Dan Zigmond at his home in Silicon Valley.
AS WE WALK, Dan Zigmond pulls on a black baseball cap. The sun is high, and the trees give little shade. It’s a big park—stretching across a good nine acres of grass, mulch, shrubs, and gravel paths—but from where we are, it looks much bigger. Beyond the nine acres, all we can see are more trees, more green, and the mountains in the east, so the park seems almost endless. “That always amazes me,” I say. After all, we’re on the roof of the newest Facebook building, a Frank Gehry creation called MPK20, right next to Highway 84, the Dumbarton Bridge, and the sprawling urban marshlands of Menlo Park, California, where the bog is decorated with so many power lines, transmission towers, and electrical substations.
Zigmond works in the building below, overseeing data analytics for the Facebook News Feed and other parts of the world’s most popular social network. That means he analyzes the massive of amounts of online data generated by News Feed, looking for ways to improve the service and other parts of Facebook. He’s also a Zen priest who studied with the same Buddhist monk as Steve Jobs. And that means he’s part of a long tradition inside Northern California tech circles. As we walk through Facebook’s rooftop park, he hands me a copy of a 1986 academic monograph called From Satori to Silicon Valley. A thin paperback small enough to fit into my back pocket, it explores the link between Silicon Valley and the American counter culture of the 1960s and 70s, including so many hippie attitudes lifted from Buddhism. On the cover, two black-and-white symbols merge together: the ying-yang and the transistor.
As Zigmond tells me, the conceit is that the counter culture helped drive the evolution of the personal computer as it emerged from Silicon Valley and challenged the dominance of giant techno-corporations like IBM and AT&T. People like Jobs—a long-haired hippy Buddhist fruitarian computer maker—didn’t just look forward to a future driven entirely by technology. Instilled with the hippie ethos—the notion that we could find something truer, healthier, and simpler than the post-industrial mega-capitalist society that emerged in the 20th Century—Jobs and his peers also looked back to a more natural past, hoping they could use personal computers to empower people and bring them together and reclaim some of the humanity the modern world had taken away. Zigmond believes these same attitudes continue to drive Silicon Valley, including tech giants like Facebook (a company intent on “making the world a more open and connected place”) and Google (“organize all the world’s information”). “There’s that same spirit of seeing technology as a way of getting us to a better future,” Zigmond says.
So, it’s only natural that Zigmond, one of Facebook’s top data analysts, just published a book of his own called Buddha’s Diet. It mixes three of Northern California’s biggest obsessions: science, Eastern philosophy, and food. Yes, it’s a diet book. The subtitle is: The Ancient Art of Losing Weight Without Losing Your Mind. But there are greater lessons to be learned from this slim volume, not just about science, Eastern philosophy, and food, but about Silicon Valley.
Of Mice and Zen
Dan Zigmond has been a Buddhist for nearly 30 years. He discovered the Eastern religion while studying computational neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania, and after graduating, he moved to Thailand, living in a Buddhist temple while teaching English at a nearby refugee camp. In this temple, the monks ate between dawn and noon, according to the rules of the Vinaya Pitaka, the original teachings of Buddha. They ate whatever was available and as much as they wanted, but only within that window. And they remained slim. In the popular imagination, the Buddha was a fat man. But he too was slim.
After two years in Thailand, Zigmond returned to the States, and eventually, he wound up at Google. He worked as a data scientist, hunting for ways of improving services like YouTube and Google Maps, and he was part of the Buddhist culture that ran right through the company. After an early engineer named Chade-Meng Tan promoted meditation groups across the company and wrote a book called Search Inside Yourself, Google became a destination for monks from across the world. When Meng gave tours to these visitors, he would bring them by Zigmond’s desk, showing off Google’s unique brand of Buddhism. “I remember more than once working on some tricky statistics code and looking up to see a band of Tibetan monks in full Buddhist robes hovering over me, always smiling,” Zigmond remembers…