In Silicon Valley, you are always an iPhone’s throw from a Buddhist. Some of them will have arrived at their Buddhism the usual way—family, culture—but a fair few will have adopted it later in life, as a piece of their adult identity. Even if they’re not checking the “Buddhist” box on the census, you’ll know them by their Zen meditation retreats, their references to “the Middle Way,” their wealth … of Steve Jobs trivia. Did you know that Steve Jobs was a Buddhist who studied under Zen priest Kobun Chino Otogawa and once wandered India in search of a guru? Did you know Jobs swiped Apple’s famous “Think Different” slogan from the Dalai Lama? Did you know Buddhism and tech companies have a grand historical “synergy”? When I moved to California from the East Coast, I did not. After living and working in San Francisco for a few years, I see Buddha everywhere.
In a place as secular and science-minded as Silicon Valley tends to be, finding room for Buddhism at work might seem like a stretch, but it isn’t. High profile examples of in-office Buddhism, like Google’s “Search Inside Yourself” course, permeate the Valley. Bringing Buddha to work is, in fact, the point of a new book by a Facebook (and Microsoft, Instagram, YouTube, and Google) alum, data analyst and Zen priest Dan Zigmond. It’s called Buddha’s Office. In essence, it’s a book on Buddhism disguised as a self-help text aimed at office workers, and if that makes you want to close this tab, don’t.
When I first met Zigmond at San Francisco lunch spot HRD, I was skeptical too. Not because I’m opposed to tech workers being interested in and even practicing Buddhism. Full disclosure: I’m married to a Buddhist-ish man who once gave up everything for a spider-infested Sri Lankan monastery and now works at a tech company. I was skeptical because I had real doubts that someone who lived in the South Bay and had held positions at a string of highly successful tech companies could possibly be living life along the Middle Way, the first teaching Buddha gave after his awakening, which basically amounts to avoiding extremes of any kind.
The lifestyle surrounding tech companies—particularly the ones Zigmond has worked for—is nothing if not extreme. Maybe toxically so. I had watched my partner wrestle with this truth for years, and came to feel it myself. Then in came Zigmond, purporting to have all the answers, while owning a house in one of the most expensive regions in the country and suggesting we meet at a restaurant best known for burritos stuffed with barbecued meat. (Buddhism generally encourages vegetarianism.) How could he be anything but the stereotypical Silicon Valley Buddhist, the ones who preach productivity as if it is enlightenment?
Well, some of that was pretty unfair of me. For one, Zigmond—a small, trim, bespectacled man with kind eyes and quiet manners—is a vegetarian after all. When we sat down together over eggplant katsu, the first thing he said to me was, “What can I do for you?” The second was something about how much he liked my colleague Cade Metz’s coverage of his last book, Buddha’s Diet, which recommends fasting intermittently like Buddhist monks, some of whom don’t eat after noon. Zigmond’s understated asceticism is disarming, though. He takes extremely neat bites, even of uncooperative foods like slippery deep fried eggplant and cabbage salad. I started trying to twirl my cabbage shreds around my fork like spaghetti.
Zigmond comes from a Jewish background, but he’s been a Buddhist for three decades, since college. After graduating, he left the United States for Thailand, where he lived at a Buddhist temple and taught English at a refugee camp. (His Facebook banner image looks to be from that time: He’s skinny, wearing sunglasses, a bandana, and a blue tie-dye shirt.) Even after returning to the States, he planned to remain “a full-time Buddhist.” “While I was at the San Francisco Zen Center, I met my wife, I fell in love, and I had to get a job to support the family I wanted to have,” he said. “For a long time, I kept work and Buddhism separate. Work was what was keeping me from this other dream I had.”
That changed when he left Google and began working at Facebook. (Zigmond acknowledges Google’s embrace of Eastern philosophy with programs like Search Inside Yourself but also said that while working there he would go practice “real Buddhism” on the weekends.) “When I got to Facebook, they made this big deal about bringing your authentic self to work,” Zigmond says. “I was really impressed by that. That really moved me.” He began working in what he calls “Buddha’s office,” a working life inspired by the teachings of Buddhism, and, over time, decided that the practice was a book in its own right. Zigmond, like many people, sees sickness in contemporary working culture. He remembers a time when the only people always on-call were “doctors and drug dealers,” whereas now he feels like even baristas are tethered to their email. “Buddhism, ultimately, is all about balance,” he says. To Zigmond, we all look pretty wobbly.