October 06, 2011

Buddha Buzz: Steve Jobs's Death and Dharma

"The moments of our life are not expendable,
And the [possible] circumstances of death are beyond imagination
If you do not achieve an undaunted confident security now,
What point is there in your being alive, O living creature?"
—Padmasambhava, from the Tibetan Book of the Dead.

“Almost everything—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.”Steve Jobs’s Stanford Commencement Address.

Steve Jobs, 56, died on Wednesday after a many-year battle with pancreatic cancer, leaving behind a technology company that has affected our everyday lives to an unprecedented degree—if you don't own an iPod, iPhone, iPad, or one of the many other products that Apple has come out with over the years, you certainly know someone who does. At the very least, you recognize the brand. There is too much attention paid to "celebrity Buddhists," but Jobs is the celebrity Buddhist who has most likely influenced the way you live your life and the way the people around you live theirs.

According to various media sources, Jobs traveled to India when he was in his twenties and studied at the Los Altos Zen Center in the 70s. He was close to Roshi Kobun Chino Otogawa, a Soto Zen priest who married Jobs to his wife Laurene Powell in 1991. A 60-page graphic novel, The Zen of Steve Jobs, which centers around Jobs's relationship with Otogawa, is currently being written by Forbes and designed by JESS3; we got to see four more pages of the lighthearted book a couple weeks ago. Jobs was apparently a fan of Shunryu Suzuki's Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, as reported by valleyzen.com. That Valley Zen article also goes on to quote Michael Mortiz, a friend of Jobs's, that Jobs "...meditated in a crawl space above Kottke's bedroom, which was furnished with incense and a dhurrie rug." (The "Kottke" is Daniel Kottke, Jobs's friend who went with him to India.)

Despite all of this, or perhaps because all of this, Jobs has challenged media's perceptions of what Buddhism is and what Buddhist practitioners should look like. The International Business Times, for instance, has a short article titled "Steve Jobs: Peaceful Buddhist or Corporate Tyrant?" I don't think the article is worth reading, but I'll link you to it anyway. And CNN ran an article that ended up making a few inaccurate blanket statements about Buddhism, which is always disappointing. Fortunately, ABC News has a well-rounded portrait of Jobs's spiritual leanings, "Steve Jobs's Mantra Rooted in Buddhism: Focus and Simplicity," which includes thoughts from professor Robert Thurman about whether or not Jobs was a practicing Buddhist.

The media and Jobs's spirituality aside, Jobs's death reminds us once again to practice as if our heads were on fire. We never know when death will arrive.

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Marge Deshong's picture

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Emma Varvaloucas's picture

Further information about Jobs's relationship to Buddhism: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/11/02/steve-jobs-private-faith_n_1072...

benmoretti's picture

There were plenty of samurai who were Zen Buddhists.

nicolavachon's picture

In any case, he certainly gave us quite a challenge, with all those devices begging for our attention and making it even easier to distract and entertain us away from the present wherever we are. It's hard to reconcile the Buddhism way of life with what he invented. But I guess it's not the devices themselves that are the problem, but our uneasy and fettered minds. Still, now the opportunity to escape has multiplied tenfolds.

geraldo1821's picture

I've worked for start ups for the past 10+ years and lived in the Silicon Valley. So I have heard a number of stories about Jobs including some from the people who experienced them directly. What I find fascinating about Jobs is what's implied by the title - "Steve Jobs: Peaceful Buddhist or Corporate Tyrant?" Seemingly the answer is both. It's a statement to one's own duality and our ability or inability to bring what we practice into the workplace. I wrestle with this daily myself. But on another level, it begs the question if Jobs could have been what he is without the tension between the 2 sides of himself.