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Author expands on his background, the film version of Saltwater Buddha and his thoughts on surf localism
By Pete Gauvin
The first chapter of San Francisco author Jaimal Yogis’ book, Saltwater Buddha: A Surfer’s Quest to Find Zen on the Sea, is about running away from his home in Sacramento at age 16 with a one-way ticket to Hawaii. His adventure didn’t last long but it left lasting impressions.
Yogis, now 30, sat down with me recently at the Java Beach Cafe in view of San Francisco’s Ocean Beach. He talked about his background, how he nearly became a Buddhist monk, how he came to write his book and the effort to turn it into a film. We also discussed his evolving perceptions on surf localism, the subject of his book chapter, “Surf Nazis Have Buddha-Nature Too,” excerpted in the issue.
Yogis had an unorthodox upbringing as a military brat whose parents were into Eastern philosophy. From ages three to six he lived in the Azores, the Portuguese archipelago, where he first gained an affinity for playing in the ocean. From there his family moved to Sacramento. After his parents got a divorce he became a rebellious teen, getting into mischief and drugs. He bought a one-way ticket to Maui, left a note on his pillow one day and slipped out, never telling his parents where he was going.
He only lasted a few weeks before his father, an Air Force man, convinced him to come home. But he was there long enough to catch the surfing bug — and the Buddhist bug, as well. The ladder via a copy of “Siddhartha,” the Herman Hesse novel, he’d brought with him.
Knowing he had to get out of Sacramento, Yogis arranged to spend his senior year of high school in France. While there he visited the monastery of Thich Nhat Hanh, the exiled Vietnamese Buddhist monk and noted peace activist.
“The minute I got there, I thought, ‘This is my calling. I’m supposed to be a Buddhist monk,’” Yogis says. “By now my parents were used to me having these crazy ideas, so when I called them saying, ‘I’m not going to finish my year here of high school. I’m just going to join the monastery.’ They were like, ‘Finish the damn year of high school and then you can become a monk.”’
He did finish, and when he got back to California he went to live in a Buddhist monastery, first in Ukiah and then Berkeley. Just a few weeks from ordination and making a lifelong commitment at age 18, the abbot of the monastery came to him and encouraged him to go to college first.
“The one lifestyle that came back to me as a nice alternative to the monastic life was going back to my childhood dream of getting good at surfing and living the sort of island life.”
He left the monastery and enrolled at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, majoring in religious studies.
“Ever since then, those two things, surfing and Buddhism, were basically my tools for coming of age and getting through all the growing pains that you go through in your teens. And that’s why I probably ended up writing the book.”
While in college, Yogis traveled as much as possible, living in Santa Cruz for a bit, and spending six months in India.
“When I got out I realized I had a degree in religious studies from the University of Hawaii, which is pretty much the epitome of uselessness as far as a job went. So I was just kind of scouring for a potential livelihood and I thought of journalism.”
Columbia University had a dual master’s program in journalism and religious studies.
“I thought I can’t get into this program but if could it would allow me to keep adventuring and keep traveling and keep surfing and also maintain the philosophical and spiritual interests that I had.”
He spent the next couple years trying to build up his credentials. He managed to get into Columbia by arguing that his travel skills gave him a background of experience.
“At Columbia, this was my shot to finally be a credible member of society, to be a serious journalist and so I was doing a lot of environmental and political stories.”
After graduating, he took a breather from hard news and wrote an article about surfing and meditation for Shambhala Sun, a Buddhist magazine.
“It was just a simple, short article about how surfing and Buddhism overlap. I wasn’t too impressed with the article myself but to my surprise it kept getting republished in all these magazines. … Eventually the UTNE Reader wanted to republish it and they said, ‘We can’t pay you but we could put something in your bio about what you’re up to.’ I wasn’t really up to anything that impressive but I just said, ‘Well, I’m writing a book about this actually.’ It just kind of popped out. So they put in my bio that Jaimal Yogis is writing a book about Zen and surfing.”
A week later he happened to be back in Maui for the first time since he’d run away, when he got a call from a publisher, Wisdom Publications, one of the largest publishers of Buddhist books. They wanted to publish the book he was “working on.”
“I was immediately nervous that they were going to want me to be a surfing Buddhist guru or something, where I expounded on the Dharma and the way things were. I was like, ‘You know, I’m only 25. I’m not the wisest of characters but I do have a lot of good stories from this adventure I’ve been on since I was 16 and ran away … If you let me just tell these stories, I’d love to.’”
ASJ: How long did it take you to write the book?
“When it came down to it I wrote it in about a year. But then the editing and they held it for about a year before launching and now it’s been out for about a year.”
ASJ: How’s the film version of Saltwater Buddha coming along?
“It’s good. We have a great team … and no money (laughs). We’re starting to lay down some tracks … and we’re sort of getting funding incrementally. It’s a slow process. But we’re psyched about it because we’re using it as a way, in part, to start working with this nonprofit, Surf for Life, which is trying to create volunteer opportunities for surfers all around the world. They’re starting in Costa Rica by building the first high school ever in Puerto Viejo, which is a great little surf-Rasta town but it’s also a great town for the drug trade and a lot of the kids get roped into that.”
In addition to telling some of the stories from Saltwater Buddha, the film has merged with the effort to build the school. “It’s made it much more meaningful to me. In the beginning I was like, ‘I don’t know how much more I can deal with my own story.’ I’d been reading it and reading it. I’d been on a book tour. I was kind of getting sick of hearing myself talk.”
“I’m incredibly passionate about this project. I feel like education saved me from being some runaway. … (Having written) a book about my odd path to getting a really good education after being a potential dropout, I feel really lucky that it’s put me in the place where I can be a spokesman for an organization that’s trying to give these kids the same sort of opportunity I had.”
ASJ: So you’ve got some funding hurdles to clear. What’s your timeline for releasing the film?
“We’re hoping to get it on the 2011 film fest circuit. That would necessitate a few miracles. But so far that’s kind of been the style of the story’s trajectory, so we’re not counting that out from happening.”
ASJ: Do you have any partners in the effort?
“Save the Waves is one of our sponsors, as well as Las Olas Surfboards, an eco-surfboard company in San Francisco, and Surf Stronger, which is a surf fitness company, as well others … but we haven’t partnered with a big funder yet. … We’ve set it up so that depending on how much you want to give you can own a portion of the film. So we’re looking to partner with individuals or companies who share the vision. If people want to get involved they should go to saltwaterbuddha.org and contact me or one of the team members.”
ASJ: You mentioned that your perceptions on localism have evolved since you wrote the book?
“You’re in such a gorgeous environment when you’re out surfing and you’re hopefully doing what you love that it still seems ridiculous to me the number of conflicts that happen in the water. … The whole theme of Saltwater Buddha is that were not just separate individuals. We’re like a living organism all here together. And the surf community is no exception. And like it or not we’re all sharing these breaks.”
“I really have a high respect for the way that Australian point breaks function. They’re very streamlined and there is that said and unsaid sort of etiquette to them.”
ASJ: How is that different from American point breaks?
“Well, and American too, actually. I think that countries where surfing has been around for a while have developed a system that is often enforced by the locals. When you have a lack of that in countries where surfing is newer, there can be anarchy that develops that can make it a less enjoyable experience.”
“So I’ve tried to see localism in that perspective. I don’t think it needs to be done in such a way where there’s fighting and all of that, but there is a necessary respect that needs to happen in surfing. To play the devil’s advocate with my chapter on surfing in Santa Cruz, I think it can serve a purpose and can make for a safer lineup.”
ASJ: Do you think things are more aggressive in Santa Cruz still?
“I’ve surfed there recently and I’ve had better and better experiences. I really feel that the surf community in general is sort of evolving to a place that’s more ecologically conscious and also more accepting of different kinds of surfing. With role models like the Malloys and Rob Machado, these guys that are just watermen, it seems like there’s a lot more tolerance in the water than there was even seven or eight years ago.”
“I find a lot of times the most ridiculous outbursts of localism occur in these breaks where there’s no need for it. Where it becomes useful sometimes is when you’re surfing a dangerous point break and there may be somebody who really doesn’t belong in the lineup. And that guy who says, “You know what bro, this isn’t for you,” can sometimes save someone’s life.”
“(Having some) understanding can change a lot. When I see some guy who’s trying to make his break exclusive, I don’t think that’s cool but there’s usually a context for it and it might have served a purpose for that individual.”
“The key to me is to figure out a way for kids to feel that pride and respect for their area — ‘Oh yeah, I grew up surfing here, skated in this park, or played baseball on that field’ — without it being something that you need to hate the other side about. It’s just like, ‘Oh, that’s cool. You’re from here. I’m from there. You can come to my break. I’ll go to your break.’ But you can still have that pride without making it exclusive. I think that’s where I’d like to see localism go. Because the idea of being a local and really understanding your community and your surf community and your break, I think is awesome.”