The Zen of Steve Jobs?


I went to the Strand bookstore in New York City yesterday and there I picked up two comic books. One was volume 2 of DC Comics’ Strange Adventures series. These are reprints of science fiction comics from the fifties featuring apes trying to take over the world (long before the Planet of the Apes films) and horrifying living snowmen from outer space.

But the other comic would probably be of more interest to regular readers. It’s been out for about two years now, but I finally bought it yesterday – The Zen of Steve Jobs.

I heard about this before it first came out. In fact I contacted the publishers –Forbes Magazine no less! – to see if I could get a copy to review. Their reply was politely dismissive. Obviously I was not the sort of person they felt could be useful in their promotional activities. Ah well…

That response along with the smug yet clueless tone of the promotion surrounding the book put me off from ever making any effort to buy myself a copy. Also, the sample pages on the Internet showed Steve Jobs and his Zen teacher Kobun Chino at Tassajara – which looked nothing at all like Tassajara – and had Kobun suggesting to Steve that they go to Denny’s and get a hot fudge sundae.

Do these guys have any idea how hard it would be to go to a Denny’s from Tassajara? The closest one that would make any sense at all to go to is in Monterey. You’d spend an hour just driving up the 14 mile rock-strewn dirt road to the nearest paved street and then you’d have to drive another 23 miles of slow winding backroads from there. The whole trip would take you close to three hours. Then you’d have to come back. That would have to be a hell of a hot fudge sundae!

But OK. Artistic license. Fine. I don’t insist on absolute accuracy. It would be hard to construct a single scene that makes the point that the venerable Zen Master Kobun Chino Roshi liked hot fudge sundaes and that he and Steve Jobs hung out at Tassajara without taking a few liberties with geography that, frankly, nobody except those of us who’ve been to Tassajara would ever notice. No biggie there.

Kaisando2Except when I read the book (which took about ten minutes) I was struck by just how many incredibly elementary errors were in it. On page 8 we see Steve Jobs at Tassajara in the Summer of 1986. It took me a minute Kaisandoand a half to locate the photo they used as their reference. It’s a picture of the kaisando, the founder’s hall. It’s a nice photo. From Vegan Magazine, apparently. That’s a sloping hillside behind it, not a few clouds in a wide blue sky. But OK.

It’s when they go inside the zendo (which is not in the founder’s hall, but OK… again…) that things start to go amiss. The zendo does not look like the one at Tassajara then or now (a quick Google search will deliver a dozen or so photos). The group are all seated facing the center of the room. Is it nitpicking for me to wonder why they didn’t do a bit of research on Soto style Zen and have them facing the walls? Or to point out that we don’t close our eyes when we do zazen as the artist has Steve Jobs clearly doing?


I don’t know. Maybe I’m just being crabby here. But whenever I see errors like this in parts of a story that I know about I find it difficult to believe the parts I don’t know about were researched any more thoroughly. It’s like what my friend and fellow Godzilla fan Bob told me once. He said, “Whenever I see a news story about Godzilla they can’t get even the most basic facts right. If they can’t even research the easiest things to get right about something as trivial as Godzilla, how can I trust the news they tell me about things I don’t know about?”

Kobun Chino is portrayed throughout as a kind of Yoda-like caricature of a Zen master. He sits on rocks dispensing riddles about ma and mu, which Steve Jobs then applies to his products and to the design of Apple’s offices. A few times Kobun is referred to as a “guru.” Jeez Louise.

But some things in the book I know actually are accurate. In one scene Kobun mentions to Steve that it’s been ten years since Steve last sat zazen with him. Steve Jobs was influenced by Kobun for sure. But he was never a very serious student of Zen. In another scene they smoke a joint together. From what I’ve heard about Kobun and what little I know about Steve Jobs, I can believe this probably did happen a few times.

The art style is appealing. The story is very compact and sticks to the point it’s trying to make. It’s not a bad comic book, really. But the author’s constant deflecting of any criticism of the piece’s accuracy by calling it a “re-imagining” – a word that should be banned forever if you ask me – don’t really ring true when it comes to the parts that bug me most. Why spend the hours I’m sure it took to draw some of the really pretty pictures in the comic and not invest a couple more minutes to get a few of the details right?

It’s good to see anything at all out there about Kobun Chino, though. He was my first teacher’s teacher, and a very important person in American Zen who is often overlooked. His relationship with Steve Jobs is about all he’s known for beyond the few people who actually encountered him. That’s a shame. There’s a bit about him on the Remembering Kobun website. But it hasn’t been updated for years.

All in all, I can’t give this comic more than a half-shrugged “It’s OK.” I really wanted to like it more.

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– February 18-23 I’ll be hosting a retreat with Kazuaki Tanahashi  at Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico

You can see the documentary about me,  Brad Warner’s Hardcore Zen, at the following locations (I’ll be at all screenings):

– March 11, 2014 Ithaca, NY

– March 14, 2014 Brooklyn, NY

– April 20, 2014 San Francisco, CA


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13 Responses

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  1. boubi
    boubi January 27, 2014 at 12:42 pm |

    You know what?

    Who gives a (blip) about “zen” & “Jobs”, you do? Two words that sell well. No research about it? So what again?

    No more than research talking about Yoga & Zen or saying inanities about Vajarayana …

    Who gives a (blip)

  2. boubi
    boubi January 27, 2014 at 2:13 pm |

    The main message lays at 4:45


  3. boubi
    boubi January 27, 2014 at 2:17 pm |

    F* prissiness go Aghora.

    Practice as if your hair were on fire. Don’t show your shine and hide the imprint of your footmarks. (Dogen)

  4. shade
    shade January 27, 2014 at 4:41 pm |

    What’s the difference between this and like, Sid & Nancy? From what I understand that wasn’t very accurate either.

    I guess the closer something is to your own experience the more likely you are to be nitpicky about the “facts”. It’s human nature, maybe… for my own part I pretty much always assume comics or feature films or tv shows play fast and loose with reality (I have different expectations about documentaries and more journalistic/academic type stuff however)

    Maybe you should have reviewed the other comic. I used to read that old DC stuff when I was a kid… At least depictions of radioactive centipedes and intergalactic space monsters aren’t subject to accusations of inaccuracy (or am I wrong about that?)

  5. Mumbles
    Mumbles January 27, 2014 at 4:46 pm |

    I was pretty stoked hearing about this and picked up a copy of the perfect bound comic about a year ago. I likewise enjoyed the layout and artwork; the details that bothered you bothered me little, however, there was not much story to tell IMO. Seemed like a fast way to cash in on Jobs demise. Not cool.

  6. Andy
    Andy January 27, 2014 at 5:58 pm |

    Brian Victoria has been doing some creative re-imagining of his own, again, down at Sweeping Z*n. Every time I read the guy I feel a disturbance in the force.

  7. The Grand Canyon
    The Grand Canyon January 28, 2014 at 4:30 am |

    Re-imagining Buddhism by adding “GOD” or “gods” to it seems much more misinformed, misleading, and potentially harmful by comparison.

  8. blake
    blake January 28, 2014 at 6:24 am |

    I love hot fudge sundaes. Remember when we went to Fran’s and you had apple pie and I had a hot fudge sundae? So good…

  9. AnneMH
    AnneMH January 28, 2014 at 7:04 am |

    I think this does clarify a good point for me. I get picky about things I read about that I already know something about. Most of it is in my field of education, education has a lot of good ideas and a lot of misunderstood recycled crap. So then I can feel like a jerk for nit picking something that obviously someone put a lot of work into. But that point you and your friend make, if they can’t get the easily researched details right how can we trust them?

  10. Kogen
    Kogen January 29, 2014 at 3:30 am |

    Look at you getting all protective of the mother ship! Makes my heart smile a bit; for all that Zen Center is (and isn’t), it gets in you.

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