One reason I was looking forward to reading Walter Isaacson’s new biography of Steve Jobs was my hope that, as a sharp-eyed reporter, Isaacson would probe to the heart of what one of the few entrepreneurs who really deserved the term “visionary” learned from Buddhism.
By now, everyone knows the stories of how the future founder of Apple dropped acid, went to India on a quest for spiritual insight, met a laughing Hindu holy man who took a straight razor to his unkempt hair, and was married in a Zen ceremony to Laurene Powell in 1991. I was curious how Jobs’ 20-year friendship with the monk who performed his wedding — a wiry, swarthily handsome Japanese priest named Kobun Chino Otogawa — informed his ambitious vision for Apple, beyond his acquiring a lifetime supply of black, Zen-ish Issey Miyake turtlenecks.
Isaacson does a fine job of showing how Jobs’ engagement with Buddhism was more than just a lotus-scented footnote to a brilliant Silicon Valley career. As a young seeker in the ’70s, Jobs didn’t just dabble in Zen, appropriating its elliptical aesthetic as a kind of exotic cologne. He turns out to have been a serious, diligent practitioner who undertook lengthy meditation retreats at Tassajara — the first Zen monastery in America, located at the end of a twisting dirt road in the mountains above Carmel — spending weeks on end “facing the wall,” as Zen students say, to observe the activity of his own mind.
Why would a former phone phreak who perseverated over the design of motherboards be interested in doing that? Using the mind to watch the mind, and ultimately to change how the mind works, is known in cognitive psychology as metacognition. Beneath the poetic cultural trappings of Buddhism, what intensive meditation offers to long-term practitioners is a kind of metacognitive hack of the human operating system (a metaphor that probably crossed Jobs’ mind at some point.) Sitting zazen offered Jobs a practical technique for upgrading the motherboard in his head.
The classic Buddhist image of this hack is that thoughts are like clouds passing through a spacious blue sky. All your life, you’ve been convinced that this succession of clouds comprises a stable, enduring identity — a “self.” But Buddhists believe this self this is an illusion that causes unnecessary suffering as you inevitably face change, loss, disease, old age, and death. One aim of practice is to reveal the gaps or discontinuities — the glimpses of blue sky — between the thoughts, so you’re not so taken in by the illusion, but instead learn to identify with the panoramic awareness in which the clouds arise and disappear.
One of the books that inspired Jobs to become interested in this process was Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, a Tibetan lama who led a group of monks over the Himalayas in the 1950s to escape the invading Chinese army. Isaacson doesn’t do much more with Trungpa than name-check the title of his book, but he was a fascinating and controversial figure in his own right. After being recognized as the reincarnation of a great lama as a boy, Trungpa fled his home country and went to the British Isles, eventually graduating from Oxford. He began teaching in the traditional style at a meditation center in Scotland, complete with maroon robes, a shaved head, and vows of celibacy and sobriety; one of his early students went on to become the chameleonic pop star David Bowie.
After a nearly fatal car crash — driving into a joke shop after being distracted by a billboard, no less — Trungpa scrapped his old approach to teaching. He realized that the trappings of being a Tibetan lama were an unnecessary barrier to reaching the widest possible audience for Buddha’s revolutionary message. He jettisoned the robes, grew out his hair, eloped with the brilliant teenage daughter of a high-born British family, and emigrated to America, where he soon found legions of hippies who had reached the limits of psychedelic insight and were eager for teachings on the nature of mind from a deep-rooted contemplative tradition.
Trungpa became a hugely popular and influential teacher, praised (rightly) for his brilliant exposition of esoteric concepts in fresh, unsentimental, idiomatic English; and fiercely criticized (also rightly) for his heavy drinking and flamboyant womanizing. From his home base in Boulder, where he established a contemplative university called Naropa, Trungpa became the spiritual advisor to many counterculture luminaries, including poet Allen Ginsberg, author Ken Wilber, and singer/songwriter Joni Mitchell, who portrayed him (accurately) in a song on her haunting Hejira album called “Refuge of the Roads.”
I suspect that one of the things that Jobs found inspiring about Trungpa’s writing — beyond its bracingly direct tone and surgical deconstruction of the lies that prevent us from seeing things as they are — was his profound respect for artists, poets, and musicians, whom he saw as fellow warriors against delusion (which he called “neurosis,” adopting the lexicon of Western psychology.) This passage of Trungpa’s, from an essay on “dharma art,” could have been a blueprint for Jobs’ uncompromising vision for Apple:
Our attitude and integrity as artists are very important. We need to encourage and nourish the notion that we are not going to yield to the neurotic world. Inch by inch, step-by-step, our effort should wake people up through the world of art rather than please everyone and go along with the current. It might be painful for your clients or your audience to take the splinter out of their system, so to speak. It probably will be quite painful for them to accommodate such pressure coming from the artist’s vision. However, that should be done, and it is necessary. Otherwise, the world will go downhill, and the artist will go downhill also.