The siren song of the sea calls surfers away from school, jobs, family, and in Jaimal Yogis’s case, even a monastery. But for this surfer, bobbing on waves might be the best place to practice Zen.
If you’re wondering what in blue blazes has surfing got to do with Zen, don’t worry–Yogis clears it up in the book’s introduction. He cites a teaching in Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind as his “all-time favorite Zen-surfing quote:
…I like to think he [Suzuki] had surfers in mind when comparing thought waves to ocean waves. He said, ‘Even though waves arise, the essence of mind is pure… Waves are the practice of water. To speak of waves apart from water or water apart from waves is a delusion.’
Still have doubts? Read on. By the end of the book, it’s clear that much like those who find Zen in calligraphy or, kyudo (archery), Yogis’ single-pointed focus on catching a wave (and often on staying alive in rough waters) has made it just as important to his practice as just sitting.
Jaimal Yogis had auspicious beginnings in life for two things: meditation and surfing. Yogis and his sister grew up getting kicked out of mom and dad’s meditation room and going to Hindu temples. His parents even named him after a great Hindu teacher, Baba Jaimal Singh. (Yogis, it turns out, is not a Sanskrit invention. It’s merely a shortening of a cumbersome Lithuanian name. I can appreciate this–my own Lithuanian great grandfather’s name was changed from Zigmuntus Kapustas to Ziggy Miller by an official on Ellis Island.)
While the family was living on an island off Portugal when he was a small child, Yogis’ father taught him how to bodysurf and read the waves. Though the family moved away from the ocean, the experience of being on the sea had made its imprint.
Saltwater Buddha opens with a teenage Yogis setting out on a Siddhartha-like quest for both meaning and surfing. Writing years later as an adult, Yogis pokes fun at his own grandiose ideas about the quest. This opening quickly warmed me to Yogis’ story. Though I’ve never surfed, as a reader of a spiritual memoir, I can find something in this quest to identify with–the desire to escape, the search for an escape route (surfing), and the need to question, the search for answers.
Yogis goes on to become a monk, but his abbot suggests that he spends some time out in the ‘real world’ and all its trappings, like girls and paying rent. The young monk ends up back in Hawaii, where he meets a surf guru named Rom, an Australian from whom “great teachings naturally arose” by virtue of proximity, yet who told him “No one can teach you how to surf.” Rom embodied the inherent Zen that Yogis saw in surfing:
At the monastery, many of the core lessons were about the Buddha’s teachings of interconnectedness, how everything is linked to everything else, down to the smallest insect or blade of grass, and how failure to respect that interconnection leads only to suffering, both for individuals and societies. I came to see that Rom was teaching me the same concepts in a way I could really connect with, a way that pertained directly to my life right now.
Eventually, Yogis moves back to California and eventually on to New York for graduate school. Throughout his travels, his Zen practice progresses alongside his surfing skills.
I’m a huge fan of first-person writing–when it is done well. It takes a talented writer to compose a memoir that doesn’t smack of self-importance, even (perhaps especially?) in the context of a spiritual quest. A common trick writers employ to send any trace of self-importance far back into the shadows of readers’ minds is to employ occasional self-effacement. Yogis uses this old ploy, but since he is a Zen practitioner it feels genuine. It’s a testament to Yogis’ writing skill and his Zen practice that he keeps any whiff of ego in check, which lets the story of his life-less-ordinary breathe and just be.
Yogis’ prose certainly has that familiar Zen-author flavor–simple yet profound, concise, and sometimes abrupt. There are no long, flowery paragraphs full of lovely yet perhaps unnecessary metaphors. His writing recalls a hint of Joko Beck, or even Shunryu Suzuki. Buddhism and surfing are equal intertwining threads through the story, but it is often his surfing adventures that provide the waves of tension and release that will carry a reader through to the final page.
Suzuki Roshi said:
…If you limit your activity to what you can do just now, in this moment, then you can express fully your true nature, which is the universal Buddha nature. This is our way. …When you bow, you should just bow; when you sit, you should just sit; when you eat, you should just eat.
After thoroughly enjoying and appreciating Saltwater Buddha, I felt it would be safe to add to this, “when you surf, you should just surf.”