Thursday, July 23, 2009

Saltwater Buddha

Surfing has been a mostly vicarious pleasure for me. I came of age in the sixties in California. I loved Beach Boys songs. I body surfed in Santa Cruz and have enjoyed surfing ocean swells on sailboats. I made sure my son got all the lessons he wanted to take, and he ended up becoming an assistant instructor in a surf camp in Southern California.

But have I actually surfed, you know, on a surfboard?

Not so far—maybe some day. But I like to read about it. And I like to read about Buddhism.

Saltwater Buddha is the first book I'm aware of that draws parallels between surfing and Buddhism. One might imagine that many such books had already been written. Surfing, like Zen, requires immersion in the immediate moment and mindfulness and concentration. I've seen or read books connecting Zen to motorcycle maintenance, golf, archery, tea, tennis, business, flower arranging—you name it—but not surfing.

So, interested to see what parallels this book might draw, I bought it.

I must confess that I had to overcome some misgivings about buying the book. I was aware that his writing might be loose, foggy and spaced-out. Surfers have a reputation for being incoherent and inarticulate when talking about surfing. But that's at least partly because surfing defies capture in language. "Surfing's far out, man. Zen, too."

My misgivings were quickly dispelled. Jaimal Yogis has a master's degree in journalism from Columbia; he can write. His accounts of surfing ring with both authority and modesty. His presentation of Buddhism was likewise articulate: fair, broad and nuanced. He writes in the vernacular for an audience that's probably unfamiliar with one or both of the subjects that anchor the book.

His book, though, is neither a book about surfing nor Buddhism; it is mostly a coming of age story.

Or perhaps a coming of sage story.

Here's a little taste of what's inside the book.

I was paddling through the impact zone at Ocean Beach. Ocean Beach is widely know to have one of the hardest paddles-outs in the world. I've watched professional surfers try to make it out on big days and get sent back to the beach whimpering. There are few, if any channels and the currents pouring in and out of the San Francisco Bay can reach seven knots, sweeping surfers up and down like driftwood on rapids. People drown there every year.

On this particular day, the waves were like endless frothy barricades. I'd been paddling for twenty minutes and I still wasn't outside. I pushed and pumped and heaved and whined. The sea punched and kicked and jammed sand down my throat. And in the midst of this abuse, I realized how much I love surfing.

I loved the actual riding of the wave, of course. But I also loved the challenge of the paddle.

It wasn't always like that. And maybe I was just happy to be back in the water after living in India for months. Or maybe my mind was more accepting after hanging out with all the ultra-happy Tibetan monks. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized every surfer has to like paddling, at least a little.

This was because extremely little of each surf session is spent actually standing up on your surfboard on a wave—maybe one percent—so if you're looking to have a good time it's essential to find a way to enjoy paddling, or at least good-naturedly bear it. And in that way, I thought, surfing is a good metaphor for the rest of life.

The extremely good stuff—chocolate and great sex and weddings and hilarious jokes—fills a minute portion of an adult life span.

The rest of life is the paddling: work, paying bills, flossing, getting sick, dying.

I started to entertain the thought that maybe I could start to deal better with that kind of paddling too.
I count myself lucky to live in Sebastopol, home to Many Rivers Books and Tea because it brings authors of books I like to read to talk about their work and meet their readers. Yogis stopped by a couple of weeks ago and I got to meet with him and chat with him. I told him that I sent what is probably the first copy of his book to reach the shores of Africa, to my son, Ted, a fellow surfer and sage.

You can learn more about Jaimal Yogis and his book here: Jaimal Yogis.

Jaimal and me at Many Rivers.


Bonnie, Original Heart Studio said...

Love your writing. Today I especially liked the "a coming of sage story" line. Sometimes I can be a little disappointed when the book is not what the title infers, but I always love a coming of age and a coming of "sage" story. Thanks.

Margaret Pangert said...

Interesting! Reminds me a little of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. He could wax philosophical on tightening a belt on the engine. And these examples are metaphors for our daily lives. That's where being mindful is a wonderful way to live life. Just floating on that board waiting for the big kahuna is delicious. Balancing that checkbook is satisfying. I love how joyful you both look in the photo.

Dan Gurney said...

Hi, Bonnie,

Welcome to A Mindful Heart. I wish I could take credit for the "Coming of Sage" line, but it stole it from another reviewer. If you like coming of age stories and you're interested in either surfing or Buddhism, I think you'll enjoy this book.


Dan Gurney said...

Yogis' book has been likened to Pirsig's book. Saltwater Buddha is a quicker read and has better information about Buddhism.

In regard to finding joy in the ordinary moments of life: that's really where the paydirt is. I think Delwyn's and Steven's blogs point at finding the miraculous in the mundane.

Reya Mellicker said...

In spite of their rather bad reputation, the surfers I've know are deeply spiritual people, so connected to the tides/moon and the "curl" as to be one with the ocean. They're amazing people, so I'm not surprised the book is so good.

Very cool, Dan.

Dan Gurney said...

Reya, Moon power. No wonder they're tuned in. I hadn't actually made that link.

steven said...

hi dan, this is a really thoughtful piece of writing isn't it!!! i have never been on a surfboard either, but like cycling for me, the metaphors and purpose connect deeply to spiritual work and in its gorgeous metaphoric essence lies a path to truth that weds the "work" of life to something deeper, passionate, simple yet rich.
great shirt by the way dan!!!! i love that!!!! have a peaceful evening. steven

Dan Gurney said...

Hi Steven, Thanks. You know, I had been wearing that shirt all day. When I was walking down to Many Rivers, I realized that whoa! what a great shirt for this event.

Delwyn said...

Aloha Dan

I must look at the book. My Beloved and kids all surf. They love the big waves in Kauai at winter time - not the huge tow in waves, but the average biggies out in the bowl of Hanalei Bay with the turtles.

I like the paddling analogy...for the grist of life...the ride for the exultation...

Happy days

Sarah Lulu said...

That was fascinating Dan. I can't believe you grew up in the 60's in California without being on a board.

I'm an old (very old haha) Aussie surfer chic.

I married a life saver ...I had my wedding reception by the surf on the beach ...

I saw the Beach Boys in Australia ...when I was 8 months pregnant with my first child was raining and I dance barefoot in the mud!

I'm slowed up a bit now but still somewhere between zen and crazy.

richard nichols said...

Hey Dan, can I borrow the book for my JMT backpack. Surfing, backpacking, hiking, sleeping. Has anyone done ZEN and the ART of Sleeping?

Dan Gurney said...

Delwyn, with a background like that, I'm sure you'd like the book.

Dan Gurney said...

Sarah Lulu,

That I didn't have a board is related more to the fact that I lived more than an hour's drive from the beach and didn't have a car. My parents were clearly more willing to support sailing than surfing.

Actual surfers tended to live near the coast; I didn't know anyone who surfed.

Dan Gurney said...

Richard, sure. As long as when you've finished it you don't leave it on the trail because of its weight. I had it signed 'specially for Ted when he gets back. If I know Ted he'll leave the copy I sent to him behind in Africa, so I got Jaimal to sign another, the one that'll go with you in the Sierras.

Stuart Goodnick said...

Hi Dan!

I thought you would like to share a link to Jaimal Yogis' talk at Many Rivers Books and Tea:

Anil P said...

An interesting connect. I could identify with the 'paddling' through life even as we crest a swell every now and then, if one is lucky that is.

In a remote jungle once, we followed tiger pugmarks for close to an hour and half, losing them in between, before latching onto more, either of the same tiger or a different one, we didn't know for sure.

Then we hit a dead end, and never saw the tiger. But we enjoyed the tracking, the thrill that came out of anticipation that we might actually see one.

We had been 'paddling' away.

Dan Gurney said...

I would think following a tiger through a jungle would be exciting, if not terrifying. Don't tigers eat people?