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Steve Jobs: A Practicing Buddhist, an Entrepreneur, and an Innovator by Joshua Guilar and Karen Neudorf

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Steve Jobs was the creative genius behind the United State’s largest and most world-altering company—Apple. His being was decidedly Zen Buddhist. He was married by Zen teacher, Kobun Chino Otogawa, who was also appointed by Jobs as the spiritual advisor at the corporation. Kobun died in 2002. He dedicated his life to Soto Zen Buddhist meditation practice. There were four themes from the life of Steve Jobs that had the influence of Buddhist virtue as applied in economic development. First was the theme of non-duality, which is evidenced by Job’s combining of the humanities and engineering or design with hardware and software. Second is removing excess thought. This was evident in Job’s focus and the products that Apple produced under Jobs’ leadership. Most recently these are the iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad. Third is the theme of simple living. Living simply was a trait of the teacher Kobun Chino Otogawa and of Steve Jobs. Kobun and Steve brought living simply to their sense of design and aesthetics. Steve Jobs, although a very wealthy man, chose to live simply. His life was not overburdened by things such as furniture. The simple living led to simple design aesthetics, which he loved. The fourth theme is self-reliance, which was also a theme of Steve Jobs’ 2005 commencement address at Stanford University. Jobs was self-reliant so much so that he didn’t even believe in marketing surveys. He questioned how people could know what they liked until they have seen it from Apple. Anyone interested in how Buddhist virtues can lead to economic development could learn from Steve Jobs’ practice of Buddhism.

Steve Jobs: A Practicing Buddhist, an Entrepreneur, and an Innovator

Steve Jobs, who died on October 5, 2011 at 56 years of age, was a practicing Buddhist in Soto Zen Buddhist meditation. He was also a founder and the leader of Apple Inc., which as of August 2011, became the world’s most valuable company. This essay answers the questions that follow. What do Buddhist virtues have to do with economic development? How did a practicing Buddhist create the world’s most valuable company? What are the virtues and is a there shadow side of Steve Jobs? After explaining a little about Buddhism, we explore four virtues common to the mind of Buddha and which Steve Jobs lived: non-dualism, removing excess thought, simple living, and self-reliance.

First, we will tell a little of Jobs’ Buddhist background. Steve was dedicated to the Soto School of Zen Buddhism. The Soto School was founded by Dogen Zenji who lived from 1200 to 1253 in Japan (Bodiford, 1993; Suzuki, 1970). The school is known for its non-dualism and its integration of Enlightenment with practice. After Daisetz Suzuki brought Zen Buddhism to the West early in the twentieth century, Shunryu Suzuki-Roshi started the Zen Center in San Francisco, the Mountain Center at Tassajara, California, and authored the book, “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind” (Suzuki, 1970). Shunryu Suzuki-Roshi had an assistant, Kobun Chino Otogawa, who was a Zen teacher to Jobs. After Jobs knew Kobun for 17 years he performed a marriage ceremony for Jobs and his wife, Laurene Powell. Over the years, Steve and Kobun often meditated together. At one time, Steve asked Kobun if he should give up business for meditation. Kobun answered that Steve should stay in business and the benefits of meditation would accrue naturally. Kobun was appointed by Jobs as the spiritual advisor at Apple. Kobun died in 2002. Jobs was undoubtedly close to his teacher who died a year before Jobs found out that he himself had pancreatic cancer.

Walter Isaacson (2011) wrote a biography which was endorsed by Steve Jobs. Although Jobs gave Isaacson many interviews, he said he would not even read the biography before it was published. In the biography Isaacson says that Jobs’ major characteristic was intensity. He also says that Jobs was ambitious to make Apple flourish as an organization after his own death. Isaacson gives the example of the Hewlett Packard organization, which outlived its founders. This is similar also to the mind of Buddha which wanted Buddhism to flourish after the death of its founder, Gautama Buddha. There are many obstacles and people who rise up against the founding of an organization or even a way of being. The ambition to make the way plain especially given opposition is a sign of leadership.


To quote Jobs’ chosen biographer (Isaacson, 2011):

Jobs’ engagement with Eastern spirituality, and especially Zen Buddhism, was not just some passing fancy or youthful dabbling. He embraced it with his typical intensity, and it became deeply ingrained in his personality. “Steve is very much Zen,” said Kottke [a friend of Jobs]. “It was a deep influence. You see it in his whole approach of stark, minimalist aesthetics, intense focus.” Jobs also became deeply influenced by the emphasis that Buddhism places on intuition (35).

The mind of Buddha in Soto Zen is a space of non-duality, which was epitomized in how Jobs treated the humanities and engineering. Now we turn to four themes in Buddhism that enabled Jobs’ success.


“To stop your mind does not mean to stop the activities of mind. It means your mind pervades your whole body” (Suzuki, 1970, p. 41). Steve Jobs was a serious practitioner of meditation retreats at Tassajara, near Carmel, California, founded by Shunryu Suzuki-Roshi, which was the first Zen Buddhist monastery in the United States (Silberman, 2011). Jobs faced the wall in typical Zen Buddhist fashion to observe the workings of his mind.

Throughout Walter Isaacson’s biography there are a number of times that the word intersection occurs. This concept of intersection fully describes the theme of non-duality in Jobs’ work. Jobs used the idea of an intersection to describe “the importance of people who could stand at the intersection of humanities and sciences” (Isaacson, 2011b, p. 26). Isaacson mentions that in high school Jobs found himself at the intersection of the electronic geeks and those who were interested in literature and creativity. His interest in creativity and technology led him to a successful collaboration with computers and animation in the form of Pixar Studios and his design of Apple’s Fifth Avenue New York store. The store was crafted from large panes of class, and it was another example of simplicity in aesthetics and architecture making contact with leading-edge technology, in this instance glass construction. At his presentation introducing the iPad, Jobs used a slide with a picture of street signs showing the intersection of Technology Street and Liberal Arts Street. For Jobs, his life work was all about the intersection and combination of distinct things that together made something unique and even inspiring: “We believe that it’s technology married with the humanities that yields us the result that makes our heart sing” (Isaacson, 2011b, p. 748).

How do we reconcile what Isaacson referred to as Jobs’ binary view of the world, the “hero/shithead dichotomy” with the theme of non-duality (Isaacson, 2011b, p. 795)? Jobs reportedly swung wildly between food choices, erasing and then suddenly embracing the suggestions of his colleagues, and peppering his work and personal relationships with emotional expressions of tears and then anger. During early travels in India, his traveling partner recalls him getting into an argument with a local vendor, even while “seeking Enlightenment through ascetic deprivation, and simplicity” (Isaacson, 2011b, p. 98). His pursuit of wholeness and humanity in his innovative product design and business practices can seem compromised by his hard-nosed business tactics and his disregard for the well-being of others.


The idea of intersections could be a way of understanding Jobs’ supposed binary nature. Human expression exists at many personal intersections. No one representation of who Jobs was or who we are can summarize that existence. In this way Jobs’ non-duality was also exhibited in the way he understood himself. He was someone who struggled with relationship to others, emotional volatility, resentment but who also stood at the intersection of innovation, genius, and human relationship and went forward moment by moment, faults and all.

Removing Excess Thought

“When you study Buddhism you should have a general house cleaning of your mind” (Suzuki, 1970, p.110). We are reminded of a Zen Master who had a PhD and was erudite. He regarded his learning in the way of a runner would who had excess baggage during a race. His learning was detrimental in getting where he wanted to go.

Steve Jobs had two tenures at Apple. He along with Steve Wozniak founded Apple on April 1, 1976. Jobs commercialized the Apple I computer and led the creation of the Macintosh computer. In September of 1985 Jobs was forced out of Apple because his detractors said he was immature. He went on to found the NeXT company, which focused on a computer which did not do well commercially or technically. Jobs learned lessons from defeat at NeXT.

Jobs was also the major force behind Pixar, a computer animation company responsible for hit movies such as Toy Story and Finding Nemo (Price, 2009). His commercializing role at Pixar overlapped with his going back to work at the company he founded along with Steve Wozniak, Apple.

Jobs’ second tenure at Apple began in January of 1997. Apple had fallen in market share, stock value, and was losing money. Strategically, Apple had purchased NeXT. The point we wish to make is that when Steve Jobs returned to Apple he had focus. He eliminated products that were excess and focused on a few the way a Zen Master would get rid of excess thought. Soon gone were products such as the Newton handheld digital device, and a myriad of products in development. The products left have become household names such as the iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad.

Focus and removing excess were an extraordinary talent of Steve Jobs, which we would attribute to having Buddhist training—the ability to focus and rid himself and the company he worked for of excess thought or, in this instance, products. His clear focus and his ability to cut down and achieve excellence with a few products were extremely Soto Zen Buddhist and led to entrepreneurial success.

One of the key examples of Jobs’ role as an innovator and the removal of excess thought is evident in the distinct design of his products. It seems almost certain that Jobs would have been aware of the spatial concept of “ma” (Yang, 2011). In common design parlance, this concept might be known as white or negative space, that is, the emptiness that makes a shape possible, simple and yet distinctive. With “ma”, what is removed is as important as all that remains.


The removal of excess thought also enabled Jobs to focus on his unique direction by steering away from what was purported to be the latest great thing. This allowed him to fit together pieces from many different influences giving strength to his intuitive sense of where the road was going and not where it had already been. This taught him to see that computing was moving desktops to mobile devices which would use object-centred computing (apps) that integrated the traditionally separate domains of software and hardware (e.g. the iPod and iTunes). In Jobs’ mind, it was necessary to clear away what he called the crap, in order to focus on a few beautiful and useful things. While many of the prominent technology companies at the time produced simple beige machines (PC) or industrial looking grey devices (Sony), Jobs had a different and original aesthetic vision. Jobs’ biographer Isaacson puts it this way: “He made devices simpler by eliminating buttons, software simpler by eliminating features, and interfaces simpler by eliminating options” (Isaacson, 2011b, p. 800).

This removal of excess thought did not produce a peaceful man–what people might interpret as a Zen-like state of calm in the common understanding of a Zen state of mind. Jobs was indeed brutally honest, but he insisted it was this intense focus that allowed him to push innovations forward bringing together people and materials to make a product that surprised and delighted people around the world.

Simple Living

Next is the theme of simple living. Living simply was a trait of Master Kobun Chino Otogawa and of Steve Jobs. As already mentioned regarding removing excess thought, Kobun and Steve brought living simply to their sense of design and aesthetics. Steve Jobs, although a very wealthy man, chose to live simply. His life was not overburdened by things such as furniture. His house was simple (for Palo Alto, California, where he located) and bare. He had trouble finding furniture or appliances that he liked because most designs were not beautiful and form did not follow function. The simple living confirmed his simple design aesthetics, which he loved. The stories are many. He could spend hours musing over the design of packaging. He wanted every consumer to be affected by the simplicity and the beauty of the design.

According to some, Steve almost singlehandedly saved the music industry from its own destruction and silos. Jobs had a simple model for an iTunes store, which began small and got huge through time. The model was 70% of revenues for the labels and 29 % of revenues for iTunes. A song would be sold for 99 cents. Jobs grew the iTunes store using a simple model and most people won—the musicians, the involved labels, consumers, and Apple Inc.

Not that Jobs was always perfect. In 1984 Steve had a girlfriend, Jennifer Egan. He used to argue with her about abandoning attachment to material things. Jobs even sent her a tape by Kobun that talked about giving up material things. She would argue that: “Wasn’t he defying that philosophy by making computers and other products that people coveted” (Isaacson, 2011, p. 262).

“The way we’re running the company, the product design, the advertising, it all comes down to this: Let’s make it simple. Really simple” (Isaacson, 2011b, p. 206). Simplicity does not come easily. Simplicity, as Steve Jobs and his head designer Jony Ive contended, is a result of hard work and the embracing of complexity. In order to obtain simplicity, it may be necessary to jettison old structures and traditional ways of knowing. We think of simplicity as coming in slowly even softly but there can be leanness in order to set the creative process free. Jobs and Ive agreed that in order to have beautiful simplicity you must understand things at a very deep level and demonstrate an intimate understanding of the essence of a product (Isaacson, 2011b, p. 501).

Even the company name Apple signifies something holistic and simple but the road to the necessary technological innovation and the amount of labor behind the production process was anything but simple. The phrase attributed to Leonardo da Vinci that was placed on one of Apple’s early brochures “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication” illustrates this (Isaacson, 2011b, p. 142). Jobs called his products “bright, pure, and honest” (Isaacson, 2011b, p. 206) and referred to the influences of Zen Buddhism: “I have always found Buddhism, Japanese Zen Buddhism in particular, to be aesthetically sublime” while speaking of being deeply moved by the gardens of Kyoto which he called “the most sublime thing I’ve ever seen” (Isaacson, 2011b, p. 208).

Steven Jobs was not a simpleton; he was a complex man. We shall explore this theme below.



Zazen practice is the direct expression of our true nature. Strictly speaking, for a human being, there is no other practice than this practice ; there is no other way of life than this way of life” (Suzuki, 1970, 23).

The next theme is self-reliance, which was also a theme of Steve Jobs’ 2005 commencement address at Stanford University, which was Steve’s argument for knowing oneself, or Zen Buddhism, or authenticity. Sometimes Jobs was criticized for being mean or shouting at subordinates. However, Jobs was self-reliant--so much so that he did not even believe in marketing surveys. He questioned how people could know what they liked until they had seen it from Apple.

Self-reliance is a theme in Soto Zen Buddhism. Suzuki (1970) said that, “In the zazen posture, your mind and body have great Power to accept things as they are, whether agreeable or disagreeable” (38). Perhaps Jobs’ worst traits were unsettling bombasts of people around him, and his taking credit for others’ ideas. Jobs was not a man of inner peace or mellow interpersonal relationships (Isaacson, 2011). We do not know the reason why he had these traits. Or indeed we do not know if this portrayal is accurate. Perhaps it was his shadow side which complemented his strength as a leader (Khan, 1994). Or perhaps he was just being himself, which he claimed was the cause of his appearing nasty to others. Perhaps, at least at times, he was practicing Zen Buddhism by being true to himself (Guilar, 2008). Or perhaps as Steve Silberman has said he was practicing Zen Buddhism but he had more to learn from his teachers (Silberman, 2011).

Isaacson repeats the phrase “reality distortion field” many times throughout his biography. This phrase is in reference to what fellow employees called Steve’s world–a place where he insisted on what was right, what was possible, and what was perfect. Jobs relied on his version of reality and his intuition of what felt right for the moment.

His coworkers sensed that reality often changed in Steve’s mind and this change sometimes led to undue stress, emotional pain, relational chaos, and sometimes financial loss as when Jobs insisted on painting sensitive factory machinery certain colors to match his vision of that factory’s appearance. Jobs’ reality was often prescient and his reliance on his own vision allowed him to gather pieces from across the technological landscape to produce innovations that went further than the large and established companies that went before him. This focus allowed him to produce an integrated music service (iTunes) and an associated product (iPod) that largely took over the domain of a once dominant and well-established music and technology company, the Sony Corporation.

Self-reliance is also a theme in an essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson (Emerson, 1978). Emerson wrote that, “To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, that is genius” (Emerson, 1978, p. 378). Truly, Jobs founded and created the world’s most valuable company by being true to himself. That was his deeply held goal, which he accomplished through creativity and being a stickler for quality.

Jobs held Apple products to exasperating (and some would say controlling) standards. Jobs wanted to control Apple software and hardware from end to end. Unlike Microsoft and the PC, he did not want hackers in to take the products their own way. Apple stores and iTunes have opened up to new apps but the software and hardware remains under the control of Apple.

His sayings were many for Apple, including the Think Different commercial in 1997, “The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do” (Isaacson, 2011, p. 329). Surely, Steve Jobs changed the world.

Design as the Integration of the Four Themes


“Design is the fundamental soul of a man-made creation that ends up expressing itself in successive outer layers” (Apple’s One-Dollar-a-Year-Man, 2000). The deep commitment to the hard work of simple living shows itself in the design of Apple products. In fact, all of the themes discussed in this paper, non-duality, removing excess thought, simple living and self-reliance, come together in Jobs’ lifelong search for the perfecting of the design process. Design goes beyond what an object looks like including both its pragmatic function and the way that use is presented. John Lasseter of Pixar and one of the creators of Toy Story understood this. He and Jobs believed that objects and products have an essence, “a purpose for which they were made” (Isaacson, 2011b, p.421). The theme of non-duality in design is expressed in the marriage of form and function and the “total collaboration between the designers, the product developers, the engineers, and the manufacturing team” (Isaacson, 2011b, p 502). There should be flow not separation and this was reflected in the essence of Apple products in which hardware and software were integrated for simplicity of use and form. Removing excess thought finds its source in the beginner’s mind in what Jobs called returning “to the beginning again and again” (Isaacson, 2011b, p. 502) in order to co-ordinate all parts of the design and manufacturing process in a way that the combination of the previously known parts made a new and innovative whole. In turn this essential was manifested in simple living–simple use through the integration of hardware and software processes (e.g., the iPod’s interface with iTunes in order to make listening to music simple), simple and elegant design with fresh uses of material (metal, glass, and moulded plastic) and the outward display of that material–rounded corners, light weight, thin footprint, clean icons, easy and obvious buttons, and the use of either playful or minimalist colors. Self-reliance was expected in this design process. Jobs’ use of designer Jony Ive’s studio helped him get a sense of the upcoming movements of the company by helping him literally see where the company was going. In the studio Jobs could see how his intuitive visual sense looked and felt. He could rely on his way of knowing by actually playing with product models and knowing how they interacted with eye, hand, and as Jobs would contend, humanity. In similar fashion, Jobs eschewed any form of complex visual presentations and schematic design drawings in his meetings. He felt that if someone understood a product they could sit down face to face and make him understand the essence of that product quickly and simply without any traditional business meeting gimmicks.

Jobs felt that this intersection of artistic design and technology could be summed up by the deep current of humanity in our innovation. It would be easy to dismiss this emphasis on look and feel as mere surface concerns, but human history has shown from the design of tombs and tables to the elegance of handwriting and the calligraphy that Jobs studied, human beings instinctively know that there is more to an object than the object itself. The four themes of this paper come together in this deep current of well-designed and well-used technological objects.

Last Words . . . . for Now

These four themes, non-duality, removing excess thought, simple living, and self-reliance, helped Steve Jobs and Apple to achieve extraordinary results. We hear from those who knew Steve that he was also intense and ambitious. The answer of whether or not Steve Jobs was a practicing Buddhist is controversial. We have said in the title to this essay that he was a practicing Buddhist, and yet we do not want to conjecture much on what some would consider his negative traits, except to ask questions. Jobs’ sense of design ties together the four themes in this article. These themes are true to Buddhism and represent Jobs’ study and practice of Soto Zen Buddhism. Anyone interested in how Buddhist virtues can lead to economic development can learn from Steven Jobs’ practice of Buddhism.




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Author: Joshua Guilar and Karen Neudorf