Buddhism

Steve Jobs, saint of the '60s

It was in 1994 that author Umberto Eco, drawing on his studies in symbols and philosophy, looked at the evolution of personal computers and saw theology, doctrine, spirituality and, yes, icons. The modern world, he argued in the Italian magazine Espresso, was divided between Macintosh believers and those using the Microsoft disk operating system. The DOS world was "Protestant, or even Calvinistic" since it demanded "difficult personal decisions" and forced users to master complicated codes and rules.

"The Macintosh is Catholic," wrote Eco. "It tells the faithful how they must proceed step by step to reach -- if not the kingdom of Heaven -- the moment in which their document is printed. It is catechistic: The essence of revelation is dealt with via simple formulae and sumptuous icons."

Nearly two decades later, the hagiographers producing eulogies for Steve Jobs produced evidence that Eco was close -- but that he needed to soar past Rome and around the globe to India and Japan. In essay after essay, journalists have argued that the so-called "cult of Mac" was driven by the Apple leader's "Zen-like" state of mind.

It seems those iMacs, iPods, iPhones, iPads and MacBooks really were religious objects after all, with their gleaming surfaces of glass, aluminum and white or black plastic. There must have been a grand scheme behind that yin-yang minimalism.

"The Zen of Steve Jobs," proclaimed CNN.

ABCNews.com added: "Steve Job's Mantra Rooted in Buddhism: Focus and Simplicity."

HBO's "Real Time" provocateur complained that too many normal people -- even conservatives -- were rushing to claim Jobs. "Please don't do it, right-wingers," said Bill Maher. "He was not one of you. ... He was an Obama voting, pot-smoking Buddhist."

One image of Jobs dominated the media barrage. In 2005, the prophet from Cupertino visited one of California's most exclusive pulpits, giving the commencement address at Stanford University. It was one year after doctors discovered the rare form of pancreatic cancer that took his life at the age of 56.

"Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life," he said. "Almost everything -- all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure -- these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart."

A quick summary of Jobs' spiritual life is that he followed his heart right out of a traditional Christian background and into the spiritual maelstrom of the 1960s. Raised as a Missouri-Synod Lutheran, the young Jobs was already breaking bread with the Hare Krishnas near Reed College in Portland, Oregon, when he dropped out and headed to India seeking enlightenment.

It's hard to know how much the secretive Jobs practiced Buddhism during his often-stormy life, which included an out-of-wedlock daughter (he denied paternity for years) and his legendary rise and fall and triumphant rebirth as Apple's visionary. Buddhist monk Kobun Chino Otogawa did perform the 1991 wedding of Jobs and Laurene Powell and the Zen master served as a spiritual advisor for NeXT, the computer company Jobs founded in between his two Apple eras.

Critics noted that Jobs was a relentless and abrasive perfectionist who left scores of battered psyches in his wake. Whatever the doctrinal content of his faith, it seemed to have been a Buddhism that helped him find peace while walking barefoot through offices packed with wealthy, workaholic capitalists.

In his Stanford sermon, Jobs urged his young listeners to "trust in something -- your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life."

For Jobs, the bottom line was his own bottom line -- even when death loomed on the horizon. His ultimate hope was that he, alone, knew what was right.

"Don't be trapped by dogma -- which is living with the results of other people's thinking," he concluded. "Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition -- they somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary."

Trust your feelings, Darth?

No wonder Anakin Skywalker seems so confused.

Every time the Jedi apprentice turns around, a spiritual master tells him to trust his feelings, search his feelings or follow his feelings. Trouble is, the young super-warrior in "Star Wars: Attack of the Clones" is a tornado of feelings. He feels love. He feels hate, ambition, desire, frustration, fear and fury.

Yet when he follows his heart, the Jedi tell him to set aside his desires and do his duty.

Well, do feelings trump duty or is it the other way around?

"I don't know what it says in the Jedi handbook, but it's obvious that George Lucas hasn't answered this question," says Catholic writer Roberto Rivera, who is best known for his pop-culture research for evangelical leader Chuck Colson.

"It's especially interesting that the characters that represent the good side of the Force -- like Obi-Wan Kenobi -- stress the importance of following your feelings. But the characters that represent the dark side -- like Chancellor Palpatine -- are also telling Anakin he must learn to trust his feelings. Why do the good guys and the bad guys agree with each other?"

This may sound like the geeky Star Wars nit-picking that thrives in cyberspace, where legions of Lucas acolytes circulate catechisms detailing how many Jedi can twirl on the point of a light saber. But these are not meaningless questions for the generations baptized in images from the original trilogy and its sequels. The grand finale looms ahead on May 25, 2005.

Like it or not, what Lucas says about God and man is important.

"Star Wars is the closest thing many Americans have to a myth -- by which I mean the stories that help us make sense of our lives and the world around us, and the traditional means by which cultures transmit their values and beliefs," argues Rivera, in a Boundless.org essay called "Love, Sacrifice and Free Will in Star Wars."

Thus, it matters if Lucas has created a myth that makes any sense, even on its own terms. It matters if the Force provides a coherent framework for the actions of his characters. It matters if Lucas is stuck somewhere between karma and Calvinism, spinning morality tales in a universe ruled by an impersonal "energy field created by all living things" that somehow has a will and a plan for the souls it controls.

After all, notes Rivera, it "was Lucas who called Star Wars the story of a man's fall from grace and his subsequent redemption. These are terms with moral, if not religious, significance."

The key is that Lucas created a pop faith the same way he created his monsters. He took the head of one creature, attached it to the body of another, stuck on the tail of something else and enlarged the result to awesome size.

"I didn't want to invent a religion," Lucas once told journalist Bill Moyers. "I wanted to try to explain in a different way the religions that already existed. ... I put the Force into the movie in order to try to awaken a certain kind of spirituality in young people -- more a belief in God than a belief in any particular religious system."

The bottom line: "The conclusion I have come to is that all the religions are true."

Yet Lucas wanted an epic story of good and evil, darkness and light. His films center on the life of an anointed one who "will bring balance" between the yin and the yang of the Force, yet Lucas never defines his terms. He never says what is good and what is evil and why. Heroes and villains alike have to follow their feelings.

"There is zero evidence in the Star Wars films that anyone is ever taught anything about what is right and what is wrong," notes Rivera. "We don't even know why the dark side is dark. It's a mystery. It's a concept with no meaning. ...

"Everybody is supposed to do the right thing, but nobody wants to stop and give any serious thought as to how a person is supposed to know what is the right thing to do. That is a rather important question to leave unanswered, if you stop and think about it."

Buddhism for sale

It was a logical question for the Dalai Lama to ask his Jewish visitors, yet it caught them completely off guard.

Poet Rodger Kamenetz has pondered his question for a decade: "Can you tell me the secret of Jewish spiritual survival in exile?"

"Notice that the Dalai Lama asked about spiritual survival, not cultural survival," said Kamenetz, author of "The Jew in the Lotus," a classic travelogue of uncharted terrain between two spiritual traditions. "What he was really asking was, 'How do you survive spiritually until you can return to your homeland?' "

The exiled Tibetan Buddhist leader assumed that Jews had learned valuable lessons about survival during centuries of life in foreign, often hostile, cultures and lands. But he also assumed that this ability to survive was linked to the practice of the rites and prayers of the Jewish faith.

This is a haunting question for Jews in an age when so few actively practice their faith, said Kamenetz, during a prayer seminar for the Palm Beach (Fla.) Fellowship of Christians and Jews. But this question about spiritual survival should haunt all devout believers in an age in which ancient faiths seem to under attack -- by forces both obvious and subtle.

It's easy to focus on threats such as persecution, terrorism and war. While these forces are real, Kamenetz warned that ancient religious traditions are also being buried in commercialism and entertainment. Faith has become a "consumer good." For millions, a religious tradition is now a product that they purchase, not a way of life that they practice.

In his opinion, the worship, prayer and ethical traditions at the heart of Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam should be added to a spiritual "endangered species" list.

Take Buddhism, for example, which appears to be flourishing and winning converts in media-soaked America. Simply stated, Buddhism is being bought and sold. And Kamenetz is not the only scholar who is worried about the rise of a consumer-friendly Buddhism in the spirituality marketplace.

Indeed, some forms of exile are subtler than others.

"All of the world's great religions provide profound challenges to the unexamined life," noted Stephen Prothero of Boston University, at Salon.com. "At their best, they offer devastating diagnoses of human sickness and radical remedies for it. They demand crazy things -- that we love our enemies, that we deny ourselves. ... At their best, religions are difficult, confusing and mysterious."

Meanwhile, the fad that many call Baby Boomer Buddhism is "all too often shallow and small," he said. "It soothes rather than upsets, smoothing out the palpable friction between Buddhist practice and the banalities of contemporary American life."

Consider one item sold in many spiritual bookstores. Consumers can now buy rocks with this inscription -- "What Would Buddha Do?"

There are other seekers -- including growing numbers of "JUBUs" or Jewish Buddhists -- who find Buddhism attractive because they see it as a form of spirituality without dogmas, creeds, beliefs, commandments and rituals that resemble anything they were required to learn as children. They simply ignore what traditional Buddhist leaders such as the Dalai Lama have to say about hot-button moral issues, such as abortion, homosexuality of sexual abstinence.

"Let's face it," said Kamenetz, "one of the reasons Buddhism has become so popular, with so many Americans, so fast, is that people have stripped away all of the rules and the precepts and the work that has to do with how you are supposed to live your life. In doing so, they have stripped Buddhism of its ethical content.

"You are left with a religion that makes very few demands of you. Is that Buddhism?"

Interfaith dialogues between Jews, Christians and Buddhists are sure to increase, as more Buddhists blend into the American mainstream. The number of Americans converting to Buddhism will also continue to rise.

Will the new Buddhists compromise and assimilate? Will they be able to spiritually survive while "exiled" in this strange land?

"It may take 300 years for a true Buddhism to come to America," said Kamenetz. "In the meantime, you're going to continue to see all of these hybrid forms. People are taking pieces of this faith and combining it with pieces of that faith. ...

"This is all so, so American."