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Photograph by Jacqueline Ramseyer
Jian Hu Shifu discusses the content of the classes and techniques he and others teach at the new Chung Tai Zen Center in Sunnyvale.
Zen Centered: Former techie Jian Hu spent a year in solitary meditation

By Jason Goldman-Hall
Originally appeared on June 23, 2004
Cover story of The Sunnyvale Sun
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When 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 stops.

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 do.

"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 Buddhism.

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 Valley.

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 district.

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 religion."

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 questions.

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 Kombat.

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 achieved.

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 achieve Nirvana.

"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 Nirvana.

"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 teaching."

For more information on Buddhism classes, call 408.747.1099, stop by the center at 1031 N. Fair Oaks Ave. or visit

http://www.ctzen.org/


The article was original posted at "The Sunnyvale Sun", June 23, 2004.  Chung Tai Zen Center of Sunnyvale has received permission to post the article.

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