Saltwater Buddha: A Surfer’s Quest to Find Zen on the Sea

This week with speak with the author of Saltwater Buddha, Jaimal Yogis.  Jaimal, a Zen surfer and journalist, wrote Saltwater Buddha to chronicle his late teens and early 20’s as he learned to surf and delved into Zen.  He shares with us some of the highlights from this time of his life, and also shares what a powerful metaphor the ocean has been for his spiritual life, especially given his passion for surfing.  He also shares some prescient observations about what it’s like being a young Buddhist, and what he notices that is different about the young generation of up-and-coming practitioners.

Vince: Hello Buddhist Geeks.  This is Vince Horn and I’m here today with our special guest.  He’s joining us from the West Coast, Jaimal Yogis. He’s a Zen practitioner, surfer, journalist and author of a recently released book called Saltwater Buddha: A Surfer’s Quest to Find Zen on the Sea.  Did you find Zen on the sea, Jaimal?

Jaimal: Yeah.  I mean in a manner of speaking, I think, in the same way that surfing for me is just part of my practice.  It’s just like coming back to meditation cushion every day.  And, then in it’s literal meaning, it’s being beyond this kind of concentration that is… sort of encompasses everything.  I wouldn’t have claimed to have found what the mantra is sort of referring to.  But, I do find that returning again and again into the water like a daily baptism for me.  It’s just a way to get back to sort of rinse clean and literally kind of washes… feels like it washes my thoughts into a more ordered manner or something like that.  So, it’s just another meditation practice and I think having a physical practice is really important as a mediator: something that keeps you connected to nature, something that keeps you in good health.  And surfing is a wonderful type of meditation as well because there’s a lot of movement and you are doing this thing where riding waves and you’re kind of emerging with your element like your medium, but, you also just a lot of waiting around.  So, there’s a lot of time where you’re just sitting looking at the horizon and, you know, you can focus on your breath sort of be in that appreciative space which I think appreciation is very close to our true nature.  You know, the more appreciative you are, I think, the closer you are to being in that natural mind.  That’s what I found, you know, that big enlightenment.  It’s definitely a daily, literal that keeps me sane. [laughs]

Vince: I figured because Saltwater Buddha is really kind of like an autobiographical work, you wrote about this particular period in your life where you were exploring Zen meditation, you know, in your late teens and 20’s and also at the same time exploring surfing.  So, yeah, given that it’s such an interesting combination, it’s one that as a Buddhist practitioner, I’d never heard before.  So, I was wondering if you could say a little bit about the time that you wrote about in this book and some of the highlights that you found most pressing during that period.

Jaimal: Sure.  It’s a broad topic.  The book covers a pretty large span of time.  It starts off when I ran away to Hawaii at the age of 16 and I was sort of a mischievous teenager getting into trouble, you know, experimenting with… just pushing the limits of the law, basically.  And so, I was on probation for getting a DUI and stuff.  And I figured I wasn’t sort of living my truth at that time.  I wasn’t living my potential really.  And, I think that dreams can play a big role as guidance.  And I started having these dreams about water and about waves and about islands.

And this was going back to sort of a flashback in time for me when I was living in Azores, Portugal.  My dad was stationed there where I lived close to the ocean.  And then we moved inland.  And so there was something about that time period, that connection that I had with the ocean that was coming back to me.  Then, ten years later, and that was all I knew at that point cause I was really at this point in my life not that connected to myself and to my heart.  And so all I had was this glimmer but I needed to change and it came in the form of this… of water, these dreams of islands.  And so, I took off.  I went to Somalia.  I ran away.  I left this memo hence on my bedroom that was saying that I’m somewhere in the world.  And that created a lot of havoc and it wasn’t the most compassionate thing to do to my family.  So, what it did do is it stirred things up enough… it was kind of like sometimes you just need to make a break, or really make a big change in your life to get on to a different path.  And that was really the beginning of my spiritual path.  And that’s where the book starts.

And when I go to Hawaii, I happened to take Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse with me.  I had been around meditation in my life cause my parents were meditators and that’s where I got my name.  I was named after this Indian guru in the Sikh tradition but I never really had done any of it myself.  And so, surfing was this incredible challenge for me that I too on I decided to stop doing any drugs or I was going to change my life and surfing was this challenge that I took on to help me and it seemed like a creative thing to do and I was also reading about the Buddha’s life or Herman Hesse’s sort of adaptation of the Buddha’s life and I also began meditating and so they kind of just always melded together and I saw these parallels.  I think because surfing is a, is an incredible challenge, people do it for 10, 20 years and you still feel very far from mastery.  It’s similar to meditation in that way in that you can do it every day for many years, it’s still, like your mind is always learning a new challenge and the ocean is always throwing in a challenge and I sort of see the ocean really as a metaphor for the mind and that was the way that my practice developed over the past ten years where I was, I ended up living in a Buddhist monastery going and traveling to different surf places, but I think because I began my past with these two things, sort of growing up together, meditation and surfing, they just blended together and I use the ocean as a metaphor for meditation and I use surfing as a sort of a tool for meditation.  So, I could say more about that, but I don’t know, is there a particular part of the book that you wanted to hear about, I could talk about it.

Vince: No, I think what you just said gives a nice kind of overview of the kinds of things and we can go more into the specifics and you started talking a little bit about the ocean and how it’s a metaphor for meditation and how meditation is a tool for surfing and so on.  I mean, that’s one thing that struck me, I mean, this is a powerful and ancient theme in almost all the world’s traditions, at least the ones that are probably near the ocean where you hear about the waves and the ocean and it’s usually used as a metaphor, right?  Like, it’s a way to describe something, but I’m thinking for a surfer, it must be a little bit more real for you, it must be a little more tangible for you and I was wondering if you could say a little more about that particular metaphor?

Jaimal: Yeah, there’s a few metaphors that get thrown out there a lot in mystical traditions.  One I really like is that we are like waves in the ocean.  A wave is basically a, it starts with wind blowing on the surface of the ocean, it trims up some ripples and those ripples become a veil to catch some more of the wind’s energy and the wind is basically pumping energy into the water, and it begins to spiral and it becomes this thing, it takes form.  It comes into being, at least, appearance-wise, of a separate kind of entity traveling across the ocean.  You see the swell, swells pick up on the feet and they travel hundreds of miles until they break shore.  Energy in motion stays in motion until it hits the sand and then the waves kind of take its most hard form and it pitches into that beautiful concave thing that we see on the beach and surfers love to ride.  The neat thing about that is that waves look so, like a portion of water that’s moving across the ocean, but what’s actually happening is the wind is just transferring, wind energy is just transferring between molecules.  So, if you leave a little stick on top of the ocean floating and a wave moves by, the stick will stay in one place and the wave will just pump through it.  It’s completely energy and it’s similar to the way we are, you know, it’s like we feel like we’re kind of like this separate mass.  We feel like there’s a veil between us and nature or something, like we are independent.  Like a wave, there’s no one atom or molecule that was in me or you when we were babies that’s in us now that we can replenish many times over and what holds us together is sort of mind or our memories and thoughts and similarly with the waves, it looks like a separate thing, but it’s never ever a part from the ocean then this thing that encompasses all the waves and so it’s a great metaphor, right?  It’s like Buddhists talk a lot about how you do have a self, it’s not, but the self is illusory in some sense and how is it a illusory?  Well, because it is connected to all things and all places.  That does seem like an abstract concept and I think if I wasn’t a surfer, I would take that wave metaphor and I would get it and be like “oh, that’s a good metaphor”, but it wouldn’t really think in deep and when you are following a wave and you’re studying them obsessively as surfers do, you really start feeling how these, how this energetic body of water works and how these things really can have individual character and also be part of the sea.  And I think it just deepens the metaphor and makes it much more real and it continues to come back to you every day as well.

Practice is very repetitive and it’s made that way on purpose.  We have to be reminded of these things every day.  Why?  Because our patterns are so ingrained that it takes an incredible amount of energy to change our habits.  And so, being reminded of that metaphor every day is something that I’m incredibly grateful for.

You don’t need to be a surfer to be reminded of that but you can find your own metaphors, you know.  I love that quote, that the earth speaks Dharma. You know, I think, whenever you’re outside and you’re just sort of connecting with the natural world in a way that deepens your relationship to it, you find these Dharma metaphors.  And this one is a good one that you can use but it’s not the only one.

Vince: Thank you for that.  It’s cool.  And just so people know and your book is really… it’s chockfull of metaphors along those lines.  It’s really deep in that way.  It’s a really interesting and complex metaphor itself, the entire book.  So, yeah, thank you for that.

Jaimal: Thank you.

Vince: So, you’re 29 right now and you’re going to be turning 30 pretty soon.  So, you’re kind of part of this… we could call younger generation in the Buddhist world.  And one thing we like to touch on a lot here in Buddhist Geeks is how Buddhism is being understood and practiced by people that are in the younger generation: the kind of third, fourth generation of Buddhist practice here in the West. And I think part of the reason is just because I’m young and I’m interested in that.

Jaimal: Uh, huh.

Vince: And then part of the reason is because people have really responded to it, the times that we have explored that.  People that listen to the show really find that interesting.  So, given that you’re part of this kind of younger generation and given that you started in your late teens and have been practicing now for over a decade, I figured it would be cool to get your take on what it’s like being a younger Buddhist and how it’s maybe distinct from past generation.  Cause we clearly live in a very different time.

Jaimal: You know, the main generation that I’ve watched that isn’t my own is my parents’ generation then.  There’s an obvious difference that they were getting interested in practice in the 60’s and so, you know, is sort of related with drugs and the political movements that were happening at the time.  There was such upheaval world and I think it was probably a very exciting time to be part of it.  And a lot of sincere practice going on… But it was almost like there was a huge… just like everything was getting through the pot, like “free love” and “meditation” and “screw Nixon.”  And these were part of it.  There’s nothing actually wrong with that.  I think there was a lot… a huge emphasis in that generation on these new experiences.  We’re not going to be part of the mundane world.  We’re going to do something utterly different and it’s about breaking down the system.  And I think, especially, because of a lot drugs, it was like the spirituality was associated with them saying that it was supposed to be like fireworks and crazy trips and, you know, sort of give all a high.  That’s one way to go about it.  But, what I see in this generation that excites me is that there really seems to be a desire to live in the world and take the structures that we have and infuse them and be able to bring practice into them and bring a truthful balance way of life into the world that we have.  And in doing so, you know, make the world a better place.

I think we needed that ruckus break from the more sort of entrenched pattern of norms that was happening back in the 50’s and 60’s to give us the gift of being able to now, in this generation, sort of say, “Well, it’s not all bad.  Maybe, I want to live and have a normal job and have a family and also live in a way that is true and in a way that’s in harmony.”  And I think that’s neat too because there really isn’t anything about practice that I think should make every day life so bad.  I think what practice in its most profound sense just makes the most mundane things like kind of juicy… just having an English muffin with your grandma kind of a thing.  Like, that moment is just as full as being at the Dead concert.

Trying to integrate practice into the everyday is…that’s how it becomes grounded in a society, in a culture and begins to become sustainable.  Because we’re still really in this process where Eastern thought and ideas and practice are just kind of trickling in to our society and in some ways they become like pop sort of wisdom.  And that takes its effect.  But real practice, that happens on an everyday level and really that’s still trying to be worked out, I see people doing that in a really beautiful way in our generation.  And hopefully that will continue.

But there are challenges.  I still find being a young Buddhist that I’ve sort of drifted in and out of having a really tight knit community of like-minded, similarly aged buddies to practice with.  When I lived in a Buddhist monastery when I was 18, it was this amazing time where all of a sudden it was just sort of the way that it worked.  Everyone was getting out of high school and for some reason there was this group of guys and girls who were really interested in like practicing a lot.  And we would go on retreats together and just to have that, those group of people who weren’t interested in partying a lot and, like our college years.  And here we were, we just wanted to go up to the monastery and be quiet and then talk about it.  And that was such a powerful time to have those three or four years where I had community in my early 20’s.  And it really laid a foundation and I’m still friends with all of those people.  And we now are busier and we have jobs and partners and whatnot.

But Kerouac, I remember, said like 18 is such a great time to practice the dharma and I think you are in kind of like a fearless, really open space at that time.  A hopefully, idealistic space.  Yeah, I could say more about that but I think community is really important and I’m glad to see things like Dharma Punks and other young practice groups springing up.  And I’m hoping Saltwater Buddha will bring some like minded, water folks together who are spiritually minded because there’s a lot of them out there that surfing is kind of like something has a little bit of like a too-cool-for-school attitude that when you join you’re a little bit cautious about letting people know your true self.  So I’m hoping this will help people take down their guard a little bit and just get together and sit together or whatever it is.

Vince: Nice.  Would you say that part of the reason you wrote the book was to actually get this kind of material out to the surfing community itself, more so than say the Buddhist community?

Jaimal: No, it was both.  It was…  I think a lot of surfers have an interest in Buddhism but maybe they’re always surfing so they haven’t really delved in.  Surfing is one of those things that tends to take over your life.  So I definitely…I hope people who are sort of wanting that introduction could get it through this. And that surfers who already had a Buddhist practice are [duking] it.  But I also thought, hoped, that Buddhist practitioners and really anyone would just kind of relate to the water metaphors.  And that’s been true.  I get more letters probably from people who are just sort of like, “I don’t meditate, I don’t surf, but there’s something about this metaphor that I really connect with.  It’s helping me in my life.”  And I think there’s something universal about water.  We are made of water.  Life is made possible by water.  It really is like this special, magical juju that just makes life on earth possible.  Life as far as we know it, possible.  It has all these incredible properties that no other substance on earth has.  And we use a lot of water metaphors in our life.  We’re always saying, “I’m in the flow today.  I’m drowning in work,” these things are close to us in our language.  We come from the sea original.  And so I’m just kind of hoping to tap a little bit of something in our collective unconscious about something that we all already know but maybe need to be reminded of.

Vince: Well, thanks Jaimal for taking the time to join Buddhist Geeks and share a little bit of about your book and also about your perspective as a young Buddhist practitioner.  It’s been really cool talking to you and wish you the best moving forward.

Jaimal: Thanks so much Vince.  This seems like just a great show.  I’m really happy that it’s out there and yeah, … keep on trucking.

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