Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Apple, Steve Jobs, Zen Practice and 間

Zen Buddhists really don't have any tricks. Maybe that's our greatest trick.  I, for example, missed this article when it first came out:


The secret of Apple's success lies in its embrace of a Zen Buddhist principle that expresses the power of nothingness, according to consumer trend strategist Jeff Yang.
In an article for SFGate today, Yang explores how Steve Jobs "out-Japanned Japan," but the article really focuses on how Apple beat Sony.
Jobs was obsessed with Sony -- he apparently kept a collection of Sony letterhead -- and he understood that the company's success lay in its ability to create iconic products that did one thing really well.
Trinitron -- not the first color TV, but the brightest. Walkman -- listen to music anywhere. PlayStation -- games with immersive graphics.
Yang notes that the Zen Buddhist concept of ma, loosely translated as "space," expresses this concept perfectly, and Jobs has been a student of Zen since the 1970s.
But somewhere along the way, Sony lost sight of this concept. It now follows trends like 3D TV as quickly as it can and tries to be everything to everybody -- movie company, record company, computer company. 

Looking at Yang's article:



That ability to express by omission holds a central place in Jobs's management philosophy. As he told Fortune magazine in 2008, he's as proud of the things Apple hasn't done as the things it has done. "The great consumer electronics companies of the past had thousands of products," he said. "We tend to focus much more. People think focus means saying yes to the thing you've got to focus on. But that's not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas." (Jobs sometimes says this even more bluntly: Nike CEO Mark Parker likes to recount the advice Jobs gave him shortly after Parker's promotion to the top spot: "You make some of the best products in the world -- but you also make a lot of crap. Get rid of the crappy stuff.")
Other companies fail to do things because they've overlooked potential openings or are cutting corners to save money; under Jobs, however, every spurned opportunity is a conscious, measured statement. It's why the pundits who give Apple products poor reviews for not including industry-standard components -- for instance, the iMac's lack of a floppy drive -- just aren't getting it: Apple products are as defined by what they're missing as much as by what they contain.

To understand why, one has to remember that Jobs spent much of the 1970s at the Los Altos Zen Center (alongside then-and-current Gov. Jerry Brown) and later studied extensively under the late Zen roshi Kobun Chino Otogawa -- whom he designated as the official "spiritual advisor" for NeXT, the company he founded after being ejected as Apple's CEO in 1986, and who served as officiant when he wed his wife Laurene in 1991.
Jobs's immersion in Zen and passion for design almost certainly exposed him to the concept of ma, a central pillar of traditional Japanese aesthetics. Like many idioms relating to the intimate aspects of how a culture sees the world, it's nearly impossible to accurately explain -- it's variously translated as "void," "space" or "interval" -- but it essentially describes how emptiness interacts with form, and how absence shapes substance. If someone were to ask you what makes a ring a meaningful object -- the circle of metal it consists of, or the emptiness that that metal encompasses? -- and you were to respond "both," you've gotten as close to ma as the clumsy instrument of English allows.
While Jobs has never invoked the term in public -- one of the aspects of his genius is the ability to keep even his most esoteric assertions in the realm of the instantly accessible -- ma is at the core of the Jobsian way. And Jobs' single-minded adherence to this idiosyncratically Japanese principle is, ironically, what has allowed Apple to compete with and beat Japan's technology titans -- most notably the company that for the past four decades dominated the world of consumer electronics: Sony.

I'm sure I've heard this before - but I can't remember where.  The fact that a) Apple designs great products and b) Steve Jobs has studied Zen doesn't figure into either my personal or professional lives, except, yes, I do have some Apple products.

But there are far more fundamental ways in which Apple has "out-Japanned" Japan which Yang doesn't mention, and I won't either - they're not at all central to the point of this post or the topic of this blog.  

I will say that if you're interested in Zen because of Steve Jobs or Apple I'd find that hard to believe it's enough to keep anything resembling a sustaining practice.    In my tradition,  ma  (間) doesn't really figure prominently into practice, except insofar as it is an expression of nonduality or the fact that understanding is never completed.  In fact, I have absolutely no recollection of the concept of 間 being presented as somehow central to the practice in and of itself, except what I've already mentioned. On the other hand, yeah, 間 is central to the notion of an esthetically pleasing 書道 enso (円), but it's more wabisabi (侘寂) to me - and far more personal than the smooth curves of Apple's designs.

In summary - Apple's iPhone is not your practice. And neither is Steve Jobs' triumphs nor foibles.



16 comments:

J said...

Jobs hit it big at the IT casino mainly because he had a good team of programmers (and Wozniak-Co)--JObs himself didn't make it through two years of college--maybe finished a BASIC class. Clever, not genius

then, IMHE Apple/Macs were slow, overpriced sleds until OS-X or whatever--the snow kittie! They're still overpriced but for 4 grand or so will match yr PC (which cost$600 or so). They do look nice though, and Ellay creatives love 'em.

(thats not to bless Microshaft/Gateszillla, but at least Win. is cheap and functions).

Then, given that most zennists lack a sense of Justice (or simply don't care), Jobs could be an Al Caponay with a nice sense of design, and what would it matter? Even the ....dharma was opposed to corrupt kings/brahmins (ergo, opposed to corporate titans--Jobs, Gates, Ellison, et al). As was...the New Testament

Mumon said...

J:

Really?

J said...

Yep.

That's probably a bit too western and moralistic of an assessment for Cafe Bodhitree, though. Harsh! Sort of like pointing out Apple/MS sweatshops--.but..who cares about the entire labor context of computing?--there is Wu to attend to. Or is it ...Mu.

Some of us went through a zen phase like 20 years ago, mu. It's 95% hustle. The study of the early buddhist texts (ie pali and sanskrit), however obscure, demands quite a bit more work---and the early texts are rife with supernatural mystical elements (though the Gautama was, assuming those texts are reliable, a wise counselor of a sort. Deeprok, 400 bc. From some original texts ( Dhammapada 101) one gets the sense it was an early medical school of a sort-- concerned with cleanliness, avoiding disease, and dealing with ...Death, 24/7. a point lost on corporate zen (tho not, say on Schopenhauer. Or maybe Japhy Ryder. But Guru Japhy's not corp. either )

Mumon said...

J:

If it's not related to the 4 Noble Truths...

J said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
J said...

Im not a buddhist and would not claim all humans will be held to ...the Wheel (though there's a chance they will be held to something like ...Justice- though -platonic...and even Christian-- IMHE rather than Bu.). Yet do you note much if any emphasis on the Four N.T., and the 8-fold path among the zensters? I don't. They don't start with...life is suffering but...emptiness. Or the zen-aesthetic criteria, whatever it is (could be swordsmanship, or flower arrangement, etc).

"Path" most likely cognate with... skt. "Pada"--Pada def. is with latinate--podiatrist/pedestrian. Sorta buzzy.

Mumon said...

J:

Try reading the Heart Sutra.

J said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
J said...

Try reading the Dhammapada. The sutras are add-ons-- much later. Would the pastor-to-be, whatever one thinks of him, start with the New Testament, or Martin Luther? NT


That's not to say ...I buy it, actually. But a few of Bu.'s parables--the broken Arrow--
sound legit.,and are in other texts--with quite a bit of simple "Confucius say" BS, though . Maybe 50% BS. The Lotus sutra at least sounds like 90% BS, if not...total.

Finished here mu-man

Mumon said...

J:

You're assuming I haven't read the Dhammapada, or that somehow the sutras are unimportant. The Heart Sutra talks about one approach to living and practice of the Four Noble Truths.

The sutras are different, functionally, in many cases than the Dhammapada.

And in some cases, such as the Lotus Sutra and the Sutra of Innumerable Meanings, they're self-referential.

You're free to choose what to take or not; it's an improvised path. Like life itself.

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