Steve Jobs' Mantra Rooted in Buddhism: Focus and Simplicity

Apple products are beautiful and empowering, but have also enslaved users.

ByABC News
October 6, 2011, 12:12 PM

Oct. 6, 2011— -- Long before Steve Jobs became the CEO of Apple and one of the most recognizable figures on the planet, he took a unconventional route to find himself -- a spiritual journey that influenced every step of an unconventional career.

Jobs, who died Wednesday at the age of 56 of pancreatic cancer, was the biological child of two unmarried academics who only consented to signing the papers if the adoptive parents sent him to college.

His adoptive parents sent a young Jobs off to Reed College, an expensive liberal arts school in Oregon, but he dropped out and went to India in 1973 in search of enlightenment.

Jobs and his college friend Daniel Kottke, who later worked for him at Apple, visited Neem Karoli Baba at his Kainchi Ashram. He returned home to California a Buddhist, complete with a shaved head and traditional Indian clothing and a philosophy that may have shaped much of his corporate values.

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Later, he was often seen walking barefoot in his trademark blue jeans around the office and reportedly often said that those around him didn't fully understand his way of thinking.

"I wouldn't say Steve Jobs was a practicing Buddhist," said Robert Thurman, a professor of Buddhist studies at Columbia University, who met Jobs and his "Tibetan buddies" in the 1980s in San Francisco.

"But he was just as creative and generous and went outside the box in the way that he looked to Eastern mental discipline and the Zen vision, which is a compelling one."

"He was a real explorer and very much to be mourned -- and too young at 56," said Thurman. "We will remember the design simplicity of his products. That simplicity is a Zen idea."

Thurman met Jobs in San Francisco in the 1980s with Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart and actor Richard Gere. The discussion was about Tibet.

"It was before the Dalai Lama, and he was very sympathetic and had advice for the Tibetans," he said. "But he was into his own thing and didn't become a major player."

Jobs used Dalai Lama in one of Apple's most famous ad campaigns: "Think Different."

"He put them up all over Hong Kong," Thurman said of the computer ads. "But then the Chinese communists squawked very violently and as my son says, 'He had to think again.'"

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Zen Buddhist monk Kobun Chino Otogawa married Jobs and his now widow, Laurene Powell Jobs, in 1991.

"We did not pay too much attention to his personal life, but from his past interviews and speeches, we could see the embedded influences by the Buddhism," said Gary Li, secretary of the Buddhist Association of the United States.

Jobs could have just as easily taken his philosophy from the hippie movement of the 1960s. The Whole Earth Catalog was his bible, with founder Stewart Brand's cry, "We are as gods."

The catalogue offered an integrated and complex world view with a leftist political calling. Jobs later adopted the catalog's mantra: "Stay hungry. Stay foolish."