Jian Hu Shifu asked a class of Walnut Creek
sixth-graders if they knew what Nirvana was, he was
surprised at how many hands shot into the air. Their
answer surprised him even more.
"They said, 'It's a rock band!'" Hu remembered, his
normally serene face bright with a smile.
For Master Hu (Shifu means teacher in Chinese)
and other Zen Buddhists at Sunnyvale's new Chung Tai Zen
Center and around the world, Nirvana is far more than an
early '90s Seattle-based band. It is the state of
ultimate bliss, free of suffering and disturbances. If a
person reaches Nirvana during their lifetime, Zen
Buddhists also believe that the wheel of reincarnation
But before someone can reach Nirvana and achieve
enlightenment, he has to overcome suffering and
stresses, and here in the Silicon Valley, home to
high-tech job competition and 12-hour workdays, escaping
stress is something Hu said people desperately need to
"I was in the high-tech industry, so I can relate to
the people here, especially with what they've gone
through in the last few years," Hu said, reflecting on
the stresses caused by a poor economy and heavy
competition for jobs.
The idea of applying Eastern religion to Western
culture's needs is not new to Hu, who is himself a
product of both cultures, having been born in China and
raised in Southern California and having worked in
artificial intelligence before devoting his life to
For someone who rarely speaks above a whisper,
dresses in simple robes and rejects the excesses of
materialism, greed and the physical world, Hu is a
complex man, and a perfect fit for Buddhism in Silicon
He's a serene Buddhist monk raised on martial arts
movies who began his search for enlightenment after
years of studying lobster nervous systems. He now
teaches the peaceful, calm religion of Buddhism off of
traffic-laden Highway 101 in a dense industrial
Hu was born in Taiwan, and his family moved to the
United States so he and his two younger brothers could
experience the American educational system. Hu ended up
earning a bachelor's degree and began studying the
simple neural networks of lobsters to develop artificial
replicas in an effort to improve computer technology.
It was during his college yearsˇXat the California
Institute of TechnologyˇXthat Hu began seeking answers
that couldn't be found by cutting crustaceans open.
"I realized it was hopeless, that there must be a
better way to look at human intelligence," Hu said. "We
need computers, but there are plenty of people in that
industry. Even though the pay was good, and life was
easy, it felt empty."
He was also disillusioned from watching many of his
classmates at CalTech turn to drugs as a way to escape
the pressure of their studies.
"I thought 'You are in one of the top universities,
why do you abuse yourself?' But I began to understand
that it was the pressure, they didn't know how to vent
it," Hu said.
He began looking for answers and turned to religion,
a field he had previously shunned.
"In college, I felt religion was for weak people,
because in engineering, science was our religion," Hu
said. "But that was arrogant because I didn't understand
Although he was raised in a Buddhist household, his
experience with religion was limited to holiday
offerings and festivals; there was no true
understanding. Hu first turned to Christianity, with the
help of a Christian friend of his, but found that "It's
God's will" was not a sufficient answer to his
It was a lecture series by Grand Master Wei Chueh in
Southern California that first led him to Buddhism. He
was drawn to the serenity Chueh radiated.
And more importantly, Chueh was able to answer many
of the questions Hu had about life, with answers drawn
from his own experiences. It was then that Hu left the
computer world to devote his life to Buddhism and his
own path toward enlightenment.
"It's not that I don't like [computer science], but I
found something a lot more meaningful for me," Hu said.
"It's not that I think it's not meaningful work, I just
find that studying and teaching Buddhism can benefit
people in more ways."
His discipline has meant giving up some of the things
he enjoys, including movies, although he has seen a few
films for educational purposes. He watched the Matthew
Modine film Fluke, about a man reincarnated as a
dog, because reincarnation is a key part of Buddhist
beliefs. He also saw the 1990 film Flatliners,
about the perils of coming back from the dead, and most
recently saw the first two parts of the Matrix trilogy.
While he enjoyed the martial arts scenes, Hu said he was
impressed by the similarities between the Matrix
and Buddhism, including the idea that the physical world
we experience is an illusion. Like most moviegoers
around the world, he didn't like the sequel as much,
because it didn't have depth of the first movie.
Hu also became a strict vegetarian, because Buddhists
believe that even animals have the "Buddha nature," or
potential for enlightenment, and therefore their lives
should be respected just as a person's is.
Hu's rigorous spiritual training also removed him for
a time from the everyday routines of Western life.
In 1994, he began what would turn into seven years at
Chueh's Chung Tai Chan monastery in Taiwan. He spent a
year in solitary meditation, living in a small hut,
cooking for himself and walking in the hills.
All the time away from humanity taught him to
appreciate nature. He spent hours walking through the
hills, observing ants taking care of their eggs and the
ongoing cycle of death and life.
In 2000, Hu returned to California to help Chueh
establish the Buddha Gate Monastery in Lafayette, as a
United States branch of the Chinese monastery. He served
as abbot of Buddha GateˇXbuilt in an old Christian
churchˇXbefore coming to Sunnyvale in March, when the
Chung Tai Zen Center of Sunnyvale opened its doors on N.
Fair Oaks Avenue.
The primary function of the center is to offer
classes for residents interested in learning more about
Buddhism, with more advanced classes for experienced
disciples. Hu said they also hope to branch out into
more cultural classes, including tai chi, painting and
Chinese calligraphy. He said many of the monks also
create art or music and practice martial arts.
"Some people practice martial arts, but it's not as
much as movies show. Not everyone is a Shaolin monk," Hu
said, referring to a group of martial artstrained monks
popularized in movies and video games like Mortal
All classes are free, as the center is supported only
from donations from disciples.
"We believe that if we share, others will also
share," Hu said. "And that has always worked."
Hu said the center currently has more than 100
students a week in a variety of classesˇXthe latest of
which began June 13ˇXall geared toward helping disciples
discover the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism.
The first of those truths is that sufferingˇXincluding
sadness, sickness and lossˇXis something all people go
through. Hu said that here in the Sunnyvale area,
suffering often includes unhappiness with work, loss of
family time or overworking.
The second truth is that all suffering is caused by
any of three "poisons of the mind," including greed,
anger and ignorance. By understanding these causes, Hu
believes people can eventually rid themselves of the
suffering caused by each.
"If you can understand where stress comes from, you
can deal with and get rid of its roots, so you won't
have to deal with it again in the future," Hu said.
The third truth says that if suffering is removed,
Nirvana is achieved, which includes an end to the cycle
of reincarnation people go through before reaching the
goal of enlightenment.
The fourth truth is that there is a path one can
follow to achieve Nirvana. Through understanding and
proper action, suffering is overcome and Nirvana is
The idea of cause and effect is key for Buddhists.
The first truth, suffering, is caused by the second
truth, poisons of the mind, while the third truth,
Nirvana, is achieved through the fourth truth, the path.
Most importantly, Buddhism stresses not just theory,
but practice. One must actively meditate and learn to
"There's so much potential within us, it's the Buddha
nature, the potential to be perfect," Hu said. "However,
we don't put enough effort into our spiritual quest. If
we did, I think many people could become enlightened."
Hu says Zen Buddhism is a good fit for Silicon
Valley, because the practicesˇXincluding meditation and
relaxationˇXare just as effective at helping people deal
with work troubles as they are at leading someone toward
"As far as teaching people, I feel it's pretty much
the same everywhere you go: All people have the same
longing, the same search," Hu said. "Fundamentally, we
are the same, we have the same problems, we need the
same kind of help, we can benefit from the same kind of
more information on Buddhism classes, call 408.747.1099,
stop by the center at 1031 N. Fair Oaks Ave. or visit