LOS GATOS -- High above Silicon Valley, in the predawn darkness, a Zen Buddhist raises a mallet and strikes a dented evergreen plank. As the cracking sound echoes through the forest, the other residents make their way to morning meditation.
This is how every day begins at Jikoji, a Zen center stashed amid an open space preserve in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Though little known, the rustic retreat is the chief legacy in California of Kobun Chino Otogawa, a key figure in Zen's expansion from Japan to the United States last century.
At first glance Jikoji seems to occupy a different world from the humming plain more than 2,000 feet below. Here people seek to unplug from desires and distractions. There scurry the world's most plugged-in people. Yet a strong thread of history connects these places, owing to the influence of Jikoji's founder on one of the valley's greatest innovators, Steve Jobs.
Contemplation in nature
Jikoji, meaning "compassion light temple," occupies four redwood-framed buildings along an oak-shaded creek on the border of San Mateo, Santa Cruz and Santa Clara counties. Trails wind through the property and connect to the rolling meadows of Long Ridge Open Space Preserve.
The seven men and women who live at Jikoji spend their days meditating, looking after the 15-acre property and hosting visitors who stay anywhere from one night to a month in search of quiet contemplation.
The temple follows the ancient Soto Zen tradition. Zazen, or meditation, is the religion's central practice. Residents and visitors sit facing a wall twice a day for 40 minutes, eyes half-open, focusing on their breath. Thoughts are allowed to come and go like passing clouds.
For Brie Mathers, a newly arrived resident, there is something deeply nourishing about practicing in Jikoji's idyllic setting. On her morning walk to the zendo, or meditation hall, she often sees deer and wild turkeys rustling underneath the trees and brilliant stars overhead.
"I don't quite know how to wrap words around the soft beauty and intimacy that can be found as, from a cushion in the middle of a wilderness preserve, we look into the nature of being, at once seeking it and surrounded by it," said Mathers, collecting her thoughts in an email.
Meditation helped pull Mathers out of the eating disorders and depression that gripped her as a teenage athlete living a couple hours north of Toronto. She now teaches yoga and gives inspirational talks to girls on self-acceptance.
Other residents include John Flood, a 59-year-old former high-tech project manager, and Joe Hall, a 51-year-old Zen priest. Hall began meditating in his late 20s to quiet the incessant monologue in his head that commented on the outside world.
"I came to an awareness that 90 percent of what I was thinking was absolutely unnecessary," said Hall, who grew up in Davis, "but I had got into this habit of thinking all the time."
Kobun Chino Otogawa came to California in the late 1960s as a young, free-spirited priest to help Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, founder of the San Francisco Zen Center, establish Tassajara near Big Sur, the first Zen monastery in the United States.
He later became the resident teacher at a Zen center in Los Altos, where in the 1970s he met Steve Jobs. Kobun, as his students called him, became a spiritual mentor for Jobs, even officiating his wedding to Laurene Powell in 1991. He founded Jikoji in 1983.
Carolyn Atkinson, a former student who is a priest at the Everyday Dharma Zen Center in Santa Cruz, said Kobun was unorthodox. He didn't try to change his pupils, she said, but accepted them for who they were. According to Walter Isaacson's 2011 biography of Jobs, for instance, Kobun counseled the young entrepreneur against leaving the world of business to dedicate himself to spiritual pursuits.
And like Jobs, who studied Zen's teachings of compassion yet was known to belittle his employees, Kobun was a man of opposites. He was a master of Zen forms, or rituals, yet allowed his students to choose their own approach. His presence was profound but ephemeral.
"When he was with us, he was really present," Atkinson said of her teacher, who split his time between different temples. "At the same time he would disappear very easily. We never knew if he would be there or not, whether he was coming or going or staying or leaving."
Kobun ultimately founded several Zen centers in Northern California and beyond, including New Mexico and Europe. He died in 2002 while trying to save his 5-year-old daughter, Maya, who had fallen into a pond in Switzerland. Both drowned.
Here and now
Jobs' experience with Zen inspired the simple look and intuitive interface of Apple's products. So it is ironic that some of the late visionary's devices, like the iPod and iPhone, have helped make millions of Americans less present than ever before.
But for Atkinson and Hall, technology is not to blame for our distractedness, which is simply a new expression of an age-old problem. Our connectedness to the world and people causes us to suffer, not the things that connect us, Hall said.
"The challenge to be present and awake is different and unique for every generation, and yet it is always there, whatever the circumstances," noted Atkinson, who is one of Kobun's "Dharma heirs," meaning he permitted her to teach in his lineage. "That impulse -- to pull away, to shut down, to not be present -- that impulse is always with us."
Even though the rituals in the zendo stand outside the flow of time, in many ways the temple is adapting to the changing world. Mathers has launched a spa with a Zen twist, offering yoga lessons, reiki and other services. Hall, who maintains Jikoji's website, plans to offer workshops on Zen and technology.
"Jikoji is not an escape from the world. It is a place where we can explore our relationship to it," Hall said in an email.
"Meditation is not about finding the off switch, it is about developing the skills, focus, attention to the present moment, and curiosity needed to move fluidly with things as they change."