It is well known that Steve Jobs practiced Zen. It influenced his 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 […] The most sublime thing I’ve ever seen are the gardens around Kyoto.” (How Steve Jobs’ Love of Simplicity Fueled A Design Revolution),
Jobs practiced the Soto school of Japanese Zen, working with Kobun Otogawa as his long-time mentor. The Soto school is one of the major Japanese Zen schools known for its strict focus on Zazen (sitting meditation), called “Shikantaza,” which means “do nothing but meditation.” This “nothing but” is tricky because you are not even permitted to have a purpose in meditating. Instead of trying to become mindful or feel peaceful, you must vacate your body and mind of any thoughts, feelings, desires or expectations. By focusing on meditation itself – nothing else – you become an empty vessel. That’s how Buddha achieved Nirvana. The Soto school attempts to follow Buddha’s path to find eternal truth through meditation.
Through his pursuit to vacate his body and mind to reach truth, Jobs seems to have found ultimate beauty. It’s probably not a coincidence that art is an integral part of Zen, and the design aesthetic of Jobs’ creative spirit resonated with Zen.
Zen strongly believes in that our body and brain can achieve more when finally released from greed, by persevering arduous training. Zen also believes that the process cannot be cut short by studying texts. In order to fully understand something, you need to comprehend it physically. So Zen denies the text.
This is the reason why prominent Zen monks in the Middle Ages used various forms of art, such as the Zen garden, calligraphy or flower arrangement (left image: courtesy of Ikenobo) to crystallize what they saw and felt during their journey for eternal truth. And it was this very restriction – no text allowed – that resulted in the “aesthetic sublime” of Zen arts, as described by Jobs.
Zen art is a creative process of subtraction. In the same way as they moderated their desires and feelings through meditation, Zen priests (inseparable from artists) examined each and every element in art to decide if it was really necessary. They patiently continued the questioning process until ultimate essentials finally emerged. This is very much like how Steve Jobs, a trailblazer and perfectionist, pursued an aesthetic philosophy that would eventually define Apple’s minimalist, simple and yet playful brand identity.
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.” (How Steve Jobs’ Love of Simplicity Fueled A Design Revolution, The Smithsonian.com),
It is a daunting task to persevere in the process of subtraction until essential elements are revealed. We are too familiar with addition, and we often assume that more added things mean added value. But Zen priests and Jobs knew that this was not necessarily the case. Many details only serve to dilute and distract the essence by adding superfluous values.
Take the example of the Zen garden, which Jobs found “aesthetic sublime…” to see how the art of subtraction works. Jobs especially liked Saiho-ji, also known as koke-dera, in Kyoto.
It is intriguing that Jobs loved the Saiho-ji, which has two distinct faces. Saiho-ji garden was designed by Muso Soseki, a prominent Zen priest in the 14th century who founded the fundamentals of the Zen garden and kare-sansui design.
The ground level (top image) employs a technique called chisen kaiyu-shiki. It has a pond at the center, and lanes, gazebos and vista points quietly surround it. The Chisen kaiyu-shiki garden is visually abundant because at its core is a body of water, the substance which provides life for all living things on Earth. At Saiho-ji, the abundant water nourishes the abundant flora. Hundreds of years after Muso Soseki, today there are about 120 different moss species that display their quiet vigor. That’s why it’s also called koke-dera (the moss temple).
The upper level (bottom image) is totally different. Abundant vegetation suddenly disappears and the world of kare-sansui emerges. Developed by Muso Soseki, kare-sansui means “expressing greens and water using no life.” It primarily employs rocks, pebbles and mossy mounds to describe the boundless beauty of nature. The ponds, which play a central role in chisen kaiyu-shiki gardens, are absent in kare-sansui. The most prominent kare-sansui at Saiho-ji is situated on the slope to a hill, beside a small religious building. Surrounded by crude nature sit several forceful, but succinct rocks. The rocks are arranged to represent carp climbing up a waterfall to become dragons – a transformation based on an old Chinese myth. This is where Muso Soseki actually performed his meditation.
On the ground level, you are submerged in a mesmerizing and sensual abundance of green. You are literally filled with silent power of green. It is euphoric.
But climbing up higher, the scene changes drastically. The effect caused by the absence of abundant water is evident. Suddenly you are thrown into the arms of untamed nature.
This is an aggressive subtraction process. In order to appreciate what’s going on here, it is necessary to learn a little bit more about kare-sansui.
Kare-sansui, also known as the Zen rock garden, started in the Middle Ages when some Zen temples in Kyoto, which were often built in remote areas with poor access to water, had difficulties in keeping their gardens constantly watered. Embracing Zen philosophy, they decided to let the plants die and start with something different that would require almost no water.
This first subtraction was drastic, because water is considered essential for a garden. Plants, the main features in most types of garden, need water to survive. Giving up water means giving up plants. How can we maintain a garden without its fundamentals? The unique creativity of the Zen garden begins with this fundamental subtraction.
According to ”日本の庭園 (The Japanese garden)” (Chuo-Koron Shinsha, 2005) by Isoya Shinji, an authority on the Japanese traditional landscape and garden, there are three levels of subtraction noticeable in kare-sansui. A kare-sansui garden can be designed to:
- Replicate a scenic view: With least amount of subtraction, this technique attempts to copy natural elements almost as they are. Rocks, pebbles, mounds are used to represent mountains, rivers, waterfalls, islands or religious elements.
- Symbolize subject matter: Applying a more aggressive subtraction, this approach attempts to elevate natural elements to a symbolic level, using less objects.
- Crystallize themes to abstraction: Elements are reduced/condensed to their ultimate essentials, which elevate the theme of the garden to an abstract level.
Here are the examples for each level, according to Isoya Shinji.
Subtraction Level 1: Replicate Scenic View
This garden represents a waterfall from the mythical ho-rai mountain that sits in between two islands. Based on the old Chinese myth, the mountain is believed to be inhabited by hermits, and the two islands represent a crane and a turtle, two animals believed to live thousands of years. The waterfall flows into a river, and eventually into a vast ocean. Many elements, including islands, mountains, waterfalls, bridges and boats are expressed using rocks, and with pebbles to represent the ocean. This garden is amazingly compact, yet maintains a tranquil, reserved atmosphere.
Subtraction Level 2: Symbolize Subject Matters
妙心寺 退蔵院 元信の庭
Image courtesy of Myoshin-ji Taizo-in
Zen gardens were usually designed by Zen priests-garden designers, but this one was designed by a renowned painter Kano Motonobu (1476-1559). It looks uniquely picturesque for a kare-sansui garden – there are more gentle curves and colors, implying artistic grace and perfection. It is said that Kano chose ever green plants to represent eternal beauty.
This garden has similar scenic elements to the Daitoku-ji garden above: there is a “turtle” island at the center, and you can see the ho-rai mountain inhibited by hermits to your left. There are also waterfalls and bridges. But they are not as representational as at Daitoku-ji, since the aesthetic quality of each rock is prioritized.
Subtraction Level 3: Crystallize themes to abstraction
Image Image By Cquest (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons
This is probably the most famous kare-sansui garden in Kyoto. There are only fifteen rocks installed in a pebble-filled rectangular garden of about 80′ x 33′. It’s not known who designed this garden when, or with what concept/theme.
Fifteen rocks of different types, some are from the local vicinity and others from other parts of Kyoto or the Kansai region, are incredibly carefully positioned. They form groups of five, two, three, two and three rocks from east to west, forming a loose, semi-oval orbit, if you look at them from the western engawa (porch). This mysterious garden is so absorbing and inspiring that people from around the world still try to “decode” the secret of its boundless beauty.
Applying those subtraction techniques, you can see how the Saiho-ji garden started as an abundant chisen kaiyu-shiki, and ended up becoming an almost savage kare-sansui. Tracing the process of subtraction makes us ask a fundamental question about what it means to “design” something.
About a thousand years ago, people wished to re-create the abundant beauty of nature. So they secured enough water in order to design a garden full of vegetation. In Japan, this approach saw its culmination in the chisen kaiyu-shiki garden, as exhibited on the ground floor of Saiho-ji. It is utterly beautiful.
Then kare-sansui emerged, challenging the basic reason behind garden design. Is it to display as many beautiful elements as possible? Or, is it to serve as a vehicle to stimulate our imagination? Kare-sansui demonstrated that even the most central elements could be eliminated if we can pivot and embrace the latter as our goal. And it could potentially allow an even greater beauty to emerge, because the beauty in our mind is not bound by any physical limits. Ryoan-ji shows us how powerful just fifteen rocks can be.
When Steve Jobs demanded seemingly impossible changes in Apple’s product design, he was probably questioning the fundamental objective of the project. Do we want to make the best computer? Or do we want to deliver the most inspiring and delightful digital solution ever?
And since he already knew the answer, Jobs did not hesitate to demand design steps as bold as removing water from a garden. He knew that only drastic subtraction would help him make a big leap to create something as revolutionary as the kare-sansui.
“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication,” Jobs said. He knew that uncompromising efforts of subtraction will eventually reveal something profound and true.