I have a couple of friends, one in New Zealand and one in England whom I much admire. They are real entrepreneurs in that they have given useful chunks of their lives in pursuit of producing products that will make the world a better and more sustainable place. It’s been a long road, and neither of them to date has gained any financial benefit from their endeavors. In fact, the opposite is true with their efforts taking much of their personal wealth. What I find interesting is that the two friends share many qualities, and these qualities align closely with what I have read about Steve Jobs, who without a doubt, is one of the most successful entrepreneurs the planet has seen. Turning a thought into an idea, and vision is one thing but having the ability to allow that creativity to flow through you, and manifest into form through your hands, feet or mouth into the world is the bread and butter of the entrepreneur.
I knew that Steve Jobs was a meditator, yet, it wasn’t until recently that I discovered how much Zen had played a key role not only in Jobs personal life but as a significant influence within Apple Products. It was actually the creative influence of Zen that Jobs was seeking.
In 1971 as a sixteen-year-old boy, Steve Jobs first attended Haiku Zendo, in Los Altos, California, beginning his Zazen training under the famous Zen Master Shunryo Suzuki. Here Jobs met with Kobun Chino Otogawa who was to become his teacher on and off for the remainder of his life.
Kobun was a Zen Buddhist priest who, after University, spent three years in a Japanese monastery, during which time he trained in calligraphy and archery. Kobun was seen as a rule breaker, initially rejecting the keisaku (a wooden stick used to train young monks) and, against the wishes of his teacher emigrating to the US after receiving an invitation, from Shunryu Suzuki. Kobun was to Buddhism what Jobs was to computers and business: a renegade and maverick. Little wonder why the two became so close.
In 1985 Jobs was fired from Apple, and although he was a wealthy man, he wasn’t a person who was going to take it easy. Instead, he found himself turning to Zen, and like many others, he found himself leaning into it during one of the rockiest periods of his life.
In 1986 Jobs spent time training under Kobun at Tassajara Zen Mountain Centre, California. He wanted his computers in his new company to be designed perfectly, recognising that Kobun could teach him about Ma, a Japanese and Zen sense of the relationship between objects and space.
Kobun set about teaching Jobs not to judge everything on sight, but instead to experience Ma so he could understand design and space. And to find Ma, he needed to realize Mu, i.e. absolute emptiness.
Jobs returned to Apple in 1996, with the company in dire straits. Staging a boardroom coup, he became CEO and immediately began working to turn the company around with new products and investment from Apple’s main rival, Microsoft.
Steve Jobs believed in perfection, seeking to be the perfect innovator making perfect products on a massive scale, and it was this that eventually moved the two men in different directions. Kobun, in his tumultuous life, found himself seeking inner peace, something he felt perfection would never achieve.
There is no way for us to know what Steve Jobs took from Zen. Still, it is evident that his intuition that Zen was going to play an essential role in what he called “putting a ding in the universe,” was spot on, helping to make his mark and leave his legacy.
The blog was first published November 2020 – Institute for Zen Leadership