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A surfer’s quest to find Zen on the sea

A surfer’s quest to find Zen on the sea

“If there is magic on the planet, it is contained in water.” — Loren Eiseley

It’s not often that one finds a book that is both sensibly spiritual and a very fun read. But such was the case on my reading of Jaimal Yogis’ coming-of-age, non-fiction memoir “Saltwater Buddha” (Wisdom Publications, 2009, 238 pages). 

Yogis’ clear, yet engaging, writing style is like having a casual conversation with a longtime friend. Beginning with childhood, Yogis takes us to his home in the San Francisco Bay Area and his initially discovered love for the ocean and his early trials and errors at learning to surf. Not at all a passionate student, he goes back and forth, in and out of schools during his high school years, ending up eventually in Hawaii. Here, he joins the surfing community whole hog and lives frugally, if not impoverished, to spend time at this new sport. 

Early on, when Yogis is not in the water and fighting the elements, he is reading books on Zen Buddhism that he’d been introduced to from his parents, alongside books like “Dharma Bums” by Jack Kerouac and others of the Beat generation. Zen, then, replaces academia for him, and gives him a meditative mindset with which to apply to his efforts at surfing. Or, as he writes in the book’s Introduction: “I have an ongoing love affair with the ocean, which, through years of meditation, I have come to view through what might be called Zen-colored glasses.” 

This early epiphany and this relationship between Zen practice and the world of nature pervades throughout the book as he struggles to master both the Zen art of meditation and the art of riding the waves. “In my limited experience, Zen practice has been something like returning to the waterfront, or like paddling out into the surf after days without waves,” he goes on to say. 

A true individual, Yogis’ life path is that of the solitary seeker, searching for truth wherever he goes and on his own. And so, from a young age and into adulthood, Yogis lives his life “flailing around on the sea, gliding on the fringes of our blue world.” What I, personally, loved most about this book was Yogi’s willingness to be vulnerable and to share with us his failures as well as his successes in his “ride” through life. In a compelling and conversational voice, he draws us in to his personal narrative and takes us with him on his many journeys, both out in the world and inside his probing mind.

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After spending some early years in Hawaii in his youth, Yogis ends up on the Swiss-French border in France, visiting Plum Village and the Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, where his formal study and training in Zen Buddhism truly begins and from where he writes to his parents back in California: “I’ve decided I don’t think I need to finish high school. I’m going to be a monk.” 

Eventually, he does return to California and spends time in a Chinese Buddhist monastery in Berkeley while finishing high school and being what he terms “a pretend monk” for a year. But Yogis wasn’t destined to be a monk, and so he returns to the everyday world where he “tried to be normal.” But he found that “normal was difficult. I got a girlfriend (she broke my heart). I went to parties (they made me tired). I tried to do volunteer work (I got sick).” 

And so ... back to Hawaii he goes. There, he discovers the island of Kalani Honua — a kind of jungle commune as he refers to it — and the teachings of the Zen master Lao Tzu (“The supreme good is like water, which nourishes all things without trying to.”) Here he is privy to one of the premiere surfing spots in the Hawaiian chain called Pohoiki. 

“What I liked most about learning the science of surfing was that even the pure facts were poetic. I began to see why the Hawaiians believed the gods were surfers,” Yogis writes. And it is here that Yogis becomes a true intern to the art of surfing. “I still botched plenty of good waves. But it felt like a new type of surfing was starting to be accessible,” he says, as he strives to combine the art of surfing and the lessons of Zen Buddhism. And with this strategy, Yogis forges ahead, with long days on the water perfecting his skills there on the Big Island of Hawaii. 

He eventually leaves Hawaii and ends up back on the U.S. mainland in Santa Cruz, California. Here, he discovers what is termed “Surf Nazis” with an overpopulation of surfers from all over the world congregating along the Santa Cruz shoreline surfing some of America’s premiere waves amongst a heirarchy of amateur and professional surfers. Here, in this section of “Saltwater Buddha,” we get wave-by-wave, thought-by-thought experiences of Yogi’s trials and travails of the in-water life of a surfer. “I was a Zen surfer,” he declares. Later, he has a near-death experience in the surf of Montauk, just outside of New York City. “Lesson learned,” he writes. 

By the end of the book, Yogis has gotten a journalism degree and is writing for San Francisco Magazine and still surfing every chance he gets. “I’ve learned that I’m not the things I do or don’t do; I’m not surfing or Buddhism or writing. And yet, all those things are. And I am,” he finishes with a Zen flair as his final words. 

(Thomas Crowe is a regular contributer to The Smoky Mountain News and author of the multi-award-winning non-fiction nature memoir "Zoro’s Field: My Life in the Appalachian Woods.”) 

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