the use of slave labor as a means to produce something as disposible as music players. And, without even so much guilt as to engage in charitable work as many other business leader do to, I suspect, sleep better at night. It seems to me that his decisions were guided by the need to satisfy Apple’s shareholders, and that providing a supremely polished product was what he realized was the way to do so. To make use of a trite phrase, he “was one” with his fiduciary responsibility, and that was really the extent of it.

  22. It’s insightful reading comment threads like this . . .    everyone is so sure of their opinion.   people rarely use such qualifications as  “i don’t know much about this complex subject, but i have heard..” everyone talks as if they are an ultimate authority who knows every single fact. the ego games of partly-informed people trying to force their “Frame” or world-view on others is simultaneously humorous and sad.     I mean come on really…    open-source vs. closed source.  both have different pros and cons. we are probably better with both being available.      and religious vs. non-religious….   atheists seem just as much ignorant evangelizing zealots as religious people these days.. 

    valmikis comment above regarding Steve Jobs and his Zen-ness is interesting (speaking of Zen, I have heard that it is simply the Japanese translation of the Chinese word for the practice of meditation…) 
    In Indian mythology, it is common to see stories of people who use meditation practice and gain power from their increased concentration/clarity which then can lead to an inflated ego and arrogance and going off a path of benefit to others into a selfish direction.
    A prominent example would be Ravana the demon from the epic story of the Ramayana, who was a pious priest who was a top shelf meditator who got a lot of power and went delusionally astray.

    while I don’t know whether Steve Jobs did any anonymous “philanthropy” or not, and while I am not so demonizing of him as others are for being verbally abusive to his employees, and engaging in modern outsourcing to Chinese factories, which have oppressive environments.   Let us look at ourselves for our own abusive negative words we constantly hurl at strangers on message boards, or to those close to us personally. I don’t think he ever claimed to be a Saint, he clearly chose to be a business man instead of a monk.  We also are complicit ourselves in exploitation of Chinese workers, look at all the products around you.   Good luck when you look at the hardware your Ubuntu is installed on.

    That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try and be less selfish douche-bags ourselves, or that we shouldn’t try and stop supporting offshore outsourced slavery for our personal luxury either.

  23. Shunryu Suzuki said that it was helpful for him to see “how you are with each other”. His students interacting was an important indicator of what they were learning about themselves and the nature of suffering.

    I think that our level of compassion is very visible in how we treat others. I see more Ayn Rand than Shakyamuni  Buddha in anecdotes of Steve Jobs’ life. But, they are anecdotes, I didn’t watch him first hand. I won’t claim to understand him.

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