Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Sanga Visit: Kannon Do

This past Wednesday, the 12th of October I went to see a talk given by Les Kaye at Kannon Do in Mountain View, California. Kannon Do is the successor to Haiku Zendo which was founded in 1965 by some students of Suzuki Roshi when San Francisco Zen Center was still operating out of Sokoji on Bush street.

I first met Les Kay a couple of years ago when he offered a Meditation at Work class. The class ran for several weeks with regular meetings and sittings. It was a great re-introduction to sitting practice and Les's secular approach to teaching the class makes mindfulness practice more accessible to a business environment and really helped to get me back into sitting and eventually, to start practicing with the Zen Center on a regular basis.

When a friend who has some experience with Kannon Do forwarded me a note that the talk was going to be about Steve Jobs I knew I finally had to go down and visit. It took some doing but after arranging for a friend to hang out with the kid I drove down for the regular Wednesday night sit and Dharma Talk.

Getting In

I arrived a little late, and the parking lot was full, as I was turning around I saw a woman in robes and a rakusu, which seemed like a good sign. It took a few minutes to find a parking spot down the street and walk back to the temple. The Zendo at Kannon Do is the entire main building, there is a small building on the back of the property and all the usual Zen accessories are in evidence, a Han and a large bell hang outside and the expected neat lines of shoes outside the door.

Zazen had already started so I was faced with the prospect of walking into the period late, and having no idea what the correct forms are for entering this particular zendo (they are all different) I hesitated for a few moments outside before gathering my courage and opening the door as quietly as I could manage. Stepping over the threshold with the foot closest to the hinge turned out to be a challenge since I didn't want to open the door all the way but I got in. Three steps in I made the customary bow to the room and looked around for an empty spot. All the cushions were taken, but there was one empty chair, which I quietly walked over to and sat down in, then settled into the rest of the 40 minute sitting period.

After the talk we had a typical evening service, a lot of people came out for the talk and there wasn't enough room for full bows so we did standing 90° bows instead of full prostrations. There were some differences, the chant books aren't the same as Zen Center and a few of the smaller verses were slightly different translations which was a bit unexpected but following along wasn't hard.

The Talk

Les's talk wasn't so much a Dharma talk, it was a few stores and observations about Steve Jobs and his history with the Haiku Zendo sitting group and the relationship that he and Les had over the years. There were a couple of particularly illuminating stores and a few observations about Steve's product design style (remove all unnecessary parts) which Les felt were deeply influenced by Zen practice and philosophy.

Les and Steve met at Haiku Zendo in 1974 or 1975 where Les was a priest, having been ordained by Suzuki Roshi in 1971. Les was a 40 year old career man, working at IBM and concurrently working on becoming a transmitted Zen priest all while raising a family. Steve was freshly returned from India with a shaved head and some intense exposure to Buddhism, Les remembers him as being a deep thinker and recounted a few walks that the would take around Palo Alto, where Steve would ask questions like "What is Work?" A seemingly naive question, but one which shows that he took nothing for granted and was intensely curious about the nature of reality.

Some time in late 1975 or early 1976 Steve paid Les an unexpected visit at his home, he had an envelope in his hands and asked if Les would review the schematics inside. Les, having been trained as an electrical engineer but subsequently moving into marketing and management didn't feel like he could help, since his skills were 20 years out of date at that point. On asking Steve what the plans described, he got an answer that won't surprise anyone, "I can't tell you, it's secret." We may never know exactly what was in that envelope, but the timing suggests that it was the plans for the Apple I computer, which famously sold for $666.66 when it was released in 1976.

During Steve's tenure at Haiku Zendo, which lasted about a year, he developed a close relationship with Kobun Chino. A few articles have been written about them as well as Steve's marriage to Laurene Powell by Kobun in a Zen ceremony at the Ahwahnee Hotel at Yosemite in 1991. The marriage being fully 16 years after Jobs and Kobun met gives you some idea of the depth of their relationship, which lasted until Kobun's tragic death in 2002. Les recalled getting a tearful phone call from Steve a few days later, when he learned of Kobun's passing.

The most recent story—and the most telling about Steve's long term interest in meditation practice—Les told revolves around his teaching a Mediation at Work class at Apple. One day after class he and Steve had lunch and discussed creating a permanent space for meditation at Apple (Google, for .e.g has at least one dedicated quiet room for this) they took a tour of campus for several hours, looking for a suitable spot, with Steve asking "how about this one?" all along the way.

Tea and Cookies

After the talk there was the usual Q&A session, which went on for a while and then we put the Zendo back in order and retired to the back house for tea and cookies. I took the opportunity to thank Les for his Meditation at Work classes and make a date to reconnect.

I'll be going back to Kannon Do for sure, Les is one of only four students of Suzuki Roshi who were given dharma transmission by his son, Hoitsu Suzuki, to complete the process that his father started before his death in 1971. There aren't a lot of Suzuki Roshi's students around any more, and none of them are getting any younger. At the end of the Q&A Les made a point of reminding the assembled Sanga that in a few years they would have to appoint a new abbot to carry on in his place.


Jean-Louis Gassée remembers hearing about Steve attending sittings at Kannon Do, which didn't come up during the Q&A after Les's talk.