Buddha in the Googleplex

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

Joan Duncan Oliver

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.

Photos courtesy Chade-Meng Tan

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