It is well known that Steve Jobs practiced Zen. It probably influenced Jobs’ design philosophy and is reflected in Apple’s minimalist, no-frills-allowed style.

“I have always found Buddhism—Japanese Zen Buddhism in particular—to be aesthetically sublime,” Jobs told me. “The most sublime thing I’ve ever seen are the gardens around Kyoto.”  Walter IsaacsonHow Steve Jobs’ Love of Simplicity Fueled A Design Revolution

Jobs’ mentor, Kobun Otogawa, was a Soto Zen priest.  Zen is a school of Buddhism, and Zen has dozens of sub-schools, including Soto school.  Soto school especially focuses on Zazen, sitting meditation.  As summarized by the concept “Shikantaza,” Soto school emphasizes practicing meditation, meditation, and meditation.  What’s also interesting is the fact that Soto school denies your ambition to try to “achieve” something through meditation.  You have to vacate your body and mind first – of any thoughts, feelings, desires or expectations that could make you lean toward a certain direction; you must leave that all behind.  You just have to focus on meditation itself – nothing else -and you become an empty vessel.  That’s how Buddha achieved Nirvana, and that’s the only way you can adjust the balance of your body and mind, and see everything as is, with clear eyes.

It’s strict.  Even today it requires a lot of hard practice and training to become a Soto priest, and it’s demanding compared to the standard required by other schools of Buddhism.  You have to have a very strong will to seek after the truth.  It sounds like the personality of Steve Jobs that we know through many anecdotes: philosophical, passionate, demanding and non-compromising.

“Emptiness” or “simplicity” – or what we call “Zero” in this project – is what emerges through Zen practice and is hence so crystallized because it reflects the ultimate status of your body and mind. It is the beauty achieved after giving up everything unnecessary to experience the truth.  But it’s very hard to give up everything unnecessary.  Most of us want to keep many things in the “necessary” basket, instead of the “unnecessary” basket — we are too afraid to lose so many things.

Simplification could be much more difficult, costly and risky than adding to the basket.  Only a handful of brave people who take the risk are able to achieve this ultimate simplification.

Jobs’ belief in the power of simplicity as a design precept reached its pinnacle…the iPod, iPhone and iPad…His main demand was “Simplify!”…If he wanted a song or a function, he should be able to get there in three clicks…If he couldn’t figure out how to navigate to something, or if it took more than three clicks, he would be brutal. “There would be times when we’d wrack our brains on a user interface problem, and think we’d considered every option, and he would go, ‘Did you think of this?’” said Tony Fadell, the team leader. “He’d redefine the problem or approach, and our little problem would go away.”  Walter IsaacsonHow Steve Jobs’ Love of Simplicity Fueled A Design Revolution, The

Jobs’ “Simplify!” can also be interpreted as “subtract!” which is one of the major tenets of Zero.  For Jobs, the process of simplification must have been the pursuit after the truth, or the pursuit to discover the ultimate essentials. Addition is often easier than subtraction.  We can easily persuade ourselves that addition, or “more,” is better.  But once faced with the question of “less,” we stumble. Subtraction makes us nervous.

In order to flip the coin, you’d have to conquer your fear to stop adding and take a risk to start giving up. You’d have to have a strong will to re-define everything, to make subtraction happen. 

But after this painful process emerges vast beauty.  Maybe it’s something we call Zen design.

Jobs said “The most sublime thing I’ve ever seen are the gardens around Kyoto.” Let me introduce you to some of the major Kare-sansui gardens (Zen rock garden) in Kyoto that are hundreds of years old. 

Just a small note regarding Zen Buddhism in Japan:  Another major Zen sub-school is Rinzai school, which puts more focus on Zen dialogue.  In Kamakura era (11th-13th century), Rinzai school received massive support from the military authority and thrived. (Soto school rather denied such support.)  Therefore many artistic heritages from the Middle Ages belong to Rinzai school, including the gardens shown below.

Ryoanji (竜安寺 方丈庭園)


Ryoanji Kare-sansui, By Cquest (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

Myoshinji (妙心寺 退蔵院 元信の庭)

Motonobu garden

Motonobu’s garden, courtesy of Myoshinji Taizoin

Ditokuji Daisen-in (大徳寺 大仙院)


No machine-readable author provided. Ivanoff~commonswiki assumed based on copyright claims  CC-BY-SA-3.0. or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0, via Wikimedia Commons