Meet the Zen Master Who Taught Steve Jobs to Think Differently

In Entrepreneurship & Innovation, Philosophy & Culture
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I think we can all agree that Steve Jobs has influenced nearly everyone’s life. He has inspired incredible adulation and countless studies into his mindset.

What many people don’t know is that Jobs trained closely with a Zen Buddhist Master, and ended up crediting his Zen Buddhist practice with his ability to focus and create.

But here’s the kicker:

Jobs incorporated the teachings of Zen related to his powers of focus, without integrating the insights around compassion and humility.

By the end of this article, you’ll have a primer to the way that Jobs incorporated Zen thinking into his daily life.

Living a life of inner turmoil

According to Jobs’ biographer, Walter Isaacson, Jobs was a man of much inner turmoil and unsettledness. He told Isaacson:

“For most of my life, I’ve felt there must be more to our existence than meets the eye.”

Most of his early childhood was spent searching for the meaning of our existence. He ended up turning to Eastern mysticism, meditation and even psychedelic drugs. He especially focused on the ideas of Shunryu Suzuki, a Zen master based in America.

In 1974, Jobs traveled to India in search of a guru, but ended up finding one in his hometown of Los Altos, California.

The guru was Kobun Chino Otagawa, a Suzuki disciple, who had opened the Haiku Zen Center. Jobs and Kobun became very close during midnight walks when they would discuss life and Buddhism.

Kobun Chino Otagawa

As Jobs told Isaacson:

“I ended up spending as much time with him as I could. Zen has been a deep influence in my life ever since.”

In 1976, after his work at Apple was consuming more of his time, Jobs ended his regular practice of Zen Buddhism. He maintained his contact with Kobun until Kobun’s death in 2002, which apparently Jobs found very difficult.

Zen Buddhism helped Jobs to concentrate and ignore distractions

According to Isaacson’s biography, Jobs believed that Zen meditation taught him to concentrate and ignore distractions:

“He also learned to trust intuition and curiosity—what Buddhists call ‘beginner’s mind’—over analysis and preconceptions. More visibly, Apple’s sleek, minimalist designs reveal Jobs’s zeal for Zen aesthetics—the uncluttered lines of calligraphy and Japanese gardens, according to Isaacson’s book.”

Jobs was also known as a very ruthless, manipulative and egocentric CEO. Isaacson touched on this in his book:

“Unfortunately, his Zen training never quite produced in him a Zen-like calm of inner serenity, and that is part of his legacy.”

One of Jobs’ meditation teachers said the following:

“He got to the aesthetic part of Zen—the relationship between lines and spaces, the quality and craftsmanship, but he didn’t stay long enough to get the Buddhist part, the compassion part, the sensitivity part.”

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