Just a deep breath from tech-hedged Highway 101 and the land of Yahoo,
Microsoft and Google, a former aerospace software designer is bringing
busy Silicon Valley a different kind of public offering: inner
A one-story office building at the foot of the North Fair Oaks exit
houses the South Bay's newest Zen center, where 41-year-old Jian Hu Shifu
teaches the principles and practices of Zen Buddhism -- or chan in
Chinese. The classes are offered for free.
A Taiwan native whose family
moved to Las Vegas when he was 14, the
abbot has more than an intellectual empathy for the Silicon Valley
lifestyle. A bright student who idolized Einstein and aspired to become a
professor or scientist, he earned a doctorate in computer sciences in 1994
at the University of California-San Diego. He worked for two years in the
aerospace industry in Los Angeles.
But yearning for a life that was meaningful every day, not just on
weekends, he studied philosophy and Christianity. It was not enough.
Eventually, he found Zen Buddhism.
``It immediately made a lot of sense to me,'' he said. ``It is actually
quite scientific in approach.''
After four years at the Chung Tai Chan Monastery in Taiwan, he returned
in 2000 as Jian Hu Shifu, an ordained monk. He opened the Buddha Gate
Monastery in Lafayette, the first Bay Area branch of the Chung Tai order.
In March, he opened the Chung Tai Zen Center of Sunnyvale.
His understanding of American culture, technology background, fluency
in English and Chinese and approachability have made him a popular teacher
``I really think Jian Hu is first-rate,'' said Dr. Su Chung, a retired
UC-San Diego biochemistry professor who learned he was an alumnus when she
attended a retreat at Buddha Gate. Also the wife of a vice-chancellor, she
invited him to speak at the school's International Center. ``His message
is very strictly chan tradition, but he can explain it in the
context of American culture.''
Moira Shek, a retired San Francisco city planner and once a devout
Catholic, said she was ``blown away'' when she first heard the abbot speak
several years ago. So she introduced herself.
``He had a sense of humor. He was totally approachable, and I found
myself chatting away,'' said Shek, who was executive director of community
development under former San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein.
And he spoke Cantonese -- not the Mandarin of most Bay Area Chinese.
``There are a lot of us from Hong Kong who do not speak Mandarin,'' she
said. ``It's hard for us to learn and study.''
Shek, 57, is one of the many longtime Bay Area practitioners of
chan Buddhism who have been attending Buddha Gate: 200 to 300 people from
the South Bay and 100 or so from San Francisco. Many, including some from
the East Bay, have followed Jian Hu Shifu to Sunnyvale.
``In Buddhism, there are a lot of abstract concepts. He is good at
explaining astrophysics to a grammar school student,'' said Danville
resident Francis Wang, a 65-year-old retired Lawrence Livermore Laboratory
chemist. ``He showed me that Buddhism is not just a faith. If you can
never prove it, you can only get as far as worldly wisdom can take you.''
Through study, meditation and such practices as Right Effort and Right
Mindfulness, followers of Zen seek to transcend the Earthly delusions of
happiness and suffering to reach a state of joy and inner peace. Called
enlightenment, it is a merging of the human with the universal mind -- or
As a student, Jian Hu Shifu was interested in the human mind. In
graduate school, he delved into artificial intelligence, studying the
function of lobster neurons.
``He was my second-best Ph.D student -- ever,'' said Garrison Cottrell,
a UC-San Diego professor of computer science and engineering. ``But as
time went on, he became less and less interested in the lobster part of
things. He felt it was wrong to kill them.''
The young student also realized he was nowhere near to understanding
human intelligence from a scientific viewpoint.
``I thought there must be some other way to understand the reality of
the world,'' he said. ``We still know very little about human
intelligence. There are always lots of movies about how computers are
going take over; it's not going to happen any time soon.''
Today, at 41, he has found the meaning that had eluded him. Yet his
ability to absorb and communicate the complexities of Zen transcends his
age -- and perhaps his present lifetime, Shek said.
``When I went to graduate school, he was just a little kid,'' she said.
``But you don't feel like you're talking to a younger man. There's only
one answer: the Bodhi seed that he planted in his previous life. Just like
Mozart or Beethoven; how were they so talented at so young an age?''
But this young abbot's best instructional tool may be his simplest one:
``Traditionally Chinese dharma masters don't smile that much. Chinese
teachers can be the same,'' said Shek. ``But a little thing like that
makes a big difference.''
Like the Buddha's use of a flower one day to convey the
inexpressibility of the supreme teaching.