Monday, March 30, 2009

Life Story: Meeting His Holiness



I met His Holiness the Dalai Lama (HHDL) for the first time in November 2005, during his visit to Stanford University.  Back then, I was one of the big donors to Stanford for the creation of a Tibetan Studies program, so when the Dalai Lama visited, I was invited as a VIP guest to a luncheon in his honor.

Before meeting him, I was expecting to be disappointed.  I had certain expectations of what a holy man should be like, and I was pretty sure HHDL would NOT be able to meet my standards.  Yes, Hollywood celebrities adore him, and he wrote great books and had may quotable sayings, but ultimately, he is only human.  Also, in the cultural context I grew up in, we often hear about corrupt and/or completely Dharma-incompetent Buddhist monks, so I wouldn't have been surprised at all if HHDL was just another over-hyped bald dude.

It turned out, the Dalai Lama exceeded even my highest expectation.  Wow.  After meeting him, I wrote this short note to my friends (some erroneous details corrected from original email):


Friends,

His Holiness the Dalai Lama was in Stanford for a series of talks:
1. A meditation/teaching talk.
2. A public conversation where he fielded questions.
3. A dialog with neuroscientists and Buddhist scholars.

I attended (1) and (3), and watched parts of (2) on webcast.  I also attended a private luncheon in his honor, where he talked about his concerns for Tibet.  After every event, I became even more impressed with the man.  If I hadn't already decided to dedicate my life to Dharma and humanity, this visit by HHDL could have been a life-changing event for me.

In (1), His Holiness talked about the importance of mental peace for a happy life.  His target audience was young people.  There wasn't anything new in his talk for a semi-seasoned meditator, but what come out was HHDL's charisma, humanity, and sense of humor.  He laughs easily and enjoys making fun of himself.  He shared personal stories, like when he was young, his tutor would always carry 2 whips, and the one painted in yellow was specifically for him.  He talked about his regret of not taking English lessons seriously in his youth because, "Hey, I can always have an interpreter.  But now, you see, I speak with broken English".  The crowd adored him.  He always liked to say that he is really just a simple monk, and that he is always happy.  When hearing him talk, you get a sense that both claims are sincere.  I was amazed.

I had a chance to see him up close during the pre-lunch reception.  He was warm to everyone he met.   He smiled readily at people, held their hands, laughed easily, and all, without any of the airs and pretensions you would expect of someone with Secret Service protection.

During his lunch talk, the subject of Tibet came up.  HHDL expressed concern that the Tibetan culture would soon be destroyed.  You could tell this was a very painful subject for Tibetans because the Tibetans around us were either weeping or holding back tears, but he talked with such serenity, without a single trace of anger in his voice, and he repeatedly emphasized non-violence, mutual understanding, and his appreciation for the Chinese people.  I was sitting right in front of the stage (!), so I saw his eyes as he spoke.  At that moment, I was convinced that he was the Real Deal.  This was the guy who lost his country to a brutal invading force, witnessed helplessly for decades while his people were oppressed and/or tortured and his national culture being destroyed, and suffered hopeless exile while repugnant propaganda about him was being fed to a billion people.  Any man who went through all that lifelong crap should be reasonably expected to be brimming with hatred and anger.   But this man showed none of it.  All he had to show was compassion and humor.  I was awed.  (And he shook my hand).

I was further awed watching his dialog with neuroscientists.  Here he was on stage surrounded by prominent scholars, and he held his own among them very well.  He asked very intelligent questions and made very insightful points.  After a while, one begins to suspect that this laughing bald guy, who spent most of the time whispering with his interpreter, was the smartest person on stage.

The most amazing moment for me came when HHDL was responding to a question about compassion and suffering.  Referring to an earlier presentation by Bill Mobley which showed that similar parts of the brain light up when a subject experiences pain versus when he empathizes with somebody else in pain, His Holiness raised a major issue that nobody else had thought of.  Interrupting his interpreter, he explained in his broken English that there are at least 2 types of compassion, one for people close to oneself (which he called "limited compassion"), and one for strangers (which he called "genuine compassion").  Both are qualitatively different, and hence need to be studied separately. If the brain patterns for both are the same, "then I feel the brain is very foolish".  Everybody laughed.  Bill Mobley was so impressed he commented, "This is one of those experiences where you really understand how that incisive thinking completely defines a 20-year research program".

I was totally awed.  The Dalai Lama was not just a supremely likable man with a serene mind, a big heart, and a good laugh, he was very intelligent too.  Wow.  I didn't expect that.  I was blown away.

I don't know what else to say, except I'm inspired to be a much better person.

Metta,
Meng


After meeting the Dalai Lama, I told myself that when I grow up, I want to be just like him.  Except I want to have hair.  And sex.  That celibacy thing just doesn't work for me, sorry.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Random Thought: I am Perfect Just as I am

A long time ago, whenever I had to greet and meet somebody "important", I would introduce myself by saying, "I am nobody.  Because nobody is perfect".

I am reminded of this joke this week when I came across one of Shunryu Suzuki's cute, funny, beautiful, poetic, and frustratingly puzzling Zen sayings.  Suzuki-roshi said,

  "All of you are perfect just as you are, and you could use a little improvement".

The most frustrating thing, for me, was that I felt I almost understood Suzuki-roshi.  It would not have been frustrating if I had zero understanding of his little koan, but I understood just enough to annoy me.

Here is the part I understood:  I had experiences of meditation where my mind (temporarily) became very still.  It felt solidly unwavering and deeply calm, like a majestic mountain on a clear summer day.  And when the mind is that calm, all 5 Hindrances (Sensual Desire, Ill-Will, Restlessness, Sloth and Doubt) fade away, disappearing almost completely.  A mind without the Hindrances is like a prisoner being taken out of his rotting cell and allowed to take a warm bath with scented soap in the beautiful outdoors.  That mind is free, light and radiant.  It is beyond space and time.  It is wonderfully fertile soil for infinite joy, love and compassion to nurture and blossom.

When I was with that mind, I understood my perfection almost completely.  At my core, my default mind is limitlessly peaceful, happy and compassionate.  I am perfect.  All I have to do is to allow my perfection to manifest.  And we are all perfect in the same way.  All of us.  Perfect.  The only thing that needs to be done is to allow our perfection to be.  Perfection is not a state of becoming.  Perfection is a state of being.

Wonderful.  Here is my question.  That mind that understands and abides in perfection doesn't always stay that way for a regular guy like me with a real life and a day job.  That mind has only been accessible to me occasionally, and only after many hours of mindful stillness, and then, I go back to my real life.  It is like that prisoner occasionally allowed out of his rotting cell, getting his lovely bath, and then being told, "OK, enlightenment is over, back to your cell".  So my question is, when I'm not abiding in my enlightened mind, am I still perfect?  And given that I spend the vast majority of my time outside the enlightened mind, often being greedy, mischievous, angry, envious, lazy, lustful, ignorant and all (ie, being a bit of a jerk), am I perfect just as I am?  And if I'm so damned perfect, why do I need any improvement?

I think I figured out the answer.

The great Dharma teacher who led me to the answer is, as usual, my perfect little 9-year-old angel.  Like many parents of beautiful little angels they call their children, I feel that my own angel is perfect in every way.  Even when she's "naughty", even when she does things that are "bad", even when she makes me so angry I want to cry, my love for my angel is limitless and unconditional, and my angel is, to me, perfect in every way.

But if our angels are so perfect already, why do we need to teach them ANYTHING?  Why do we have rules for them?  Why do we tell them not to hit other kids?  Why do we punish them?  Why do we try to teach them "values" such as fairness, generosity, thrift and diligence?  The answer is very simple, we do it to protect them from suffering.  As parents, we understand that hitting other kids, not learning to play fair, being careless with money, and so on, are in the long term, causes of suffering for our kids.  So, in a way, our teaching them values does not increase or decrease their perfection in anyway, all it does is protect them from suffering, and freedom from suffering is a good thing.

My answer came when I looked back at myself with this mind, the mind of a deeply loving parent ("the grandmother mind", my friend Marc Lesser tells me), the mind that I normally reserve for my perfect little angel, I now use it on me.  And then Suzuki-roshi's cute little koan made sense.

The answer is that we are all perfect.  We all possess a mind that, at its core, is infinite in peace, love, compassion, happiness and wisdom.  It is a mind that is accessible to all of us with practice.  Just possessing that mind, that Buddha Nature, makes us perfect.  Whether or not we actually manifest that Buddha Nature in our daily lives, does not make us any more or any less perfect.  The "improvements" that Suzuki-roshi said we need, our deep meditational practices, our ethics, our charity, our expression of kindness and compassion etc, these are not for our perfection, our perfection cannot be increased or decreased by them.  Instead these practices are for our suffering.  In spite of our perfection, we are still capable of suffering, and all these practices are to free us from suffering.  

And freedom from suffering is a very good thing.  But, hey, that's just me.

Misc: Roger on NHK World

I'm not in the news today, but my baby brother, Roger Tan, is.  I'm very proud.


Sunday, March 22, 2009

Funny Thought: Things I Learned From McDonald's

1. I discovered a way to measure the degree of urbanization of any community. Just measure the McDonald's Density Index (MDI). For example, in rural areas, you need to drive for a long time before you see the next McDonald's. In a suburb like Santa Clara, you can drive in any random direction and chance upon a McDonald's within 15 minutes (I know, it was precisely what I did while checking out places to rent). In highly urbanized Singapore, if you stop anyone on the street and ask them to point you to the nearest McDonald's within walking distance, chances are they can. 

2. While sitting in a McDonald's restaurant in the middle of nowhere, I wondered to myself just how much of each dollar I was paying actually went to the food. I concluded that most of that dollar must go to rent, labor, business risk, and profits. But in real life, we don't really think of things in those terms. For example, I never go into McDonald's to ask for $5 worth of "rent, labor, business risk, and profits, and whatever meat, bread and sugared drinks associated with it". 

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Funny Thought: Just Enough Bad Karma

I just figured out something about Bodhisattvas.

You see, a Bodhisattva is an Enlightened Being who, out of great compassion for all, decides to forgo Final Enlightenment by turning back from it just before reaching it, in order to return to Samsara (the realm of suffering, where we are) to save all suffering sentient beings.

I figured it must be a tough balancing act.  On one hand, the Bodhisattva must have developed enough good karma to reach Enlightenment, but on the other hand, he must carry some bad karma so he can turn back.

Hence, I realize, it is important for a Bodhisattva to commit Just Enough Bad Karma.

Which is why, instead of driving a Prius, I drive a large Lexus SUV.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Funny Thought: Engineer or Monk?


The Dalai Lama said, "If I had not been a monk, I would have become an engineer." (Source

Which was very interesting to me because, if I had not been an engineer, I might have become a monk. You think I'm kidding. 

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Life Story: Three Easy Steps to World Peace (Part II)

In August 2007, I told Lama Surya Das that I had a three-step plan towards world peace (see previous post, "Three Easy Steps to World Peace").  Lama replied in jest, "Three steps is too many, try doing it in one step".  

And I said, "Sure.  Venerable Sir, here is my one-step plan to world peace....  In three parts".  That was when my daughter elbowed me and said, "Yeah, very funny, daddy".

As mentioned in my previous post, my plan was to enable the people of the world to develop inner peace, happiness and compassion, thereby building the foundation for world peace, and to do so by making the benefits of meditation accessible to humanity.  The three steps towards achieving that are:

1. Start with me, be the change I want to see in the world.
2. Make meditation a field of science, just like medicine.
3. Align meditation with real life, make it useful and relevant for real people.

I talked about steps 1 and 2 in some detail in the previous post.  This post is about step 3.

I know of a historical precedence for step 3, and that precedence is exercise.  In 1927, a group of scientists started the Harvard Fatigue Laboratory (HFL) to study exercise.  I imagine it must have been hard back in the 1920s for a group of respectable scientists to decide to "waste" their careers studying something as "frivolous" as exercise, but they did it anyway.  Today, with the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to see that their work has changed the world.  The pioneering work at HFL created the field of Exercise Physiology.  One of the most important things they discovered was that a fit person becomes physiologically different from an unfit person, so by exercising, you become much healthier and can operate much more effectively at a physical level.

Today, thanks to the contribution of those pioneers and others, exercise has acquired at least four important features:

1. Everybody knows that, "Exercise is good for me".  There is no more debate at all.  While it is true that not everybody takes the trouble to work out, even those who don't work out know that they should and that it is good for them.

2. Everybody who wants to exercise can learn how to do it.  The information is widely available, trainers are readily accessible if you want one, and most people probably already have friends who work out who can tell them how to exercise.

3. Most people can exercise at work, often encouraged by their employers.  Many companies have gyms and many people can exercise at work, because companies understand that healthy and physically fit workers are good for business.

4. Exercise is taken for granted.  Exercise is so taken for granted today that when you tell your friends you are going to the gym to work out, nobody looks at you funny and thinks you are some New Age crank from San Francisco.  In fact, it is now the reverse.  If you, for example, argue against the benefits of exercise, people look at you funny.


In other words, exercise has now perfectly aligned with the modern lives of real people.  It has become fully accessible to all, and humanity benefits from it.  I want to do the same for meditation.  I want to create a world where meditation is treated like exercise for the mind, possessing all four features of exercise discussed above:

1. Everybody knows that, "Meditation is good for me".
2. Everybody who wants to meditate can learn how to do it.
3. Most people can meditate at work, often encouraged by their employers, because it is good for business.
4. Meditation is taken for granted.  Everybody thinks, "Of course you should meditate, duh".


Once again, we return to the same question, "How".  How do I create a world where meditation is taken for granted like exercise?  Months of thinking and numerous false starts later, I found the answer, almost by accident.

The answer came when I read Daniel Goleman's best-selling book, "Emotional Intelligence".  I had a slightly embarrassing reason for taking the time to read that book.  My dear friend, Dr Larry Brilliant, who was then the Executive Director of Google.org, had been a close friend of Daniel Goleman for a very long time.  Dan was visiting Google to speak at a company-sponsored event, Larry was taking the opportunity to hang out with him, and he invited me to come along.  I didn't know much about Dan back then, but I was very excited because Larry is such a wonderful person that I consider any friend of Larry's to automatically be a friend of mine, and I was excited to meet a new friend.  Besides, Larry is one of those true bodhisattvas who worked his entirely life to serve humanity and save the world, so I suspected that anybody who is Larry's close friend probably has a golden heart like him too.

Out of courtesy to both Larry and Dan, I figured the least I could do before meeting Dan was to read his most famous book before I actually met him.  Reading that book gave me an "Eureka" moment.  I had found my vehicle for aligning meditation with real life, and that vehicle is Emotional Intelligence.

You see, everybody already has a rough idea what Emotional Intelligence (EI, sometimes known as "EQ") is.  More importantly, everybody knows that, "Emotional Intelligence is very useful for me".  Even without fully understanding EI, many people know or suspect that EI will help them fulfill their worldly goals in life, such as becoming more effective at work, getting promotions, earning more money, working more effectively with other people, being admired, having fulfilling relationships, and so on.  In other words, EI aligns perfectly with the needs and desires of modern people.

EI has two more important features.  Firstly, beyond helping you succeed, the greatest "side effect" of EI is greater inner happiness and increased empathy and compassion for other people, precisely what I wanted to achieve for the world in my plan for world peace.  Secondly, a very good way (and I suspect the only way) to truly develop EI is with contemplative practices starting with Mindfulness Meditation.

Eureka!  I found it!

The way to create world peace, then, is to create a Mindfulness-based Emotional Intelligence curriculum (which may even be the first effective EI curriculum in the world for adults), perfect it within Google, and then give it away as one of Google's gifts to the world.  The alignment is perfect.  Everybody already wants EI.  Businesses already want EI.  I can show them how to achieve it.  They can then become more effective at achieving their own goals, AND at the same time, create the foundations for world peace.

When I finally met Dan, I could hardly contain myself.  I was passionately explaining my world peace plan to him, almost banging on the table.  I was going like, "This is world peace we're talking about, Danny, world peace!".  Dan was visibly a little uncomfortable.  There he was, coming to Google and meeting a bunch of Larry's friends and co-workers for the first time, and then there's this crazy young guy with a funny job title wanting to create world peace with him.  The scene was a bit comical.  Yes, the road to great achievements is often paved with moments of comic absurdity.

Dan and I subsequently became friends.  Through Dan's and Larry's connections, I got to know two more amazing people, Mirabai Bush and Norman Fischer.  Mirabai was the Executive Director of the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, a very compassionate woman who is a very close friend of both Dan and Larry and whom, like Larry, gave her adult life to the service of humanity.  Norman is perhaps the most famous Zen Master in America today.  I was especially impressed by Norman.  He is very wise, intelligent and knowledgeable, and he is deeply spiritual yet very grounded in worldly reality and very good at applying deep practices to daily life.  Norman just radiates depth and wisdom.  It's hard not to be impressed by him.  With Dan, Mirabai and Norman, I now had people with the curriculum expertise.  All I needed after that was to convince somebody in Google to sponsor this course, which Google University eventually did (the details of which is a good story for another time).

Under the sponsorship of Google University, Mirabai, Norman and myself worked together to create a curriculum for a Mindfulness-based EI course (actually, it was mainly Mirabai and Norman, I was just an ignorant little engineer sitting in the room with the wise ones), while Dan became our Advisor, offering us the gift of his expertise and wisdom.  Sitting in a room with both of them, Mirabai was like a mini bodhisattva radiating her compassion, while Norman was like a mini arahat radiating his wisdom.  Mirabai and Norman did this work under contract for Google and, officially, they reported to me.  Having a mini bodhisattva and a mini arahat reporting to me, one sitting on my left and the other on my right, I felt like a mini buddha.  (Yes, please feel free to worship me, thank you very much).

While curriculum development was going on, I formed an extremely diverse all-volunteer team to implement the course.  The team consisted of Joel Finkelstein, a massage therapist, David Lapedis, a recruiter, Dr Hongjun Zhu, an engineer, Rachel Kay, a learning specialist, and myself, the Jolly Good Fellow of Google.  Dr Peter Allen, the Director of Google University, was the patron saint of the project and an active participant.  Members of the team were promised absolutely nothing in return for their thankless, unpaid hard work, except the opportunity to save the world.  Surprisingly, they all wanted in.  Amazing what people will do for world peace.

The name of the course was Search Inside Yourself (SIY).  The name was suggested by Joel.  Everybody laughed when he suggested it.  I didn't really like the name at first, but my philosophy is that if everybody laughs, it must be the right thing to do.  So I agreed to it.

From October to December of 2007, we ran SIY for the first time in Google.  It was, by most measures, a very successful pilot.  That success allowed us to run subsequent, much improved iterations.  (The details of SIY is the topic for another post).

And, thus, all three parts of my plan for world peace were now in place.  It was now simply a matter of execution.  It was like having put a ship together, all we had to do now was to actually sail it to where we needed to go.  What started as an impossible dream in 2003 to create world peace has become an actionable plan by the end of 2007.  My life is very strange.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Life Story: Three Easy Steps to World Peace (Part I)

Sometimes, strange things happen to innocent people.  Especially when that innocent person is me.

One beautiful summer day in 2003, I was taking an afternoon walk in the grounds surrounding the Google campus, just minding my own business.  And then something strange happened to me.  A strong aspiration to save the world suddenly solidified in me, for no good reason at all.  I just stopped and made a solemn promise to myself that one day, if I achieve financial independence, I will dedicate my life to humanity.  For as long as I can remember, I have always had a desire to do something big and important for humanity.  It was a thought that existed as a constant, faint background buzz in my mind, it just never really solidified until that lovely summer day.  Why it suddenly did, I don’t have the faintest idea.

A year later, in 2004, the door of opportunity opened up for me.  One August day that year, I suddenly had real money.

Becoming financially-independent was a strange experience for me.  It literally happened overnight.  It started the evening before Google when public.  I went to bed at night, and when I woke up next morning, I was rich on paper.  I didn’t do anything different, all I did was go to sleep.  Wow.  This sleep thing really worked, I should do more of it.

I remembered what I did on IPO day.  I came to work in the late morning, read news about the IPO on the web, high-fived my co-workers, and then went back to work writing code.  That was it.  That day was little different from any other workday for me, except for the high-fives and a few very embarrassing seconds worth of victory dances.  Very surprising, I know.   You would think that an event as important as achieving financial independence would feel like the psychological equivalent of a major earthquake.  But no, it was almost a non-event on the day it happened.  It just didn’t “sink in”.

In retrospect, I think I was in denial.  I believe that, to some large degree, many of us were.  I remember telling myself that by the time *I* got to sell, *my* stocks would be worthless.  And then when I got to sell and my Google stocks didn’t become worthless, I remembered telling myself other excuses why all this good fortune can’t possibly happen to me.  Maybe I was going to lose all my money in some stupid ways, maybe I would be caught by some weird tax trap, and when I had a minor skin rash due to an allergy, I thought I was going to die a victim of some cheap cosmic humor (like, “Yeah, very funny, God”).  I think this denial is a defensive mechanism to protect us from disappointment.  We instinctively deny the sudden arrival of unlikely good fortune, so that we won’t be too disappointed when it all turns out to be a mirage.  I think that is why unlikely good fortune and unlikely great success take a while to “sink in”.

For me, it took a few months, mainly because I was prevented from selling the majority of my Google stocks until 6 months after the IPO.  But eventually, it sunk in.  Sometime in early 2005, it hit me.  I caught myself thinking, “Omigod, I actually have real money!”

I never forgotten the promise I made to myself, that when I became financially independent, I would dedicate my life to humanity.  So the first thing I did was to found a tiny family foundation dedicated to the modest mission of “Peace, Liberty and Enlightenment in the World”.

I didn’t want to stop at just giving my money away, though.  I was sure there was something more important I could do for humanity.  And I knew exactly what that something was.  I was going to try to bring about World Peace.

The basic idea was very simple.  Every prior effort at creating world peace has failed.  The reason is that people have tried to create world peace by imposing social or political structures upon people.  In other words, they tried to create world peace from the outside in.  That didn’t work.  My idea is to do the reverse, to create world peace from the inside out.  If we can find a way for everybody to develop peace and happiness within themselves, that inner peace and happiness is going to manifest into kindness and compassion.  And if we can create a world where most people are happy, at peace, kind and compassion, it creates the foundation for World Peace.

But how do we do that?  Does such a methodology even exist?  Fortunately, there is an easy answer to this question.  That answer is yes, such a methodology does exist, and it has already been practiced by various peoples for thousands of years.  It is the art of using contemplative practices to develop our minds.  Most of us know it as “meditation”.

Meditation, at its simplest, is the training of attention.  With enough meditative training, one’s attention can become unwaveringly calm, stable and focused.  With that enhanced quality of attention, one’s mind can easily, and for extended periods, become highly relaxed and alert at the same time.  With that combination of relaxation and alertness, three wonderful qualities of mind naturally emerge, serenity, clarity and happiness.  How do those qualities come about?  Here’s an analogy: think of the mind as a snow globe that is shaken constantly.  When you stop shaking the snow globe, the white “snow” particles within it eventually settle, and the fluid in the snow globe becomes calm and clear at the same time.  Similarly, our minds are normally in a constant state of agitation.  With deep mental relaxation and alertness maintained over a sufficiently long duration of time, the mind settles into the first two of the three wonderful qualities, serenity and clarity.  The third wonderful quality, happiness, is not captured by the snow globe analogy.  In fact, it may be a little surprising and not entirely clear why that a relaxed and alert mind would automatically be happy.  It turns out, there is a very beautiful reason behind it.   Happiness is the default state of mind.  When the mind is unagitated, all we’re doing is allowing our minds to go back to its default, which is happiness.  (This amazing insight can be life-changing, for it suggests that happiness is not something we need to create, but something to simply return to.  Happiness is already there all the time, all we need to do is to allow it to emerge.  Fascinating stuff, but the details of which is beyond the scope of this post).

Inner happiness is a contagious quality.  When a person allows her inner glow of happiness to emerge and flourish consistently and frequently, people around her tend to respond more positively to her.  It’s very intuitive, if you meet someone who is often positive and smiling naturally, it becomes a lot harder to be nasty to her, it may even take real effort sometimes.  Hence, the meditator may find that her social interactions tend to become increasingly positive, and since we are all social creatures, positive social interactions have a strong tendency to create happiness within us.   A happy virtuous cycle thus establishes.  The meditator’s inner happiness improves her social interactions, which in turn increases her happiness, and so on.  As this cycle becomes stronger, the meditator may find herself becoming increasingly kinder and more compassionate.  Again, it’s very intuitive.  If the vast majority of our social interactions are very positive, it naturally leads our minds to increasingly like other people, and the more we like people, the more we instinctively wish for them to be happy and free from suffering, hence the natural strengthening of kindness and compassion.

In addition to this natural growth of kindness and compassion arising from inner happiness, there are meditational practices to develop and strengthen those beautiful qualities as well.  For example, there is a popular practice called Metta Meditation (Metta means “loving kindness”), where you  begin by bringing to mind someone you naturally have strong loving kindness towards (eg, a beloved child, a best friend or an admired teacher), wish that person well (perhaps by thinking aloud the words, “May you be happy, may you be healthy, may you be free from harm”, and so on), and allow those emotions of loving kindness to “marinate” in your mind for a couple of minutes, and then bring up images of other people (a person you merely like, a person you’re neutral towards, and a person you dislike, in that order), wish those people well, and see how much feeling of loving kindness you can generate towards them.  The idea behind this practice is to break old mental habits and form new ones.  For example, if your mental habit everytime you think of Dick is to naturally generate a feeling of dislike, but if you use Dick as the final object of Metta Meditation everyday, then after a while, your mind may start to associate Dick with a positive feeling since everytime you think of Dick in that meditation, your mind was “marinated” in loving kindness and you were wishing him well.  After a while, you may find yourself no longer disliking Dick and you may have to find a new object for the last part of Metta Meditation.  (Eventually, you may even run out of people you dislike, which can be annoying for the purpose of this meditation, but is not a bad problem to have, really).  This and other meditational practices work best for a mind that has been trained to have a high level of calm, stable and focused attention.

My main point is this:  It is entirely possible to train and develop our minds to create inner peace, happiness, kindness and compassion.  The best part of this training is that we don’t even have to force ourselves to have those qualities, they are all naturally already within each of us, all that we need to do is to create the conditions for them to emerge, grow and flourish.  And the way to create those conditions is meditation.  With meditation, we allow ourselves to become much happier and much more compassionate people, and if enough of us do that, we create the foundation for world peace.

Hence, in a serious way that is almost comical, the secret active ingredient in the formula for world peace is something as simple as meditation.  It’s such a simple solution to such an intractable problem it’s almost absurd.  Except it may actually work.  World peace may actually be achievable in this way.

This insight led me to one of my Eureka moments.  I have found my life’s goal.  My life’s goal is to make the benefits of meditation accessible to humanity.  Note that I’m not trying to bring meditation to the world.  I’m not even trying to bring its benefits to the world.  All I intend to do is to make its benefits accessible to the world.  That’s all.  The way I see it, all I’m doing is opening the door to the treasure room and telling people, “Here, all this previously hidden treasure you can now see, feel free to take any of it that you want, or not”.  I am merely a door-opener.  I’m so confident that the transformative power of contemplative practices is so compelling that anybody who understands it will find it irresistible.  It will be like offering the secrets of health (e.g. hygiene, nutrition, exercise and sleep) to unhealthy people who previously didn’t know them.  Once people understand and begin to experience the benefits of health, there is no going back, it’s just too compelling.

But, how?  How to make the benefits of meditation accessible to humanity?  The answer to that question is something I half-jokingly call Meng’s Three Easy Steps to World Peace.


Step 1: Start with Me

The first step is the most obvious, I need to become the change that I want to see in the world.  Towards this end, I came up with an almost measurable goal for myself, that by the end of my lifetime, I want to create in myself the capacity to be kind to everyone all the time.  I want to become like the Kindness Channel, all kindness, all day.  (“Next, on the Kindness Channel, ‘When Kindness Strikes’.  Coming up at 9, 8 central”).  It’s an audacious goal, but hey, if I’m audacious enough to try to save the world, I’m audacious enough to attempt this too.


Step 2: Make Meditation a Field of Science

To become widely accessible, meditation needs to become a field of science, the same way medicine became a field of science.  Like meditation, medicine had been practiced for countless generations, but ever since medicine became a field of science starting the 19th century (beginning, perhaps, with Pasteur's research into micro-organisms), everything about medicine has changed.  I think the most important change was access.  When medicine became scientific, it became greatly demystified, new tools, equipment and methodologies become available, and training and certification of service providers greatly improved.  In other words, a lot more people gained access to good medicine.  I want to see the same thing happen to meditation.

Back in 2005/2006, I decided this is where I can make an important contribution.  I am scientifically-minded, I am a very successful engineer, I am familiar with meditation as a practice, I am highly intelligent, and I have money.  Perhaps this is where I belong.  I started my adventure by writing an email (more of a mini-manifesto) to my Buddhist friends explaining that meditation needs to become scientific and inviting all to initiate an effort to make meditation training "data-driven".  The response I got back was completely underwhelming.  Some people didn't think making meditation scientific was very "Zen", others liked the idea but were not particularly excited by it.

I finally found one person excited by it.  One of my friends, Tenzin Tethong, forwarded my email to Dr B. Alan Wallace.  Alan replied to me immediately and told me how excited he was about it, and that he has been working on a very similar effort for the past six years.  Why?  Because the Dalai Lama told him to!  I was amazed.  None of my meditating friends (many of them men and women of science) were excited by the marriage of meditation and science, but the Dalai Lama was.  It was then that I knew I was on the right track.  Surely His Holiness and myself cannot both be wrong at the same time.

Alan and I became good friends very quickly.  After a while, through learning more about Alan's work and related research by other scientists, I concluded that given the Dalai Lama's enthusiastic support, this effort is going to move forward with or without me.  This effort is in good hands.  I decided to do nothing more here beyond providing financial support, and focus my personal energy on step 3 Below.


Step 3: Align Meditation with Real Life

For the benefits of meditation to become widely accessible to humanity, it cannot just be the domain of bald people in funny robes living in mountains, or small groups of "New Age" folks in San Francisco.  Meditation needs to become "real".  It needs to align with the lives and interests of real people, the Joe the Plumbers of the world.  This, I suspect, is the most important of the 3 steps, and the one where I can make the most impact.  But how?  That's a topic for another post.

(Read Part 2 of this story)