From Google’s Jolly Good Fellow, Tan Chade Meng
By Poh Yong Hui
Even though most people believe success is the cause of happiness, Mr Tan Chade Meng believes the opposite is true – happiness is the cause of success, and he wants to create conditions for world peace in his lifetime by aligning inner peace and compassion with success and profits. This is what he calls upaya, or skillful means. “Serve people from where they are”, the Jolly Good Fellow from Google advised the Buddhist youth leaders present at the dialogue held at Singapore Buddhist Mission, 13 July 2013.
Meng, as he is affectionately known, is the first Singaporean to join Google back when it was still a small start-up. His official job title is now Jolly Good Fellow (Which Nobody Can Deny) and his job description is simple – “Enlighten minds, open hearts, create world peace”. One of Meng’s main projects at Google is a groundbreaking mindfulness-based emotional intelligence course called Search Inside Yourself which has been endorsed by world, business and spiritual leaders around the world.
Meng became a Buddhist after attending a talk by Venerable Sangye Khadro in 1991, where she “blew his mind” with two statements: “All of Buddhism addresses suffering”; and “Buddhism is all about cultivating the mind”.
Read the sutras
Meng believes that it is “vitally important for a young Buddhist leader to be familiar with basic Buddhism”. “Happily, the best book on the topic is a thin book” he said, recommending What the Buddha Taught by Walpola Rahula.
“It is also very important for a Buddhist leader to have read at least the most important scriptures, some of the original words of the Buddha. Fortunately, the great Bhikkhu Bodhi already compiled such a collection, In the Buddha’s Words”.
Even more important than knowledge is the practice, Meng emphasised. “For a Buddhist, there is nothing more important than practice, especially the practice of meditation – even more so for a Buddhist leader. A Buddhist leader has no excuse not to become an experienced meditator. Fortunately, becoming an accomplished meditator can also do wonders for your career. You benefit both your karma and your career, two for the price of one”!
He recommended his own book Search Inside Yourself as he could not find any book which in his opinion, is a better guide for practical meditation in the ‘real world’.
Practice and spiritual friendship above tradition
Naturally, many of us were curious about Meng’s Dharma practice. He shared that his own practice combined the cultivation of śamatha, Vipassana and Brahma Vihara: “By practicing samatha, your mind is stable and calm when others are frazzled. Others look to you as a leader if you can stay calm during crises. By practicing Vipassana, you know your own strengths and weaknesses. The practice of Brahma Vihara helps you to be very good in social settings, and you become well-liked by everybody. People who like you will want to help you succeed.”
Answering a question about the Buddhist tradition he subscribes to, Meng jokingly answered “Hahayana”, as he draws on teachings from different traditions such as Zen, Theravada and Vajrayana. More important than the Buddhist tradition one subscribes to is spiritual friendship, Meng advised, quoting the Buddha’s words in the Upaddha Sutta – “Spiritual friendship is the whole of the holy life”. In other words, what helped his spiritual cultivation most was associating with honorable people.
Meng also envisioned that the best of each Buddhist tradition will emerge and spread, which he illustrated using the Pizza effect – pizza was popularised by Italian migrants in the US and then exported back to Italy as a delicacy in Italian cuisine, where it was originally looked down upon. Similarly, Buddhism is not an “in” thing in Asia now, the region of its origin, but it is becoming very popular in the West. Meng believes that Buddhism will eventually become popular in Asia, but this cannot be done without the help of active practising Buddhists.
On working with authority
Buddhist youth leaders sometimes face obstacles when working with authority, in this case the lay management of the temple and/or monastics. He encouraged us to be creative in handling these obstacles, for example: “If your temple does not allow you to put up a Buddhist-themed rock concert, you can upload your songs to YouTube. If you make it big, performing opportunities will naturally arise. If you don’t, try harder!”
Meng emphasised the importance of intention in one’s work: “In my opinion, a respectful disregard for authority can sometimes be very healthy, because all great innovations entail some degree of disregarding authority. The important thing is to do it respectfully, with kindness, and for no other reason than to create greater benefit for the world.”
In his answer to the question “How do we know if an idea is good or not?”, Meng said: “Just do it. You never know until you try. Innovation always entails failure, so don’t be afraid to do things. Even if you fail, at least you failed trying.”