Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 24, 2011

Steve Jobs, Zen Buddhism and LSD

Filed under: computers,religion — louisproyect @ 6:13 pm

Back in 1987, when I was working at Goldman-Sachs, I sat next to a consultant named Barbara who had the loveliest violet eyes. I think she was attracted to me as well but I could never warm up to her since her values clashed with mine.

No, she was not a Republican. She was a “New Age” person who had been through the 60s counter-culture, eventually becoming a computer programmer just like me. But her real ambition was to start a business treating people with the Feldenkreis Method, a kind of low-key physical and mental exercise that was supposed to deliver health and happiness. I went to one of her evening workshops once and found it pointless, preferring to remain my neurotic, snarling anti-capitalist self.

But the real stumbling block was her often-stated desire to find a husband and move to Mamaroneck, a wealthy Westchester suburb. How had a 1960s free spirit become so bourgeois? That was a question that preoccupied me at the time.

I thought about Barbara while watching the extended segment on Steve Jobs last night on “Sixty Minutes” featuring Walter Isaacson, his authorized biographer. Isaacson went on at length about the “New Age” aspects of Jobs’s personality that were critical to his success in the business world.

Isaacson harps on Jobs’s long hair and his aversion to taking baths, a sure sign of his being “hip”, I suppose. But it was his trip to India, his Zen Buddhism, and most of all his use of LSD that made him atypical of the Silicon Valley world.

He goes on to explain that if you dig a little deeper, it was exactly those things that made Apple the big success that it was and is. The Zen Buddhism supposedly made him attuned to a kind of elegant minimalism that characterized all of his products, to the point of making him averse to on-off power switches.

The LSD was the big thing, however. It “opened his mind” in a way that he never thought possible. While not quite a prophet of the drug as Timothy Leary, Jobs is on record as stating that Bill Gates would have been much more successful if he had dropped acid himself.

I for one do not see any big contradiction between becoming a vicious captain of industry (Apple is the second most valuable corporation in the world, next to Exxon-Mobil) and embracing all of these “New Age” insights.

Despite beat poet Allan Ginsberg and Gary Snyder’s Zen training, as well as that of countless 1950s and 60s bohemians, the actual history of the religion (broadly defined) is one that includes exactly the kind of martial attitude that made Jobs into the top dog he was at the time of his death.

That is what you learn from reading Bryan Victoria’s “Zen War Stories”, a book that reviewer Stephen Heine described  in the following terms:

Brian Victoria’s work, following on the heels of the highly acclaimed but also highly provocative Zen at War (Weatherhill, 1997), continues his withering attack on the embracing of wartime ideology by leading Zen masters and practitioners in Japan. Victoria seeks to show that the attitude characteristic of numerous examples of prominent Zen monks and scholars was not a matter of only benignly resisting, or even of passively accepting, the rhetoric of Imperial Way Buddhism by clergy who were pressured and powerless to stand up to the authorities. Nor was it an example of innocently recognizing historical and ideological affinities between Zen monastic discipline and military training.

On the contrary, the Zen masters discussed here eagerly and enthusiastically endorsed some of the most excessive and reprehensible aspects of imperial ideology in the name of a corrupted vision of spiritual realization as a tool to spread the doctrine of the Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere. They also used Zen wedded to hypernationalism and imperialism as a tool to misread the historical records of their own tradition and to help transport Japanese supremacy to China and Korea, while refusing to acknowledge or repent for their actions with the defeat of Japan. This outlook also infected numerous politicians and military figures who turned to Buddhism as a way of explaining away or masking their roles leading up to, as well as during and after World War II.

In part 1 of Zen War Stories Victoria documents several masters who have become icons in the West for their apparent adherence to Zen tradition linked with an ability to address contemporary culture. After showing in chapter 4 that Omori Sogen, praised for his prowess in swordsmanship and other arts, had a fascistic, “Mr. Hyde” side as manifested in the founding in 1932 of the Kinno Ishin Domei (League for Loyalty to the Emperor and the Restoration), Victoria turns to the case of Yasutani Haku’un. In chapter 5, “Zen Master Dogen Goes to War,” we find that Yasutani, known as the teacher of Philip Kapleau and inspiration for The Three Pillars of Zen, wanted to smash all universities for being traitors. He was a fanatical militarist who “transformed the life and thought of Zen Master Dogen (1200-1253), the thirteenth-century founder of the Soto Zen sect in Japan, into a propaganda tool for Japanese militarism” (p. 68).

In particular, Yasutani tried to argue that Dogen’s famed pilgrimage to Song China in 1223 was triggered not by a longing for Buddhist Dharma but by disgust with the new Shogunate and infatuation with preserving the Imperial House. According to Victoria, Yasutani’s corrupted spirituality did not end with a support for militarism. He was also even more “ethnic chauvinist, sexist, and anti-Semitic” (p. 68) than his teacher Harada Daiun Sogaku, whose “most memorable wartime quote is: ‘[If ordered to] march: tramp, tramp, or shoot: bang, bang. This is the manifestation of the highest Wisdom [of enlightenment]” (pp. 66-67).

The LSD story is even more against the grain of the New Age love-in sensibility. For the full story you need to read Martin Lee and Bruce Shlain’s “Acid Dreams: The Complete Social History of LSD: The CIA, the Sixties, and Beyond”, all of which can be read here.  Like Zen Buddhism, LSD fit in well with the designs of the national security state that started off experimenting with it as a way to drug enemy armies into mass confusion and helplessness.

But it became even more important as a way to disorient America’s enemies within during the Vietnam War, namely that sector of the left that was open to the idea that LSD was as necessary in transforming the individual as radical politics was in transforming society.

I particularly recommend the chapter on “The Great LSD Conspiracy” that includes these revealing paragraphs:

Nearly a decade before Kesey was introduced to psychedelics as part of a government-funded drug study in Palo Alto, the CIA embarked upon a major effort to develop LSD into an effective mind control weapon. The CIA’s behavior modification programs were geared toward domestic as well as foreign populations; targets included selected individuals and large groups of people. But in what way could LSD be utilized to manipulate an individual, let alone a subculture or a social movement? LSD is not a habit-forming substance like heroin, which transforms whole communities and turns urban slums into terrains of human bondage. Whereas opiates elicit a predictable response, both pharmacologically and socially, this is not necessarily the case with psychedelics. The efficacy of acid as an instrument of social control is therefore a rather tenuous proposition.

The CIA came to terms with this fundamental truth about LSD only after years of intense experimentation. At first CIA researchers viewed LSD as a substance that produced a specific reaction (anxiety), but subsequent studies revealed that “set and setting” were important factors in determining its effects. This finding made the drug less reliable as a cloak-and-dagger weapon, and the CIA utilized LSD in actual operations — as an aid to interrogation and a discrediting agent — only on a limited basis during the Cold War. By the mid-1960s the Agency had virtually phased out its in-house acid tests in favor of more powerful chemicals such as BZ and related derivatives, which were shown to be more effective as incapacitants. But that did not mean the CIA had lost all interest in LSD. Instead the emphasis shifted to broader questions related to the social and political impact of the drug. A number of CIA-connected think tanks began to examine the relationship between the grassroots psychedelic scene and the New Left.

An accurate investigation would have shown that sizable amounts of street acid first appeared around college campuses and bohemian enclaves in 1965. This was an exceptionally creative period marked by a new assertiveness among young people. LSD accentuated a spirit of rebellion and helped to catalyze the expectations of many onto greatly expanded vistas. The social environment in which drugs were taken fostered an outlaw consciousness that was intrinsic to the development of the entire youth culture, while the use of drugs encouraged a generalizing of discontent that had significant political ramifications. The very expression of youth revolt was influenced and enhanced by the chemical mind-changers. LSD and marijuana formed the armature of a many-sided rebellion whose tentacles reached to the heights of ego-dissolving delirium, a rebellion as much concerned with the sexual and spiritual as with anything tradition ally political. It was a moment of great anticipation, and those who marched in that great Dionysian rap dance were confident that if they put their feet down on history, then history would surely budge.

But the mood had changed dramatically by the end of the decade, and the political fortunes of the New Left quickly plummeted. There were many reasons for this, not the least of which involved covert intervention by the CIA, FBI, and other spy agencies. The internecine conflicts that tore the Movement apart were fomented in part by government subversion. But such interference would have been far less effective if not for the innate vulnerability of the New Left, which emphasized both individual and social transformation as if they were two faces of an integral cultural transition, a rite of passage between a death and a difficult birth. “We had come to a curious place together, all of us,” recalls Michael Rossman.

As politics grew cultural, we realized that deeper forces were involved than had yet been named, or attended to deliberately. We were adrift in questions and potentials. The organizational disintegration of the Movement as a political body was an outer emblem of conceptual incoherence, the inability to synthesize an adequate frame of understanding (and program) to embody all that we had come to realize was essential for the transformation we sought.

An autopsy of the youth movement would show that death resulted from a variety of ills, some self-inflicted, others induced from without. There was the paramilitary bug that came in like the plague after Chicago, a bug transmitted by provocateurs and other government geeks who were welcomed by the Movement’s own incendiaries. A vicious crackdown on all forms of dissent ensued, while domestic violence played on the TV news as a nightly counterpoint to the appalling horror of Vietnam. It was the war, more than anything else, that drove activists to the brink of desperation. If not for the war, the legions of antiauthoritarian youth would never have endured the totalitarian style of the dogmatic crazies and the militant crazies who combined to blow the whole thing apart.

“What subverted the sixties decade,” according to Murray Bookchin, “was precisely the percolation of traditional radical myths, political styles, a sense of urgency, and above all, a heightened metabolism so destructive in its effects that it loosened the very roots of  ‘the movement’ even as it fostered its rank growth.” In this respect the widespread use of LSD contributed significantly to the demise of the New Left, for it heightened the metabolism of the body politic and accelerated all the changes going on — positive and negative, in all their contradictions. In its hyped-up condition the New Left managed to dethrone one president and prevent another from unleashing a nuclear attack on North Vietnam. These were mighty accomplishments, to be sure, but the Movement burnt itself out in the process. It never mastered its own intensity; nor could it stay the course and keep on a sensible political track.

Now of course Steve Jobs never had any radical politics to begin with. His use of LSD was different from that of the Weathermen who took it in order to get them even more fucked up than they were. By 1970 a deep streak of nihilism had impacted the left making people like Mark Rudd look just six degrees of separation from Charles Manson.

For budding entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs, the drug probably had something of the same benefit as EST therapy had for others. If you wanted to succeed in business in the post-60s era, I suppose that some kind of rocket fuel was necessary. The old-fashioned Max Weber Protestant Ethic was inadequate for a changing world.

Back in 1967 when I applied for membership in the SWP, I understood that I had to stop taking illegal drugs. That was not much of a problem for me since I had grown bored with marijuana—a drug that I had loved when I first began using it in 1961. I had only taken LSD a couple of times. I had no idea why people like Timothy Leary or Steve Jobs could view it as some kind of mind-transforming breakthrough.

The second time I took it was at my neighbor Chip’s apartment on West 92nd Street, just a few months before joining the SWP. I was sitting on the sofa waiting for the drug to take effect when I noticed a painting on the wall that had a fish jumping out of the water—literally jumping out of the water. I smiled at Chip and asked him to open his hands which were clasped on his lap. I thought he was playing a joke. He had some sort of remote control device that made the battery-powered painting “come alive”, the kind of novelty that you might have picked up on 42nd Street. At least that’s what I thought at the time. When he opened his hands, I was stunned to see no such device and even more stunned to see hallucinogenic images all across the wall and ceiling. For about an hour and a half, I sat there enjoying my own private version of Walt Disney’s “Fantasia” until the drug worked itself through my bloodstream.

As a tool that would help me see the world in new ways, I have to confess—unrepentant Marxist that I am—that it was Leon Trotsky’s “History of the Russian Revolution” that did the trick for me instead.


  1. All my relationships have faltered due to clashes in interests rather than values, though values also come into it sometimes. I dated a girl for 2 years before finally saying “If I have to watch another CSI episode again I am going to kill your entire family”.

    Didn’t Zizek make some points about Japanese militarism and Zen Buddhism being perfectly compatible?

    Comment by Steve — October 24, 2011 @ 6:25 pm

  2. Didn’t Zizek make some points about Japanese militarism and Zen Buddhism being perfectly compatible?

    Well, if you want to call it that:


    Comment by louisproyect — October 24, 2011 @ 6:37 pm

  3. The “Sixty Minutes” program showed what a rotten human being Jobs was. But his taking LSD was part of the period, nothing more, nothing less. Do I detect here a vestige of the antidrug negativism of the SWP in Louis’s finding an ersatz drug in Trotsky? LSD in the early sixties was a far more powerful substance than it became later, and some of its devotees actually thought it could help liberate constipated and repressed minds. (I traveled on a ship from Rotterdam to New York in 1964 with two guys who were smuggling in large quantities of LSD from Czechoslovakia in sugar cubes at the bottom of a large trunk, and they were convinced it was the tool for human liberation.) I have always preferred pot, and ‘shrooms, which really can be life-enhancing. For a serious book, beautifully illustrated, on this subject, check out Plants of the Gods: Their Sacred, Healing, and Hallucinogenic Powers, by Richard Evans Schultes, Albert Hofmann (discoverer of LSD), and Christian Ratsch.

    Comment by David Thorstad — October 24, 2011 @ 6:40 pm

  4. Zen Buddhism is no more inherently militaristic than Marxism being inherently dictatorial. Each person who agree with Marxism becoming a kapo in a reeducation camp. Zen/Chan Buddhism is one of the major Mahayana groupings in China, Korea, Vietnam, and Japan. What occurred in Japan was the combination of certain strands of militaristic cultured being embued with “buddhism.”

    Comment by Erik — October 24, 2011 @ 6:42 pm

  5. I agree with Erik. My only point is that Zen is no better and no worse than other religions as far as violence and authoritarianism is concerned.

    Comment by louisproyect — October 24, 2011 @ 6:45 pm

  6. Didn’t Allan Ginsberg purportedly tame the Hell’s Angels with LSD?

    Comment by Greg McDonald — October 24, 2011 @ 7:26 pm

  7. Hey, it’s Allen, not Allan. Spoken as an editorial stickler. David

    Comment by David Thorstad — October 24, 2011 @ 7:38 pm

  8. Fascinating post. Iris Chang, in her “Rape of Nanking” mentions how Japanese Zen priests, supposedly “enlightened masters” openly cheered on Japanese troops in killing Chinese, in contests staged for Japanese newspapers. David Brazier in “The New Buddhism” (an attempt to portray the original teachings of Siddharta as a revolutionary ideology, ahistorical but a fun read) mentions similar stores of Zen teachers respected in the West who supported militarism. Brazier’s book made something of a stir in the Western Buddhist movement.

    The Buddhist Sangha has played a deeply reactionary role in Sri Lanka.

    I’ve had several profound acid experiences. At one time I thought meditation and spirituality could change the world. After reading Marx and Marxist thinkers I know why that’s not true.The world will probably still be a better place of more people meditated.

    Comment by Kate Devlin — October 24, 2011 @ 8:30 pm

  9. Jaron Lanier once remarked that what Jobs took home from his trip to the east was the aim to become a Guru himself, while most of the others wanted to become just themsleves.
    He probably succede at both.

    Comment by Michael — October 24, 2011 @ 10:45 pm

  10. I might also have sneered at Feldenkrais had I heard of it before I started having chronic pain from RSI, but I strongly suspect it might have prevented the injury. That’s often the problem with preventative health care.

    Comment by godoggo — October 24, 2011 @ 11:25 pm

  11. Astrophysics is more mind bending than anything LSD can come up with, and has the advantage of being true.

    Comment by purple — October 25, 2011 @ 5:14 am

  12. @11 – That is the sort of remark typically made by someone with no experience of LSD.

    Blood and Treasure has a good piece on what Jobs was really like.

    If not through Zen, how else can we get to grips with motorcycle maintenance?

    Comment by skidmarx — October 25, 2011 @ 9:27 am

  13. I thought LSD was much more interesting than reading Trotsky, but at this point Trotsky is what we’re down to…

    Comment by Robert Allen — October 25, 2011 @ 10:55 am

  14. Have you read Rudd’s memoir? The best of any Weather memoirs I have read, and he readily admits how screwed up and destructive the Weather stuff was. He went on to more productive things like Central American solidarity and construction brigade work in Nicaragua in the 80s. I don’t think he was by any means the worst of the Weather lot and far, far removed from Charles Manson (wasn’t it Bernardine Dohrn who made those disgusting comments about the killing of Sharon Tate?). By the way, one interesting thing about LSD use in Weatherman. As nutty as it was, it did tend to ‘out’ agents; the only agent who managed to get close to the centre of things actually admitted while tripping that he was, although he then managed to retrieve his situation.

    Anyway, very interesting article. I realise it’s about Jobs, Zen and LSD but it would be good to have some stuff about the conditions of workers in Asia that helped make him filthy rice. Very Zen!


    Comment by Admin — October 26, 2011 @ 2:56 am

  15. @12. skidmarx is right. Astrophysics makes a hell of a lot more sense after ingesting 5 hits of blotter acid atop a mountain peak. As a 2nd generation militant atheist I used to be baffled at the concept of spirituality. Not anymore. Now I know how the universe works down to the particle physics of quarks, black holes & dark matter. Turns out the only afterlife us mortals can attain is through our actions during life that leave their stamp upon history surviving only in the consciousness of others.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — October 30, 2011 @ 2:33 pm

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