Was Steve Jobs really Buddhist?
Buddhistdoor International Ittoku
There, I said it! Of course, I’m not questioning the man himself, who was truly a brilliant entrepreneur with a work ethic to be envied and emulated assiduously. I have a Mac computer myself (and much prefer it to Windows). Nor am I cynical about the extensive coverage of the world’s mourning for his death, which was as tragic a departure as any. It was all the more shocking that it came so soon, even though the IT world had steeled itself for bad news ever since Jobs had announced his pancreatic cancer. So what I’m actually annoyed with is us – we Buddhists (and my Cantonese and mainland Chinese brothers) – scrambling rather eagerly to claim Steve Jobs as one of our own!
It is too late now, but I was already slightly uncomfortable when many Buddhist websites – and even some of my fellow Dharma brothers and sisters – posted what I feel was dubiously researched material about Jobs’ exposure and knowledge of Buddhism. Of course, it is true that he spent time at a Korean temple, and his master at the time advised him that business was his vocation. His design philosophy may have been influenced by Zen elegance and simplicity. But his authorized biography reveals some unpleasant truths about his personality, which in many ways was far from compassionate and far from wise (at least in his personal relationships). Also, a cardinal trait in any good Buddhist is generosity (dāna). Philanthropically speaking, Jobs was quite inferior to his Microsoft rival Bill Gates, whose résumé as a donor to charitable causes is far more productive and prolific. There is little evidence to show that Jobs was driven by Buddhist ethics, although I’m not implying that he was unethically minded.
Yet this isn’t even the crux of the matter. You can say that Jobs, like every human being, wasn’t perfect. Buddhists are people too. Indeed, it’s not valid to question someone’s religion just because he didn’t live up to some of that religion’s standards. And let’s even leave aside the fact that we’re supposed to be unattached to ideas about celebrity and endorsements from anyone other than our own spiritual masters. My discomfort really comes down to just one simple question.
Did Jobs, at any of his famous presentations of Apple products, actually credit Śākyamuni Buddha for guiding his business? Was there any evidence that he was inspired by Buddhist figures like Anāthapiṇḍaka, or any of the pious businessmen and merchants of Buddhist history? Is there any clear consensus – be it from his family or his close circle – that Buddhism exerted an influence on him to the extent that he took refuge? After all, no one is formally a Christian without baptism, and without taking refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Saṅgha one cannot be a “formal” Buddhist. But many feel that “being a Buddhist” and “not taking refuge” can still be in the same sentence. Fine, no problem. Then let me ask, did he ever publicly declare, be it in an interview or even a passing comment to a fellow in his audiences, that he at least loved and admired Buddhism? If it was so close to his heart then he wouldn't have been ashamed or shy about it. Richard Gombrich is a perfect example of a non-Buddhist scholar who has done great things for Buddhism. He admits he doesn’t believe in Buddhism because he disagrees with the Buddha, but he is unapologetic about his admiration for him. Can we say the same of Jobs? Where is that one unambiguous, clear quote where he says, whether in private or public, that “I believe in Buddhism”, or at least “I admire Buddhism”, or even “Buddhist doctrines and morals influenced me in my work”? I’m not asking for much in the way of evidence. One sentence is all I need to join the “Steve Jobs was Buddhist” crowd.
Now perhaps you may detect just a slight, innocuous hint of frustration from me. I usually am not so cynical. I am jaded so not only because of the oversaturation of “Steve Jobs = Buddhist” in our media, but also because I don’t trust our projections on other people, especially when they’re dead. Some Buddhists may very understandably, even subconsciously, believe that to have someone of such stature as Jobs is good PR. This might be true, but I must say we are really clutching at straws to suggest that Jobs was even remotely inspired by Buddhist values in his life or career. To insist upon that without adequate evidence is not only simplifying the Buddhist vision of livelihood and personhood, but Jobs’ own life too. Perhaps one day we might find it, tucked away in a secret diary or memoir. But for now, that crucial puzzle piece is missing.
And perhaps, beyond any of what I’ve suggested, there is a much more important aspect that Jobs lacked. In Barry Boyce’s words:
“To be quite honest, I never heard him saying or in any way indicating that he was looking deeply at the interconnected effects of what he was doing with his life and company.”