Sunday, December 15, 2013

Search Inside Yourself is a best book two years in a row

Last year (2012), Search Inside Yourself was named by San Francisco Magazine as one of the Best Bay Area Books of 2012 (link).

This year (2013), Search Inside Yourself was named by Bloomberg as one of the Best Books of 2013 (link).

I don't really know what to say, except I'm deeply honored and humbled.  Thank you.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Search Inside Yourself is #1 in Taiwan

I have just been informed that the Traditional Chinese edition of Search Inside Yourself was the #1 bestseller in Taiwan!  (It was #1 back in August, but I just found out today.)

I am really grateful to my Taiwanese editor Juliette Ting (丁慧瑋).  I know she worked really hard on this book.  She read over the draft so many times that she can probably recite it by heart by now.  I'm also grateful to the translator Hsieh Yifei (謝儀霏) and my Chinese-language advisor Dr Yang Lei (楊蕾博士), both of whom spent many hours working with me on the translation.

And, of course, I'm most grateful to my readers from Taiwan.  Thank you!

For those of you who read Traditional Chinese, here's a fuller list of people I'm grateful to for this edition (taken from the Acknowledgement section of the book):
我小時沒專心學好中文,長大後長期在美國定居,所以中文文學程度越來越差。幸好我有許多華裔朋友一直幫我,還耐心助我過目此中文版(耐心到連一次都沒有敲我的頭)。我最要感 謝的是好友楊蕾博士。其他朋友包括龔水怒、施成軍、孫青、林中智、孫果明與郭曼文。還要感謝中文版編輯丁慧瑋與譯者謝儀霏,她們常要為我特別加班,不過也沒辦法,誰叫我長得這麼帥,這麼令人難以抗拒。

Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Art of Suffering is Love

Thich Nhat Hanh

Having spent 3 days with the great Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh (known affectionately as “Thay”) this week, I realized there is a big blind spot in my practice: I haven’t really learned to suffer.

My spiritual practice over the past 22 years has been the practice of peace, joy and kindness.  Over the years, I have learned to calm my mind and access joy on demand, in most situations.  I have become so skilled at doing this that it has become my main coping mechanism in the face of suffering.  Whenever I suffer, I calm my mind, I activate joy, and I overcome suffering like a kungfu master easily overcoming his enemies.

Sadly, it turns out that I’m still human, not (yet) buddha.  Not being a buddha means I’m not invincible to suffering.  There are situations in life where the suffering is so overwhelming that my skillfulness with accessing joy is not strong enough to overcome it.  In those situations, I just grind my teeth and endure, knowing that all mental phenomena are impermanent and that eventually, I will (likely) come out at the other end (mostly) intact.  In other words, when my access to joy fails, my fallback coping mechanism is sheer endurance of pain.

The most valuable thing I have learned from Thay in the 3 days I’ve spent with him is that there is such a thing as an “Art of Suffering”.  There is a way to suffer that is far more skillful than sheer endurance.  More importantly, this “knowing how to suffer” is an important part of one’s spiritual growth.  From my (probably incomplete) understanding of Thay’s teaching, there are 3 steps in suffering skillfully.

Step 1:  Calm the mind.  Always, first and foremost, calm the mind.  Do so by coming home to body and mind, in the present moment.  Specifically, bring full attention to at least one in-breath.  Stop thinking.  Don't think, just feel.  By not thinking for even the 3 seconds it takes to attend to the in-breath, one calms the body and mind.

Step 2:  Cradle with tenderness.  Cradle the pain like a mother cradles her crying baby.  The mother doesn't know why the baby is crying, but she cradles the baby anyway, and just by doing that, the baby feels better.  Similarly, treat the pain like a baby and cradle it tenderly with love.

Step 3:  Cultivate compassion from this suffering.  Compassion arises from understanding of suffering.  Suffering is like mud, compassion is like lotus, and you need the mud to grow the lotus.  So, understand the suffering, and allow that understanding to turn into compassion.  When compassion dominates the mind, suffering naturally fades away.

If there is one word that summarizes all 3 steps, I think that word is “Love”.  Love oneself enough to allow the space for oneself to suffer, without shame or judgement.  In suffering, there is nothing to be ashamed of, there is no reason to hide, it's just the natural experience of suffering, that's all.  Love oneself enough to allow the space and time to heal.  Love oneself enough to cradle one’s own pain tenderly with kindness.  And love all sentient being enough to want to cultivate compassion.

The Art of Suffering is love.

I am reminded of a story I heard from Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev a few weeks ago.

Once upon a time, there was a "hard yogi" (a yogi who practices “hard yoga” like standing on one leg for years on end and so on) who had been practicing for 30 years.  This yogi met the great Ramakrishna and asked him, "Even after all my years of hard practice, there is something not in me that I sense is in you.  What do I need to do so that what is in you is also in me?" 

Ramakrishna asked, "As a yogi, have you ever loved anybody or anything?"  The yogi was initially offended and answered, “No, of course not.”  But after much prodding by Ramakrishna, he admitted to once loving a cow many years ago.  The yogi lived in the forest far away from people so he could concentrate on his practice, but kept a cow in his hut for the milk.  (I am told that cows in India live in people’s houses and people develop strong emotional bonds with them.)  After a while, our yogi started to really love the cow and became very attached to it. 

One day, a wandering yogi passed by the hut and asked to stay for a few days.  The hard yogi welcomed him with open arms and invited him to stay for as long as he wished.  But after just one day, the wandering yogi left the hut in the middle of the night without telling his host, which in Indian culture, only happens when the guest is deeply offended by the host.  When the hard yogi realized his guest was missing, he chased down the wandering yogi and asked why he left in such a manner.  The wandering yogi said in disgust, "It is obvious that you love the cow.  You are not a true yogi."  The hard yogi realized the visitor was right, so he gave the cow away.

When Ramakrishna heard the story, he told the hard yogi, "Here is what I want you to do.  I want you to get a cow and take care of it for one year."  The hard yogi did that.  He learned to love the cow.  And a year later, he met Ramakrishna again and said to the master, "What is in you, I now also have it in me."

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Meng lies about his book

Dear Readers,

Back in April, I told you that the release date of the paperback edition of my book has been postponed to 5 November 2013 (see post).  Well, my editor Gideon has just informed me that information has now become a lie: the release date has now been moved to 2 September 2014.  The reason continues to be strong sales.  Today, for example, the Amazon Best Sellers Rank of the hardcover is an amazing #496.  Because sales for the hardcover has been so strong, HarperCollins decided to move the paperback release date even later than originally planned.

I asked Gideon to make a funny comment about this so I don't have to funnify what he says, but he responded, "I fear being funny is best left to the Buddhists."  Good thing I'm a Buddhist, or there will be nobody around here to make the jokes, dammit.

Speaking of lies, remember when I told you I would donate 100% of my book profits to charitable causes?  Yeah, about that, so far, I've been giving away more like 200% of my book profits.  So I'll need to earn another 100% from my book to make it not a lie.

But seriously, my friends, I couldn't have gotten this far without readers like you.  Thank you.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Radical Generosity

The board of the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute (SIYLI, pronounced "silly") met this week and unanimously decided to adopt "Radical Generosity" as SIYLI's Prime Directive.  It will guide our every action and decision.  Actually, we have been using "Radical Generosity" as a guiding principle for all decisions for a while, the board simply decided to make it official.

I'm so proud of this board and this organization.  I'm honored to serve as its chairman.

And to end this post, here is a beautiful short video on generosity.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Meng on CNBC

On Friday, 20 September 2013, I was invited to appear on CNBC's Power Lunch on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange (you can watch it at:

Near the end of the program, I guided almost 10 seconds of silent meditation.  Put that in context, my friends: Almost 10 seconds of silent air time, on live television, on CNBC, at the New York Stock Exchange.  I suspect I may be the only person ever to pull that off.

I think this almost ranks among the coolest things I have ever done, almost up there with speaking at the UN and the White House, being on the front page of the New York Times, meeting world leaders, getting hugs from the Dalai Lama, and eating dinner with Jimmy Carter.

Monday, September 16, 2013

One Billion Acts of Peace

In May 2013, Dawn, Ivan, Jessica and myself spoke at the United Nations to initiate a campaign to inspire one billion acts of peace in the world supported by 13 Nobel Peace Laureates.  Here is the video of our speech.  We also wrote about our experience in the Huffington Post here.

A Billion Acts of Peace from Landmark Ventures on Vimeo.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Peace in every mind, joy in every heart, compassion in every act

All my friends know that my career goal is to create the conditions for world peace in my lifetime.  But every now and then, somebody asks me, "How will you know when you're successful?"

For a long time, I didn't have an answer.  Well, I do now.  We would have successfully created the conditions for world peace when there is:
Peace in every mind,
Joy in every heart,
Compassion in every act.
That is all.  Simple. 

Let's all make it happen.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Taming hatred with insight

(Image: )

I try to always be good to everybody.  Because of that, people tend to be nice to me, so I seldom have the opportunity to experience ill-will towards anybody.  However, no matter how good you are to people, there is always a non-zero probability that somebody will hurt you very badly every now and then.  On very rare occasions, somebody hurts me so deeply I even experience hatred.

The last time I experienced hatred, I learned something of profound importance.  After I was able to calm the mind (which required all my meditative training and every last ounce of my mental energy, by the way) the mind began to develop the ability to clearly see the suffering arising from hatred.  First, the mind was able to clearly perceive when it was in a non-hatred state and to rest in that state.  When hatred arose (which happened many times a day when I was most deeply hurt), the mind was strongly drawn to it, and then just after it crossed the threshold into hatred, it immediately recognized the suffering arising from it.  In this state, the mind could clearly see there there is nothing here but pain and suffering.  And mind understood that hatred is painful like a naked fire burning one's hand and that withdrawal from it is the only choice.  So mind withdrew back into the state of non-hatred just as one's hand instinctively and effortlessly withdraws from a naked fire.

The clear mind is fascinating to behold.

This is an extremely important lesson to me.  It suggests that the best way to overcome hatred is to develop the clear insight that hatred is nothing but a painful state of mind.  There is nothing in there but suffering, suffering, and more suffering.  When the mind can see it that clearly, it quickly, instinctively and effortlessly withdraws from hatred, like one's hand withdrawing from fire.  Because of that, it no longer suffers from hatred.

Thus, insight brings about freedom from hatred.

I suspect this is true not just of hatred, but also of all mental afflictions.  If we are able to clearly perceive the nature of suffering in them, we will then quickly, instinctively and effortlessly withdraw from them like we withdraw from fire.  And eventually, we will be free of those afflictions.

I think that is why the Buddha said, "Monks, all is aflame ...  Aflame with the fire of greed, the fire of hatred, and the fire of ignorance."  Seeing thus, one is free from greed, hatred and ignorance.

Update (2013/08/28): Changed title from "Overcoming hatred through insight" to "Taming hatred with insight".

Friday, August 23, 2013

The role of joy in sustaining uninterrupted attention

(image source:

In July 2013, I hit a milestone in my meditative practice.  I managed to maintain uninterrupted attention on the breath for about one hour.  "Uninterrupted attention" means the attention doesn't leave the breath, but the attention is not exclusive to the breath.  There are still distractors, mind is still drawn by thoughts, sounds and sensations, but mind never loses touch with the breath.  My previous record was about 30 minutes (achieved in 2006 after sitting for 3-4 hours every weekday for almost a month).  This one-hour milestone was achieved at the end of a 5-hour sit.  Four hours of painful, seemingly hopeless struggle, ending with one hour of calm uninterrupted attention.  Very surprising.

I investigated the state of mind that is highly conducive to uninterrupted attention in meditation, and found that it has a very particular characteristic as relating to mental energy.  That state of mind is more subtle than the normal awake state (probably higher in alpha brainwaves and lower in beta).  It has some tolerance for mental chatter, but only if that chatter is "soft".  If that mental chatter gets too "loud", uninterrupted attention breaks.  In other words, too much mental energy breaks that state.  The other thing that breaks uninterrupted attention is on the other side of the mental energy spectrum: when the mind drifts towards sleep.  In other words, too little mental energy also breaks that state.

That means that the mental state that enables "uninterrupted attention" seems to exist on a very narrow energy band that is just below the fully awake state but just above the drowsy state.  That is why that state is so hard to maintain.

From an engineering perspective, there seems to be two ways to solve that problem.  One is to increase the width of that energy tolerance band.  The other is to become more skillful at maintaining one's mental energy within a narrow band of tolerance.  I suspect the answer is: do both.  I haven't yet fully figured out how, but that line of inquiry led to a really important discovery: the role of joy in maintaining uninterrupted attention.

Buddhist meditative tradition identifies at least two types of joy, each qualitatively different from the other.  They are piti ("energetic joy") and sukha ("non-energetic joy").  My current finding is that piti is the sustaining factor of uninterrupted attention.

This finding begins as a question which leads to a key insight that is so retroactively obvious it sounds like a stupid joke.  The question is, "Why does the mind wander or drift to sleep during meditation?"  The obvious answer (and key insight) is, "Because the breath is not sufficiently interesting.  Duh."  I realized the mind gets seduced away by sounds, thoughts, etc because each instance of a distractor is more interesting to the mind than the breath.  Even the internal commentary on the meditation is more interesting (to the mind) than the meditation itself.  On the other end of the spectrum, the mind drifts to sleep because even the sleep is more interesting than the breath.

That suggests that a possible strategy is to solve that problem of the breath (and/or the meditation process itself) being insufficiently interesting.

I reflected on the time I sustained an hour of uninterrupted attention (corroborated with data from subsequent shorter sits), and here are some findings:

- The main mental factor that enabled my one hour of uninterrupted attention was energetic joy (piti).  Specifically, it felt identical to the joy of playing a challenging game.  It was initiated when I suddenly found myself "in the groove" of a good attentional mode and then deciding to play it like a video game.  There was an element of excitement.

- I realized it was the same as practicing for a sufficiently difficult skill, such as surfing, juggling, skating, etc.  The key motivator that motivates the repeated practice necessary for mastery is "fun", specifically the piti that arises out of the fun.

- This is why the motivating factor at this stage is piti, not sukha (non-energetic joy).  Piti is the sense of fun, sukha is the sense of contentment.  Contentment does not motivate you to practice a difficult skill which you are not yet proficient at.  I think this is why piti is one of seven factors of enlightenment while sukha is not.

- The big complication: at a low skill level, piti is only a sustaining factor, not an initiating factor.  In other words, it only kicks in after you "get in the groove" and it starts to become fun, it doesn't kick in before that.  For example, juggling practice only becomes sustained by fun after you can juggle for 3 to 4 throws.  If you keep losing the ball after the second throw, it's no fun, so the fun cannot initiate the practice.  Of course, at sufficiently high skill level, fun can become the initiating factor, but it takes a certain high skill level.

- The extra big complication for meditation:  Too much piti itself becomes a distractor in meditation.  That is because in meditation, the most important factor is letting go, and too much gross excitement interferes with that.  This problem does not occur for the physical skills (like juggling) where letting go is not the most important success factor.

I spoke to one of my main teachers, Shaila Catherine, about these findings.  Shaila says what I reported are actually mentioned in the Abhidhamma, I just independently re-discovered them.  She also added a few important points from the Abhidhamma:

- The immediate causes of piti are directed attention and sustained attention (vitakka and vicara, respectively).  When vitakka and vicara are strong, piti arises as a consequence.  On a practical level, therefore, the skillful meditator focuses on mastering the attention factors (pun not intended) and then have faith that piti will eventually arise.  Once piti arises, it becomes the key sustaining factor for uninterrupted attention.

- The meditator should not try to arouse piti intentionally.  Piti should be a natural consequence of vitakka/vicara.  Arousing piti, even if possible, is unskillful and causes hindrance to progress.

- And yes, at this stage, piti is the sustaining factor of attention while sukha is not (even though sukha is present whenever piti is).  One important reason being that piti is much more of a pure mental factor than sukha is, sukha is more closely related to the senses.

I feel so lucky that I'm surrounded by enlightened masters.  And,  yeah, it always delights me when something I discovered turns out to be already mentioned in some sacred text.  :)

Friday, August 9, 2013

My approach to leadership

My approach to leadership is very simple.  It only has 2 parts:

1. I love people, and I try my best to behave in ways that inspire love and admiration from my people.

2. I don't give a damn whether my people love or admire me.

I think that combining [1] and [2] is very powerful.  Many leaders I observe can only do one or the other, so they are less effective than they could be.

Update 2013/08/10: Evelyn Woods calls it "unconditional leadership".  I really like it.

Friday, June 21, 2013

My speaking / teaching engagements in Singapore in July

I try very hard to turn down all speaking requests this summer so that I can have more time for my meditative practice (eg, I'm doing 2-3 hours of daily sitting meditation at my home temple). Here are the engagements I could not turn down.  Please feel free to come by.

6 - 7 July: I'm speaking at the 8th Global Buddhist Conference.  President Nathan will be speaking there too.  (link)

13 July: I'm teaching a full-day meditation workshop (10am to 4pm) on Joy.  Hosted by the Buddhist Youth Network at the Vimalakirti Buddhist Centre.  (Registration link).

21 July: I'm teaching a full-day meditation workshop (10am to 5pm) on Joy. Basically the same workshop as the one on 13 July, but hosted instead by Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Monastery at its Dharma Hall.  (Registration link).

30 July: I'll be speaking in Nanyang Technological University's Eminent Speakers Series.

Update (2013/07/06): Added registration links.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Shinzen Young on the in and out of attention (and enlightenment)

Yesterday, I wrote about arriving at the mind of voluntarily quieting all narrative thoughts.  I sent it to one of my main teachers, the great Shinzen Young, for his comment.  As usual, he blows my mind with the depth of his wisdom.  In his reply to me (quoted below), he tells me that what I am experiencing is only one of four possible paths towards enlightenment ('enlightenment' with a small 'e'), and goes on to explain the other three.  Fascinating stuff.

As usual, Shinzen gives me blanket permission to make public anything he writes to me.

Dear Meng,

Thanks for the report. Clearly you are making significant progress (but you don't need me to know that :) ).

In terms of the way I like to formulate things, the insights that you're having are related to the interplay of inner activity (See In, Hear In, Feel In) and outer activity (See Out, Hear Out, Feel Out).

Attention is in some ways like a pendulum. Sometimes it gets tugged towards inner activity. Sometimes it gets tugged towards outer activity. However the physical pendulum metaphor is incomplete and misleading because for the attention pendulum there are two other possibilities. For one thing, it can be pulled in both directions at once (outer activates and at the same time inner also activates -- usually in reaction to outer). A fourth possibility is that both inner and outer activity contract to Rest/Gone simultaneously.

When outer expands but inner contracts, one has that delicious experience that you described. When inner expands and outer contracts, people typically are lost in the default mode network--memory, plan, fantasy, judgment, problem solving, confusion, etc. However, it is possible for outer activity to contract and inner activity to expand without necessarily being caught in our thoughts and emotions. The Focus In technique is designed to allow that to happen. This is one instance of the "divide and conquer" paradigm for enlightenment.

So one way that enlightenment can occur is when outer completely expands and inner collapses to zero, and we notice it. You're starting to taste that. Another way that enlightenment can arise is that inner expands, outer contracts, but there's huge concentration, clarity, and equanimity with regards to the arising of inner. Another way that enlightenment can occur is that outer and inner both simultaneously expand into activity but they're both in a flow state, so they become a single wave of emptiness. Another way that enlightenment can arise is that both outer and inner both simultaneously contract. There's no self and there's no world. One abides in the Unborn. Zen Master Línjì (Rinzai臨濟義玄) describes this in his Four-Fold Summary (四料简). (See addendum below.)

In your report, you describe how, when inner activity contracted, outer activity became more salient. But you also described how "giving yourself" to outer activity can cause inner activity to contract. And yes, you're right on both accounts, these are two sides of the same process.

Couched in my language, your experience of “seeing without seeing”, came about through expansion of conscious See Out and contraction of subconscious See In. By subconscious See In I mean the subliminal spread of visual associations. Hence the phrase "see without seeing" is logically correct. There are analogous experiences of hearing without hearing and feeling without feeling. (Or more generically “outing” without “ining.”)

Also, you got an important insight into the complimentary nature of samatha and vipassana. Actually, one of my pet peeves is that many people inappropriately separate these two aspects of practice. There are circumstances where the distinction between samatha and vipassana can be helpful but there are also circumstances where it makes no sense and can actually be misleading. My personal approach to this issue was called samathavipassana yuganaddha by Ananda (see Yuganaddha sutta) and Zhǐguān Shuāngyùn (止观双运) by the Tiāntái masters.

Another one of my pet peeves is the use of the phrase "direct experiencing." (Sorry about that :) ).  A more accurate phrase would be "experiencing outer activations without inner reactions." The reason why I object to the phrase direct experiencing is that it seems to imply that "experiencing outer activations without inner activations" in and of itself is the ultimate goal of the practice. As I see it, the ultimate goal of the practice is to dramatically elevate the base levels of concentration, clarity, and equanimity. A consequence of achieving that is the ability to experience outer activations without inner activations. But another consequence of that is the ability to totally allow inner activations to occur but without any identification or coagulation or unconsciousness around them and experiencing inner activity in such a state also deserves to be called direct experiencing. To eulogize Out and demonize In could cause an imbalance in a person's practice.

Having said that, I also must acknowledge another fact: by consistently experiencing outer activity without inner reactions, one can, with time, develop the generic skills needed to do exactly the opposite. And that's precisely the breakthrough that you're reporting. So good work and thanks.


The Four-Fold Summary* (四料简)
Zen Master Línjì (Rinzai臨濟義玄)


Shinzen's translation:

After evening practice, the Master addressed the community saying:
“Sometimes I rip away the person but leave the surroundings.
Sometimes I rip away the surroundings but leave the person.
Sometimes I rip away both the person and the surroundings.
Other times I rip away neither the person nor the soundings.”

A monk then asked:
“Can you say some more about ripping away the person but leaving the surroundings?”

The Master responded:
“Plants flourish beneath the torrid sun covering the earth with brocade, the lambent hair of the little child glistens as bright as silk.”

The monk asked:
“Can you say some more about ripping away the surroundings but leaving the person?”

The Master said:
“The king’s orders are obeyed throughout the kingdom. At the borders, the general has quelled rebellion.”

The monk asked:
“Can you say some more about ripping away both the person and the surroundings?”

The Master said:
“All lines of communication have been severed. Totally alone in One Spot.”

The monk said:
“Can you say some more about ripping away neither the person nor the soundings?”

The Master said:
“The king ascends the jeweled palace. The peasant sings in the field.”

* Taisho Tripitaka Vol. 47, No. 1985 鎮州臨濟慧照禪師語錄

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Becoming able to not think

In the weeks leading to December 2012, I begun having increasingly frequent moments during meditation where I voluntarily stopped thinking (at least the narrative / chattering mind became completely quiet) and the mind had enough clarity to abide in that space of no-thought.  But everytime it happened, it'd only last one moment, because the next moment, the narrative mind would say, "Hey, look, no thought!  D'oh!"

Starting 7 December 2012, I sat in a short 3 days retreat led by Jon and Will Kabat-Zinn.  I made a huge stride forward.  During the retreat, I became able to arrive at that mind of no-thought repeatedly, and each instance a little longer than it normally would (but still short enough to qualify as "a moment").  I investigated that mind and found that it has 3 features:

1. "Direct experiencing" is very strong, specifically the experience of sensation.  There is brain science that shows the "direct experience" network to be mutually exclusive to the "narrative" network in the brain, and I think I have discovered it experientially.

2. Specifically, audio sensitivity is very high.  In that mind, I became very sensitive to sound.  At first, I wasn't sure of the direction of causality, I thought it was attention to the sound that led to the mind of no-thought, since I was close to a water fountain at the time.  So I moved far away from it to a "quiet" spot and found that, in that mind, I became very sensitive to the air conditioning sound.  Hence, it seems like the no-thought mind lead to heightened audio sensitivity.

3. Seeing without seeing.  I had a very strange visual experience, which I could describe only as "seeing without seeing".  I could clearly see, but I could not perceive visually.  I investigated it and figured out what happened.  In that mind of no-thought, the gaze of the eyes was fixated on one spot.  I realized that when we "see" a scene, the eyes are actually scanning the entire scene and then the mind forms a mental picture.  When the gaze is fixated, the mind could not form the mental picture and hence it did not "see".  When I returned to seeing "normally" (ie, allowing the eyes to scan the scene), that subtle activity alone was enough to break the no-thought mind.

And then I realized something more profound.  I realized that what Jon Kabat-Zinn calls "awarenessing", which is being here now and attending entirely to the present (especially to sensations) creates the conditions for no-thought mind, which in turn creates the conditions for quietness of mind, which then creates the conditions for samadhi (concentration and serenity).

In other words, "awarenessing" is the secret ingredient in developing the ability to completely quiet one's mind of thought.  Wow.

Given that insight, I wrote to myself:
Having nowhere to go and nothing to do.
Sensual excesses vigilantly restrained.
Generously treating all with kindness.
Mind is ready.

Letting go of all past and future.
Joyously mindful of this present moment,
Every moment.
Right now.

I allow the mind to settle on its own.

Letting go of all desire to restrain the mind.
Just letting it settle on its own.
In whichever way it wants.
In its own time.

Thus, applying skillful effort,
Samadhi arises effortlessly.

(Since March 2013, so many things have been happening in my "real life" that I temporarily lost the ability to completely quiet my mind of thought, but happily, I know how to regain that ability as my practice deepens to match the increased challenges in my "real life".)

Update (2013/06/17): The great Shinzen Young comments on this.  See link.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Chinese (Traditional) edition of Search Inside Yourself launched

The Chinese (Traditional) edition of Search Inside Yourself was launched on 27 May 2013!  As of today (10  June 2013), it is #5 on the bestsellers list in the "Psychological Inspirational" sub-category at (link).  It is also #21 on the overall bestsellers list for new books (link).

The publisher says the book is selling so well it is already being reprinted.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Chinese (Simplified) edition of Search Inside Yourself launched

The Chinese (Simplified) edition of Search Inside Yourself was launched on 1 June 2013!

You can find it on (here) or (here) or (here).

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Vesak Day Poem 2013


On Vesak Day this year, I sat in meditation for two hours at home.  During the last half hour or so of my sitting, the full moon shined brightly on my face through my high window.  The moon light reflected around the metal rim of my glasses and, through slightly-open eyes, it was a truly beautiful sight.  I felt great joy.  More than usual, I mean.

The next day, during my sitting meditation, I found the mind more concentrated than usual.  Near the end of the sit, through the same high window, I noticed a lone star.  One, tiny, singular beautiful speck of light.

Inspired, I wrote this poem:
Sitting. Full moon shining on my face.
Smiling. Dharma shining in my heart.
Watching. A single star in the sky.
Knowing. A speck of wisdom in my mind.
And the Chinese version:
(Yes, thanks to the beauty of the Chinese language, readers of Chinese may find subtleties not present in the English version.  For example,  止观 means "stop and see", and it also means shamatha, which was my state of mind at the time.)

Sunday, May 19, 2013

My speeches in Seoul

Back in March 2013, as part of my visit to Seoul, I was invited to speak at an event called Sebashi.  It is known to be "the TED of Korea" and is organized by the Christian Broadcasting Service (CBS).  They have a big audience and are very selective about their speakers, so it is a great honor to be invited.  Being an ignorant young foreigner, however, I didn't have the slightest idea.  All I knew was my publisher had put a speaking engagement on my calendar and that I was supposed to deliver a 15 - 20 minutes speech to "change people's lives".  I was like, sure, whatever, I'll do it.

When I arrived, the producer asked me, "What is the title of your second speech?"  And I was like, "What second speech?"  It turned out that I was supposed to deliver two 20-minute speeches, not one.  Yikes.  I had 10 minutes in between make-up and waiting for the event to start to create another 20-minute speech.  I didn't try to escape by climbing through the open window in the toilet.  See, kids, this is what separate the men from the boys.

One of the 2 speeches below was put together in 10 minutes.  Identifying which one is an exercise left to the reader.

As if that is not enough last-minute pressure, the producer also said to me, "We know you are a prominent Buddhist, and our audience is mostly conservative Christians, so we like you to be mindful with your use of words."  From his body language, I could tell it was his courteous Asian way of communicating what an American would say, "Don't F this up."  The good news is after I finished speaking, my hosts had nothing but huge smiles on their faces.  I never doubted the trans-religious appeal of my message, but it's good to see my hosts coming to the same conclusion.  I'm guessing my trans-religious good looks didn't hurt either.

The third video below is my conversation with the audience together with Dr Si-Hyung Lee, a distinguished Korean psychologist and author of numerous best-selling books.  He wrote a very nice review of the my book which starts with, "I have nothing more to say other than to call him a genius."  We had a great conversation and a lot of fun together on stage.

And here they are:

Three Easy Steps to World Peace

Joy Becomes You

Conversation with Chade-Meng Tan and Si-Hyung Lee

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

I am one year old today (as a published author)

My first book Search Inside Yourself was published exactly one year ago on Tuesday, 24 April 2012.  It has been an amazing ride.

In 2010, as the Search Inside Yourself program in Google started becoming increasingly successful, I felt the need to write down the things I teach in class to help with training of new instructors.  As I was writing down the notes, it occurred to me that I was actually writing a book.  So I asked Google for 13 weeks of unpaid leave to write the book.  My manager Karen May asked me whether it was realistic to expect that I could write an entire book in 13 weeks, and I said to her, "I don't know, but I know one way to find out."  It turns out Karen was right, I was not able to write the book in 13 weeks.  It took me 14 weeks.

After I wrote the book, I asked my seriously talented friend Colin Goh, an award-winning cartoonist, filmmaker and former lawyer (yeah, I know, some ridiculously high percentage of my friends are world-class over-achievers) if he was willing to do cartoons for my book.  This is a serious, important book about wisdom, and I cannot imagine writing a serious, important book about wisdom without cartoons.  Duh.  In a moment of weakness, Colin said yes.  He would later tell his friends that this project re-ignited his passion for comics, which later led him and Yen Yen to create Dim Sum Warriors.  So if and when Dim Sum Warriors becomes a huge hit, I hereby lay claim to be its equivalent of John the Baptist.

And a book was born.  Well, almost.  We had a complete script with toons, all it had to do was to go through the publishing process, which I naively thought would take maybe 3-6 months, max.  I later learned that from the time a completed script reaches the publisher to the time your book hits bookstore shelves is 12 to 18 months.  Ouch.


Anyway, looking back on the journey, here are the biggest highlights:

- The #1 highlight for me was the simultaneously humbling and awe-inspiring experience of witnessing the sheer number of my heroes who stepped up in support of my work.  Danny Goleman and Jon Kabat-Zinn BOTH agreed to write forewords.  The Dalai Lama, President Carter, President Nathan and Eric Schmidt endorsed the book (I later learned that even the Dalai Lama actually read the book himself!).  I had a glimpse of how rare it is for a former President to endorse a book when I had a debate with my publisher on whether the job title of "President of the United States" should be written with a capital 'p'.  My publisher had to dig really hard to find a precedence for the presidents.  Verdict: Proper English dictates the use of the small 'p', and proper English won that round.   Proper English sucks.

- I set such ridiculously stringent hiring critiera for my literary agent that I expected not to hire anyone because I didn't even think that such a person existed.  I found her, Stephanie Tade, in 2 weeks.  She even took the Bodhisattva Vows.  How many successful literary agents in the world do you know took Bodhisattva Vows?  Probably one, and I found her in 2 weeks.  I have a dream editor, Gideon Weil.  He is ultrasmart, has an impeccable track record (edited for Deepak Chopra and Thich Nhat Hanh etc), he is passionate about the book, and we had not had a single problem working together.  I feel literally lucky, but not in a literal sense.

- I met with the good folks from HarperOne on a Wednesday.  They gave me a "preemptive offer" on Thursday.  We came to a verbal agreement on Friday.  Done.  Stephanie told me it is very rare for an unknown first-time author to land a compelling preemptive book deal in 3 days.  I told her I had no idea.

-Foreign publishing rights were sold to publishers in 13 languages even before the English edition was published.  Gideon told me it is almost unheard of for an unknown first-time author.  I like to think my good looks transcend cultural boundaries.

Search Inside Yourself was a New York Times bestseller the first week it was published.  It also landed on bestsellers lists in Singapore, South Korea and Portugal.  I lost count of the number of media interviews I did (like 50?).  I was invited to speak at the White House.  President Carter had me speak at an event he was hosting and gave my family hugs.  Wow.

The whole thing blows my mind.


Looking back on my first year as an author, here my biggest surprises:

1. The numbers in the publishing industry are small.

Having grown up in Google where we think of everything in units of 1 million or 1 billion, I had naively expected to sell maybe 1 million copies of my book (because that is the smallest unit I'm used to thinking in) and I thought that at a million copies, it would be considered merely a moderate success.   I was in for a shock.  The first hint of my naivete was when Search Inside Yourself was featured on the FRONT PAGE of the Sunday Business section of the New York Times, and my editor Gideon got all excited because he expected that coverage to sell maybe one or two thousand more copies.  I was like, really?  Two thousand?  For front page coverage on the New York Times?  Really?  He was right.  I also learned that selling a few thousand copies in a week is enough to get your book on the New York Times Bestsellers List.

I later learned from Colin and others that fewer than 20% of all books sell more than 5000 copies in their entire lifetimes, and most sell fewer than 3000 copies.  Wow, numbers so tiny they are almost cute.

2. The numbers are also imprecise.

Again, having grown up in Google, I expected to be able to easily find out exactly how many books I sold at which location to the minute.  Ha!  In reality, I get a statement once every 6 months with an estimate of sales.  It's an estimate because the publisher only knows how many books they shipped to the booksellers, and they guesstimate how many will eventually get returned.

So all I know is I sold roughly 35,000 copies in the US in the first year, and maybe a comparable number outside the US (15,000 copies in South Korea alone, I love the Koreans).  Search Inside Yourself was the #1 bestseller in Singapore and I don't even know how many copies were sold there (I asked, but received conflicting numbers).

3. Being a bestselling author changes your life.

I had no idea my life would change.   I may be the only person in the world surprised by this.  When I became a bestselling author, I expected people to start ignoring me.  Why?  Because they can now access what I teach by reading my book, so they have no more need to talk to me, right?  I know you are all laughing at me right now, I'll pretend you're laughing with me.

At first, I didn't really understand why I was getting so much more attention.  And my wife wisely explained to me, "Because you are now famous and people want to talk to famous people.  You of all people should understand that."  Touche.

4. There is such a thing as a success crisis

It takes a very long time to become an overnight success.  But when you do become an overnight success, it is easy to suffer from something called a success crisis.  Two symptoms of a success crisis are: constantly feeling overwhelmed, and constantly feeling inadequate.

When you succeed in a publicly visible way, people ask for your attention all the time.  Dear old friends want to reconnect.  You make new friends left and right.  People want to tell you that you changed their lives.  People send you their resumes, ask you to endorse their books, speak at their events, appear on their shows, be interviewed by their newspapers.  They want to show you the new new thing they are inventing that will change the world, they need advice about life from you, they hope to drink tea with you, they ask you to please talk to their adult children suffering from some major life issues. 

Very soon, your inbox constantly contains hundreds of unread emails, your next open lunch spot is weeks away, and your old friends have to come to your public talks just to get a minute of face time with you.  It gets a little overwhelming.  Of course, when I say a little, I mean a lot.

The dominant feeling that arises from that is feeling inadequate all the time.  At any one time, there are always 10 important things you need to attend to, so any one thing you choose to attend to means 9 important things you are choosing not to attend to at the time.  Whoever you choose to serve, there are many others you have to choose to disappoint.  Sometimes, really important things get dropped.  You forget to file your purchasing order before the closing deadline, you forget to schedule a teacher for the class you need to be substituted for until the day before class, etc etc.  And because the number of people or things not getting the attention they deserve at any one time always far exceeds those that do, you feel inadequate all the time.

The sense of failure becomes a constant companion, and that constant companion smells like he hasn't showered since the 1970s.

Happily, I'm supposed to be an expert on Search Inside Yourself (Marc Lesser says it is almost as if I wrote the book on the topic), so I have been equipped with all the tools to handle challenges like these.  I know how to calm my mind on demand, I know the cognitive strategies for letting go, and all.  So these challenges haven't affected the calmness and happiness at the core of my being.  Still, it is fascinating for me to witness how they arise in my mind.

I am one today.  I am happy.

I want to close this reflection with a word of gratitude.  You might think that becoming a successful author is a solitary achievement.  Noooooooo....  Like everything else, the success of an author is the result of the hard work of very many people:  the illustrator, the agent, the editors, the sales and marketing folks, the people who designed the cover and layout, the lady who operates the printing machine, the guy who drives the delivery truck, etc etc.  Nobody succeeds on his own.  Everybody who succeeds does so on the effort of other people.  Thank you, my friends.  Thank all of you for all that you do, and for being my friends.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Proust Questionnaire: Chade-Meng Tan

My answer to the Proust Questionnaire.

What is your present state of mind?
I am happy.  I am at peace.  I am overwhelmed by my to-do list.

What is your idea of happiness?
A deep sense of flourishing that arises from an exceptionally healthy mind.  An optimal state of being built upon a profoundly peaceful mind and loving heart.  And chocolate.

What is your greatest fear?
Death.  My own, especially.

Which living person do you most admire?
His Holiness the Dalai Lama.  He gives me hugs.

What is your greatest extravagance?
Permitting myself to be a glutton.  Fortunately, while gluttony is my favorite sin, vanity is my second favorite sin, and they cancel each other out.  My next greatest extravagance is permitting myself to be lazy, but happily, laziness is not a sin.  Oh, it is?  D’oh!

What words or phrases do you most overuse?

What is your most marked characteristic?
I am paradoxical.  Examples:  I strive hard to be lazy.  I am a famous unknown.  I’m so rich I’m working for food.  I desire to not want.  Often, I am not here, where I am.  I am an engineer who wrote a bestseller on emotional intelligence.  I’m a deep meditator who plays Grand Theft Auto.

What is the trait you most dislike in others?

What natural gift would you most like to possess?
Natural perfection in wisdom and compassion.  Either that or stunning good looks.

How would you like to die?
Very young, and very very late.

Where would you like to live?
In a paradise with great Chinese food.  Sadly, Santa Barbara only satisfies one of the two criteria.  No, seriously, I love living in the Bay Area.  I can live here for the rest of my (very long) life.

If you died and came back as a person or thing, what do you think it would be?
Either a saint, or a playboy, or a saintly playboy.

What is your favorite journey?
The inner journey towards oneness with everything.  Much easier than going on a long road trip with young children.

Which historical figure do you most identify with?
Maybe someday I will be considered a historical figure, and if that happens, the historical figure I most identify with will be me.

Who are your heroes in real life?
Every person of great wisdom and compassion who uses those qualities for the benefit of all sentient beings is a hero of mine.  There are many of them amongst us.  I see great people.  Walking around like regular people.  They don’t know they’re great.

Who is your favorite hero of fiction or history?
Siddhartha Gautama, the historical Buddha.  Buddhas kick ass, but not usually in a literal sense.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?
I learned to calm my mind, to love people, and to be happy.  Every other achievement in my life is merely a bonus.  And, oh, I was named Time Magazine’s Person of the Year in 2006.

What is your motto?
Life is too important to be taken seriously.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

An easy case of the hardcover

Usually, about a year after a book is published in hardcover, the paperback edition is released.  My book Search Inside Yourself has been out almost a year, and still there is no word of an upcoming paperback edition.  Why?  Is there a global conspiracy preventing its release?

No, there isn't.  Well, there is probably a global conspiracy somewhere (hey, just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not after you), but that's not why the paperback is delayed.  Instead, the reason for the delay is continued strong sales.  My publishers tell me the book is still selling so well that they decided to keep it in hardcover a little longer.  The new release date for the paperback is 5 Nov 2013.  They assure me that very few books continue to sell so well that they'd still be published in hardcover after a year, so it's all good. 

Besides, hardcover books make better paperweights and table legs.

Jokes aside, the only reason the book is still selling so well is because of you, my readers.  As usual, I could never have done this without you.  Thank you!

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Don't promote Buddhism, instead, serve all people

The Venerable Pomnyun Sunim
(Image from:
During my trip to Korea in March 2013, I was invited to a private audience with the Venerable Pomnyun Sunim, whom I was told is the most famous and respected Zen monk in Korea and a globally-noted humanitarian leader.  I really enjoyed meeting him.  He radiates an abundance of wisdom, compassion, and joy.  I hear many people say they greatly admire him, and it is easy for me to see why.

The most memorable part of our conversation was when Venerable Pomnyun, knowing I'm a practicing Buddhist, wisely reminds me not to promote Buddhism, but instead serve the welfare of all people.  He puts it this way, "Becoming a Buddhist doesn't necessarily make you a better person, for example, domestic violence and divorce rates are no lower for Buddhists than the general public."  I pointed to him and said, "True, but the divorce rate for celibate Buddhist monks is zero."

I think it is pretty remarkable for a highly prominent Buddhist monk to tell a well-known lay Buddhist, in private, not to promote Buddhism, but instead focus on serving everyone.  My non-Buddhist friends were stunned when they heard this, but this attitude is not new in Buddhism.  In fact, the example was set by the Buddha himself.  This is the story of how Upali became a disciple of the Buddha:

Upali was one of the chief followers of the Jain master, Mahavira. Because of his intelligence, Upali often appeared in public debates on behalf of the Jains.

There was one incident where Upali had a debate with the Buddha. At the end of the debate, Upali was so impressed with the Buddha's teachings that he asked to be the Enlightened One's follower. "Venerable Sir, please allow me to be your follower".

To that, the Buddha answered, "Upali, you are at the height of your emotions. Go home and reconsider it carefully before you ask me again."

Upali was extremely impressed.  He said, "If it was any other guru, he would parade a banner saying, 'Mahavira's chief lay-disciple has become my follower.'  But you, Venerable Sir, you asked me to go home and reconsider. Now, I want to be your follower even more. I will not stand up until you accept me."

Finally, the Buddha agreed to accept Upali, under one condition, "Upali, as a Jain, you have always given alms to Jain monks. After you become my follower, you will CONTINUE to give alms to Jain monks. This is my condition."

Upali agreed to this condition. He became a disciple of the Buddha.

Two grinning Buddhists, obviously up to no good.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Search Inside Yourself Now a Bestseller in Portugal

The Portuguese edition of Search Inside Yourself has just become a bestseller in Portugal.  According to my Portuguese agent José, the most important bestsellers list is the one from FNAC, a major retailer in Portugal, and on that list, Search Inside Yourself debuted at #7.

Thank you, friends from Portugal, for all your support.  As always, 100% of all my profits from this book will go to charitable causes.

Update (2013/03/22): It's at #4 this week.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Gavin Newsom Searches Inside Himself

I had a lot of fun eating lunch today with the Lt. Governor of California, Gavin Newsom.  He is charismatic, intelligent, energetic, witty, and had great stories to tell.  When I had dinner with President Jimmy Carter and lunch with the Dalai Lama, my dominant experience in both cases was awe, lots of it.  But Gavin is different.  When eating with him, my dominant experience was fun, lots of it.

Anyway, I gave Gavin an autographed copy of Search Inside Yourself.  He quipped, "I didn't get the Dalai Lama to endorse my book!"

(Thanks to my friend Eric Zuckerman for the photo.  Also, see Gavin's new book, Citizenville.)

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Conversations on Compassion with Meng

On November 29, 2012, I spoke at Stanford University as part of their Conversations on Compassion series.  The host and moderator is my dear friend Jim Doty, with whom I co-founded Stanford's Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (with two of our other friends, Wayne Wu and His Holiness the Dalai Lama).

A good friend who attended the talk told me it was very successful.  I asked her how she knew.  She said very simple: huge lines formed outside the restrooms just after the talk ended.  I thought maybe the audience just fell asleep during my talk, that's why they all needed to go right after I'm done.

Anyway, here is the YouTube video:

Friday, March 1, 2013

Search Inside Yourself Class Content Freely Available

As part of our commitment to make Search Inside Yourself available to all, we (the early instructors) taped ourselves delivering all the classes.  The videos are now freely available at the link below:

We understand that there is a lot more to taking Search Inside Yourself than watching lectures and doing exercises in front of your computer.  Some of the other important elements of the class are:
- Doing pair / group exercises and having meaningful conversations with others.
- Being able to ask questions and get timely, personalized answers.
- Having access to qualified teachers.
- Being in a community with other dedicated learners and practitioners.

In the following months, my team at the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute (SIYLI) will try to create the technology and human infrastructure to deliver those elements at scale.  Stay tuned.

Oh, if you only have one hour to spare, here is the "CliffsNotes" version of the class:

And, yeah, the book, for those interested:

Thursday, January 24, 2013

My conversation with Ping Fu at Google

As part of the Authors@Google series, I interviewed my friend Ping Fu, a remarkable human being and an admired pioneer in 3D technology.

At the tender age of 8, Ping was ripped away from her parents and forced to fend for herself and her baby sister. She suffered years of hunger and abuse. She was gang-raped when she was only 10. As an adult, she was thrown into prison and later exiled from her homeland for documenting  rural female infanticide. She arrived in the US knowing only 3 English phrases and her first experience in America was being kidnapped.

From those horrible beginnings (and enrolling in MS studies without even knowing simple math concepts like fractions), she rose to be a successful engineer and entrepreneur. She managed the team that created NCSA Mosaic (which popularized the Internet), and she eventually became co-founder and CEO of Geomagic, a 3D technology pioneer. She was named Entrepreneur of the Year in 2005 and an advisor to the White House.

What most touched me about Ping's being is how genuine and grounded she is. You might expect somebody with her life experience to either be bitter, arrogant, or both.  But instead, she is kind and modest.  She behaves like she is very ordinary, even though she is special.

In this conversation, we talked about her fascinating life and about 3D printing.

Update 2013/02/02: Controversy has developed around Ping's book.  It started with doubts cast by Fang Zhouzi (article), many parts of which are reasonable doubts.  It is, however, based on an article containing important inaccuracies, which have since been corrected (eg that Ping was in a "labor camp" when in fact she was in an university dorm, as she clearly said in her book).  There are also parts I found strange.  For example, Mr Fang accuses Ping of being a Red Guard based on the black and white photograph on this page, he claims Ping to be wearing the Red Guard arm band, but I am looking closely at the SAME photo myself and clearly there is no arm band.  Huh?  I suspect this is caused by confusion on which kid in the photo is Ping, the caption confusingly says "in the bottom row, second from the right", but it should be "second kid from right OR first kid from right in bottom row" (the second kid from right in bottom row who looks nothing like Ping indeed has an arm band).

Ping herself has responded in her own words (here) and I am personally satisfied with her explanation.  I have trust that folks like Mr Fang who strive to be reasonable will eventually arrive at some form of common understanding with Ping.  In general, it's very healthy to be skeptical as long as our minds are open to all data.  It becomes very unhealthy only when the skeptics refuse to see data suggesting their own hypothesis could be wrong (which sadly, happens a lot even in science, but that's another discussion).

Very unfortunately, however, the whole thing has degenerated from healthy skepticism to a lot of unproductive name-calling by other folks.  For that reason, I'll delete all unproductive comments to this post (eg, those with little more than "She's a liar, ha ha") that adds no value to the discussion.  As much as my free time allows, of course.

Update 2013/02/17: Debate surrounding the veracity of many parts of the book continues.  I like to encourage all readers to keep yourselves informed on both sides of the debate and make up your own minds.  A lot of the comments posted by readers following this post contains useful data and links, I invite you to take a look.  You can also find a lot of information from both sides by searching on Google.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Way of Peace Dialogue 2013: Dalai Lama and Laurence Freeman

What an amazing way to start the year with a dialogue between His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Father Laurence Freeman.  Two contemplative masters I deeply admire, both of whom so kindly bestowed great honor upon me by writing endorsements for my book, both of whom are great meditation teachers, each representing a great religious tradition, conversing on my favorite topic (world peace) based on the teachings of the two great people I most love (Buddha and Jesus).  This very much warms my heart.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Bhikkhu Bodhi on Kindness and Compassion in Early Buddhism

Image from:

We are barely into 2013 and I already received a present from the great Buddhist scholar, the Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi, in the form of a valuable teaching.  All I did was ask him what I thought was a simple question and he replied with some fascinating insights on kindness and compassion in Early Buddhism.  I received permission from him to post it here.

The question I asked was this:
Honored Master,  I think of my own practice as having 3 pillars: samatha, vipassana and brahmavihara.  In the context of Theravada Buddhism (which I consider the foundation of my practice, though it's a bit more complicated), I'm surprised the "heart practices" of brahmavihara are not elevated to the same level as samatha and vipassana, and in my opinion, one of the key contributions of Mahayana Buddhism is the elevation / emphasis of the heart practices, specifically of compassion.  My own take is that traditional Theravada made the implicit assumption that the brahmaviharas naturally arise out of samatha+vipassana, and hence, paid no extra attention to it.  What is your opinion on this issue?
Bhikkhu Bodhi's answer:

Dear Meng,

Complex questions require complex answers. I’ll try to keep my answer fairly simple, though I don’t know whether I will succeed.

First, one must distinguish between Early Buddhism and Theravāda Buddhism. Despite a common assumption that identifies Theravāda with the teachings of the Pali Nikāyas, the two aren’t completely identical. What we call “Early Buddhism” is found in the teachings of the Pali Nikāyas and the corresponding texts of other ancient Buddhists schools, such as those preserved in the Chinese Āgamas. “Theravāda” is one of the schools (or perhaps a group of schools) that emerged during the period of Sectarian Buddhism (部派佛教), which arose after the ancient unified Buddhist community underwent fissures and divisions.

In their origins, these divisions were probably based on nothing more significant than geographical dispersion. As Buddhism spread over northern India, and then sent out tentacles to the northwest and the southeast, monastic centers were established in these different regions and became increasingly autonomous. No doubt, intellectually acute teachers arose in these centers who attracted students and put their own distinctive stamp on their interpretations of the early teachings. In this way, schools of interpretation emerged, which evolved over the next couple of centuries into the different schools of the Sectarian Period. The doctrines of the schools were expounded in treatises they added to the older collections. These treatises, expressing a more systematic and refined understanding of the Dharma, came to be what we call “Abhidharma.”

The first major division was between the Sthaviras (Theras, elders) and the Mahāsānghikas (Majority Sangha). The Sthaviras divided into the Vibhajyavādins and the Sarvāstivādins, mainly over rather technical philosophical issues. Each of these in turn had subdivisions of their own. One subsect of the Vibhajyavādins, probably based in western India (perhaps extending from present Sanchi all the way to the west coast), preserved its canonical texts in a language that we now call Pali.  It was this western branch of the Vibhajyavādins, apparently, that sent missionaries to Sri Lanka to propagate Buddhism on the island in the 3rd century BC. In time, the sub-school of the Sri Lankan Vibhajyavāda that was based at the Mahāvihāra in Anuradhapura evolved into what we now call Theravāda, a word that came into use as a designation for a school only after the 5th century. Up to this point the word, it seems, was used only to refer to “the explanations of the elders,” of the Buddha’s disciples, as contrasted with ācariyavāda, the explanations of later teachers.

While the fundamental texts for the Theravāda are still the Nikāyas and Vinaya, their more specialized understanding of the Dharma derives from their Abhidharma treatises and their commentaries. These commentaries were compiled by Buddhaghosa from older commentaries no longer in existence. Additionally, Buddhaghosa wrote the famous treatise Visuddhimagga, which arranges the teachings of the Mahāvihāra into a comprehensive system.

When we compare the Nikāyas and the Āgamas from other schools, we can see that their contents, by way of doctrines and practices, are virtually the same. Though one collection may include sutras missing from the corresponding collections, it is mainly in formulation and arrangement that they differ. With regard to their Abhidharmas and the doctrinal positions, the differences are more prominent. Of all the early schools, the only one that has survived intact is the Theravāda, and this has gone through a long process of evolution, including (especially around the 6th-8th centuries) absorption of Mahāyāna influence. For example, the second major commentator, Dhammapāla of South India, has written a treatise on the bodhisattva and the paramitas that draws heavily from Asanga’s Bodhisattva-bhūmi.

Exactly how Mahāyāna Buddhism arose is still a matter of uncertainty, since the earliest texts we have—the early Mahāyāna sutras—depict Mahāyāna as already a well-formed system. We don’t have texts that depict Mahāyāna taking shape in its “womb”  in the way a sonogram might show a fetus taking shape in a mother’s womb. But there is a general consensus among scholars that Mahāyāna arose within some of the early schools of the Sectarian Period, most likely certain south Indian offshoots of the Mahāsānghikas. Mahāyāna  ideas would have soon been picked up by other schools, and thus a grand synthesis started to take shape leading to the emergence of Mahāyāna as a distinct and self-conscious phenomenon.

You can find these issues treated in much more detail in Venerable Yinshun’s works, 印度佛教思想史 (“History of Indian Buddhist Thought”) and 初期大乘佛教之起源與開展 (“The Origin and Development of Early Mahāyāna Buddhism”). Neither has yet been translated into English.

This should provide a little background for dealing with your comment:
I'm surprised the "heart practices" of brahmavihāra are not elevated to the same level as samatha and vipassana, and in my opinion, one of the key contributions of Mahāyāna Buddhism is the elevation / emphasis of the heart practices, specifically of compassion.  My own take is that traditional Theravāda made the implicit assumption that the brahmavihāras naturally arise out of samatha+vipassana, and hence, paid no extra attention to it.

To address this comment, it should first be said that in the Nikāyas and Āgamas, the brahmavihāras do appear quite regularly. The word “brahmavihāras” is only rarely applied to this set of four practices (always in the context of their being the practice that leads to the brahma world), but the four “divine qualities” can be found throughout the Nikāyas. For example, in the Majjhima Nikāya we find them in MN 7, MN 40, MN 43, MN 50, MN 52, MN 62, MN 83, MN 97, MN 99, and elsewhere. They are mentioned a number of times in the Digha and Anguttara Nikāyas. The practice of metta is encouraged separately a number of times in the Anguttara Nikāya, which speaks of eight and eleven benefits to be obtained from developing loving-kindness. The first few suttas of the Opamma-samyutta, chapter 20 of the Samyutta Nikāya, stress the value of developing metta. The Theravāda Abhidhamma treatise, Vibhanga, has a chapter on the brahmavihāras (chapter 14), referring to them as “the immeasurables” (Pali appamaññā, Skt apramanya).

The exact relationship of the brahmavihāras to samatha and vipassana is not explicitly stated in the Nikāyas, but from the way they are treated we can infer that, taken as meditation practices on their own, they would fall under the heading of samatha, since they lead to concentration rather than insight. Taken as a self-sufficient body of practices, the brahmavihāras are said to lead to rebirth in the brahma-world. The Vibhanga chapter on the brahmavihāras classifies them as “a path for rebirth in the form realm,” and this agrees with the Nikāyas. They are not viewed as a special discovery of the Buddha put as pre-existing practices that the Buddha already found in circulation in the Indian spiritual scene and incorporated into his own system. For this reason, a number of suttas devalue the brahmavihāras, but when they do so, we should understand this devaluation to apply to them when taken as a self-sufficient mode of practice. An example of this is the last part of MN 83, where the Buddha says that the four brahmavihāras, unlike the noble eightfold path, do not lead to enlightenment and nibbāna.

However, other suttas show that the brahmavihāras can be used as a basis for insight. When used as a basis for insight, they can lead all the way to nibbāna, as illustrated by MN 7 and MN 52. In this case, the meditator enters each or any of the four immeasurables and then contemplates its factors as impermanent, defective, and nonself. Through such contemplation he reaches supramundane realization and destroys the defilements.

The commentaries, and treatises like the Visuddhimagga, explore the role of the brahmavihāras in more detail. They explain the differences between the four “divine” qualities and give fuller directions for the practice than one finds in the suttas. See especially chapter 9, which is devoted fully to the brahmavihāras. The end of this chapter even states that the bodhisattvas give special attention to loving-kindness, which serves as their motivation for  cultivating the paramitas. This passage might have been formulated under the impact of Mahāyāna Buddhism.

It is possible that, despite the prominent role that the brahmavihāras play in the early texts (like the Nikāyas), in the schools of Sectarian Buddhism, including Theravāda, they came to be displaced by the more ascetic, world-renouncing types of meditation, like the impure parts of the body, mindfulness of breathing, and vipassana. If the brahmavihāras had been reduced to a subordinate role, this may partly explain the arising of the Mahāyāna as a reaction spurred by those monks who placed greater value on the brahmavihāras. These proto-Mahāyānists may have felt that such qualities as loving-kindness and compassion were central to the Buddhist path and had to be given a more prominent role than the early texts and the sectarian schools assigned to them.

The Mahāyānists looked for inspiration, not so much to the old Āgamas, but primarily to the stories of the Buddha’s former lives as a bodhisattva. These were related in the Jātakas and in the more elaborate versions of the “Buddha biography” that were being composed. These texts traced the Buddha’s career back to his encounter with earlier Buddhas. In these accounts emphasis is placed on the bodhisattva’s motivation for passing up the opportunity to quickly attain arahantship and vowing to undertake the long career of a bodhisattva by cultivating the paramitas. The motivation, it is said, was his loving-kindness and compassion for sentient beings, his wish to liberate not only himself and a few other people but to serve as a liberator of the world. Therefore, by taking the Buddha as a model, the early Mahāyāna Buddhists (or maybe “proto-Mahāyānists”) moved these brahmavihāra qualities to the center of  the path and this trend was given literary expression in the Mahāyāna sutras.

As the early Mahāyāna sutras elaborated on the concept of a bodhisattva, they made mettā and karunā the roots for the arising of bodhicitta, the resolution to attain supreme enlightenment for the sake of the world, which is the pivotal event in the career of a bodhisattva, enabling him to embark on the proper bodhisattva path. Therefore, whereas in early Buddhism and the thought of sectarian Buddhism, the intensive positive development of such qualities as loving-kindness and compassion is regarded as expendable—as one choice among a whole range of practices for attaining samādhi and then insight—for the Mahāyāna they become indispensable, the key to the transformation of an ordinary person into a bodhisattva. Again, they are given a more prominent function throughout the path. They sustain the bodhisattva in the practice of the paramitas and come to fullest manifestation with the attainment of buddhahood. Whereas early Buddhism did not emphasize the sustained positive enactment of loving-kindness and compassion after one’s attainment of liberation—except, of course, in the obvious sense that a liberated person would treat others with kindness and compassion, seeking to avoid harming them and to benefit them when opportunity arises—the Mahāyāna sees them as inseparable from the state of an enlightened one. They provide the explanation for the Buddha’s decision to teach after his enlightenment and in their fullness are considered integral to the complete manifestation of the enlightened state.

My own view regarding Buddhist commitments is quite similar to the one you explain for yourself in your blog entry of June 2, 2010. I don’t have much connection with either Vajrayāna or Zen, but I’ve read many of the Mahāyāna sutras, including some of the more obscure ones not translated into English. My opinion is that, while quite a few go to extremes in expressions of faith and doctrine, their emphasis on the compassionate motivation and attitude behind Dharma practice  is necessary to give a more balanced presentation of Dharma than can be offered by a version that overstresses the ascetic and world-renouncing aspects. Both aspects have to keep each other in balance.

Over the past decade my understanding of Buddhism has been especially influenced by the masters whose works I’ve encountered by staying at Chinese monasteries, especially Ven. Taixu, Ven. Yinshun, and Ven. Renjun; the latter was a senior student of Yinshun, with whom I lived for four years at Bodhi Monastery in New Jersey. Thus my two main Dharma pillars are the Nikāyas and the broader Theravāda tradition, and the “Human-Realm Buddhism’ (人間佛教) of these 20th century Chinese masters.


1. The hyperlinks were added by me, in case you find them problematic.
2. Also see: Bhikkhu Bodhi on the Nikayas.