Buddha in the Googleplex

The search engine’s “Jolly Good Fellow” brings the dharma to Silicon Valley

Joan Duncan Oliver

Courtesy Chade-Meng Tan

All the President's Meng: Chade-Meng Tan with Barack Obama, John McCain, Al Gore, and Bill Clinton

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.

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