Buddha in the Googleplex
The search engine’s “Jolly Good Fellow” brings the dharma to Silicon Valley
By Joan Duncan Oliver
Summer 2009
SEARCH “GOOGLE AND BUDDHISM” on—what else?—Google, and it’s a safe bet that none of the 1,690,000 entries will cite the Internet behemoth as a stop on the Buddha Way. Yet amazingly, thanks to a 38-year-old software engineer named Chade-Meng Tan, the dharma appears to have infiltrated the Googleplex, the ur–search engine’s headquarters in Mountain View, California, in the heart of Silicon Valley. Meng, as everyone calls him (“Americans can’t do names with more than one syllable,” the Singapore native quips), firmly denies that he’s introducing Buddhism into corporate life, however. “I’m not interested in bringing Buddhism to Google,” he states. “I am interested in helping people at Google find the key to happiness.”
No small goal, but Meng is well positioned to deliver. After eight years as a systems designer, he now heads the company’s School of Personal Growth, one of four in-house schools comprising Google University. Google—named Fortune magazine’s #1 Best Place to Work for two years running—is jokingly called the Emerald City for its menu of perks that includes free gourmet meals, subsidized massages, volleyball games, and endless-wave swimming pools. But the personal growth program marks perhaps the first time a major corporation has added spiritual development to the list. “Google wants Googlers to grow as human beings on all levels—emotional, mental, physical, and beyond the self,” Meng says.
The concept isn’t as new agey as it sounds. There’s a practical side to developing well-rounded employees: they’re likely to be more creative and thereby contribute more to the bottom line. Since it started up in early 2008, the school has offered a variety of courses designed to expand employees’ horizons, from one on sleep taught by Stanford Medical School professor Dr. William Dement—a pioneering researcher who founded the world’s first sleep lab—to one of the most popular, the history of wine.
Among the initial offerings was a course on mindfulness-based Emotional Intelligence. So far, some 200 of the 20,000 or so Googlers at the Mountain View campus have been through the seven-week class, which covers the practice (and neuroscience) of meditation, as well as instruction in things like mindful listening and mindful emailing.
Known as SIY—for “Search Inside Yourself”—was developed in consultation with psychologist and author Daniel Goleman (who popularized the concept of emotional intelligence, or EI), along with Mirabai Bush, founder of the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, and Zen priest Norman Fischer, spiritual director of the Everyday Zen Foundation. Fischer continues to teach the course with Meng.
And self-development is only part of the story: just as important is “beyond the self’” training. The SIY curriculum includes, for example, modules on empathy and social skills. “The full development of a person has two aspects,” Meng says. “The intrapersonal aspect is wisdom; the interpersonal is compassion.” Spiritual development, he emphasizes, “has to include both creating inner peace and happiness and giving service and compassion to the world.”
Meng practices what he preaches. He established the Tan Teo Charitable Foundation in 2005 to promote peace, liberty, and enlightenment, and along with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, he’s a founding patron of Stanford’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. Meng is also indirectly responsible for introducing Google’s top executives to Dr. Larry Brilliant, the physician who heads Google.org, the company’s philanthropic arm. Brilliant, who helped eradicate smallpox in India and cofounded the Seva Foundation to address blindness in the developing world, was one of Meng’s invited speakers at the Googleplex.
Meng has also brought in a number of well-known Buddhist teachers, including Sharon Salzberg, Lama Surya Das, Matthieu Ricard, and the creator of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, Jon Kabat-Zinn. Meng’s own teacher, Shaila Catherine, founder of Insight Meditation South Bay in Mountain View, teaches a weekly class.
BEHIND ALL THIS is Meng the man. After graduating from a Catholic high school and Nanyang Technical University in Singapore and becoming an award-winning computer engineer, Meng came to the United States in 1998 for graduate study at the University of California at Santa Barbara. In America, his inquisitive mind found a natural home.
Joining Google in 1999, Meng worked on a variety of improvements to the search engine, including adapting it for Chinese-language use. Today, around Google headquarters, he’s equally well known for the wall of snapshots—titled “All the Presidents’ Meng”—that picture him grinning broadly alongside more than 200 political leaders, movie and media stars, and other assorted dignitaries. Here is Meng cozying up to Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Mikhail Gorbachev, Muhammad Ali, Robin Williams, Tom Brokaw, Jane Goodall, Jane Fonda, and Black-Eyed Peas frontman will.i.am, to name a few. Asked if there’s anyone else he’d like to invite to Google, Meng quickly names the Dalai Lama. “I think he’d have fun,” Google’s unofficial host observes.
Fun has been central to the Google ethos since its 1998 start-up, and in that respect, Meng fits right in. In fact, he’s something of a wag. His business card lists his title as “Jolly Good Fellow,” a play on the “Fellow” title bestowed on top-performing Google engineers (though not on Meng). His personal website, “Meng’s Little Space” (chademeng.com), cites his motto, “Life is too important to be taken seriously,” along with the unabashed self-assessment “As you might have guessed, I’m quite a funny guy.”
Back in 1995, Meng launched one of the first Buddhist websites, calling it “What do you think, my friend?” It includes classic texts, Buddhist tales, and—in keeping with what he describes as its “highly personal and practical approach”—questions and answers on the dharma, “contributions from ordinary people,” and—surprise!— Buddhist humor. Meng is thinking of changing the name of the site to the Jolly Bodhi, with the tagline “Because Buddhism should be fun.”
Even about his own practice, Meng can’t resist cracking a joke. Asked if his wife and nine-year-old daughter are also practicing Buddhists, he says, “My daughter and I sit for two minutes a day. That’s the full attention span of a child and an engineer.”
For all his wisecracks, however, Meng is a dedicated—if unorthodox—practitioner. Raised a cultural Buddhist, he was 21 before a talk by Sangye Khadro, an American nun living in Singapore, hooked him on the dharma. He studied with various teachers, eventually settling into a Vipassana practice.
Last year, Meng did a monthlong solo retreat—at Google headquarters: “I found a secluded corner and meditated.” As the retreat wore on, he noticed that “colors became more vibrant; I was able to hear my heart beat; I was able to differentiate between the moment of sensation and the moment of perception.” Above all, he experienced “an aftertaste of happiness throughout the day.”
One time after sitting, Meng recalls, “everybody looked attractive— not physically beautiful, but I liked them even more than before. I have a theory: this is the origin of social mind.” He likens it to what he observed as his daughter was growing up: “First she learned to smile and liked everyone, then she developed shyness, stopped smiling, and had a fear of people. Social mind develops between learning to smile and fearing people.”
Meng calls social mind “the foundation of compassion. If you like everyone you meet, then you want to help everybody. I had a glimpse of that without going to the mountain,” he continues. “There’s a Chinese saying: ‘The small retreat is in the forest and the big retreat is in the city.’”
Meng’s plans for the School of Personal Growth include introducing a course on happiness and one on shamatha (calm abiding). “The workplace is the best place to enlighten adults,” he insists. “To do that, you have to align people’s worldly interests with the interests of business.” The precedent lies in corporate exercise programs: “Just as we can help people get fit at work, we can help them get enlightened.” Meng foresees a day when every company will have a School of Personal Growth.
So is teaching meditation how he plans to save the world? “I’m not saving the world,” Meng corrects. “I’m trying to save the world. I have this image that I’m rowing my boat in the ocean, and the waves are very high. I can’t see over the waves, and I don’t know if the boat is going in the right direction. All I know is that I’m rowing. The only thing I can control is trying.”
From all appearances, he’s right on course.
Joan Duncan Oliver, Tricycle’s reviews editor, is the editor of Commit to Sit, an anthology of articles from Tricycle, published by Hay House in March.