Steve Jobs' Religious Ego

Amy Levin: How long is it appropriate to mourn the death of Steve Jobs? Perhaps we should turn to Zen Buddhism, since, according to Walter Isaacson’s biography, it was the so-called religion of Jobs himself. According to Daniel Burke at Religion News Service, “Since his death on Oct. 5, the famously private man’s spiritual side has become an open book.” According to Isaacson’s biography, Jobs left his Lutheran church at age 13, later turning to eastern spirituality, specifically Zen Buddhism. After traveling to India in 1974 to find a guru (unsuccessfully), Jobs found Suzuki disciple Kobun Chino Otagawa in his hometown in California at the Haiku Zen Center.

Though Jobs left the Haiku Zen Center in 1976, because “Apple had begun to consume the budding businessman’s attention,” Jobs stayed in contact with Kobun, who officiated his marriage to Laurene Powell in 1991. In light of Jobs’ iconic status the semi-recent collective, devotional interest in his life, and the move to trace the origins of his technological and marketing genius is no surprise. The question that seems to pervade the interest in spirituality is not what was Jobs’ faith, but how did his faith translate into Apple? Well, there are a couple of ways – first, “Jobs believed that Zen meditation taught him to concentrate and ignore distractions, according to Isaacson. He also learned to trust intuition and curiosity — what Buddhists call “beginner’s mind” — over analysis and preconceptions.

So without Jobs’ interest in Buddhism, we might still be using the iPhone 3GS instead of 4S? Does Apple’s chic and minimalist design come from the Buddha as well? According to Les Kaye who teaches meditation to Silicon valley companies, including Apple, Jobs “. . .got to the aesthetic part of Zen — the relationship between lines and spaces, the quality and craftsmanship,” Kaye said. “But he didn’t stay long enough to get the Buddhist part, the compassion part, the sensitivity part.”

I don’t doubt that Jobs’ spiritual search affected his business, but what assumptions do we make when we talk about what he did or did not receive from religion? What came from Jobs and what came from Buddhism? Perhaps the moral of the story is that Buddhism helped the Apple brand more than it helped Jobs, who remained “mean, manipulative and egocentric.” Couching Buddhism only within the grammar of compassion and sensitivity not only reinforces the stereotype that Buddhism, along with other “eastern Spiritualities,” is singular in its meanings and practices, but that it is also utilitarian. Assuming all Buddhists are ascetic, kind, monk-like figures is like assuming all Protestants are Amish.

We might want to place Jobs’ religious narrative into the category of co-opted New Age techniques rather than failed Buddhism. In fact, Steve Job’s spirituality isn’t surprising at all – New Age spirituality, in one sense, is a hybrid blend of commodified and reified ideas, in which religion becomes a means for self-transformation to live better in this world, not to transcend it. We could look at similar examples such as the Kabbalah Centre, where you can apply the wisdom of Kabbalah to relationships, anxiety, and parenting. But regardless of how we want to view Jobs’ version of Buddhism, there is still the question that Craig Detweiler asks asks at Science and Religion Today: Why do we care? And he might have the answer:

Maybe Steve Jobs took us back to the garden or at least to a time when work still felt like play. Having recently toured one of Jobs’ original playlands, Pixar Animation Studios, I can testify to the childlike spirit animating the workplace. On a Friday morning, the cereal bar was humming with Pixarians eager to fire up their MacBooks. They gathered around their screens with genuine enthusiasm. They were shooting practical jokes for their co-workers’ birthday on an iPhone. A spirit of spontaneity prevailed even amidst feature films that take five diligent years to create.

In our own search for enchantment, it’s normal to wonder whether or not our relationship to Apple gadgets serves as a type of spirituality. There’s no doubt that play can be enchanting, but calling it spiritual might just steal any meaning from the term we have left.

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