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

Photo of surfer falling, on a wave, in the distance

Photo by Siri Sculli

By Jaimal Yogis

In Hawaii, I saw a few fights break out. But I never had any personal collisions with the so-called “localism factor” until I came back to the mainland— or, as the Rastafarians in Hawaii call it, “Babylon.”

After six months at Kalani, I figured I couldn’t live in my heavenly little A-frame forever, so I moved back to California for college classes. To keep up what Rom taught me, I went to that little college town called Santa Cruz: liberal bubble of idealism and drum circles, of health-food stores that out-number Starbucks, of really good cold waves, and, as I would soon find out, angry surfers.

At first I was too tucked away to notice them. I found a quiet studio in Aptos next to a park of redwoods and lolling ferns. Fog cloaked my bedroom windows most mornings and I meditated before dawn to the sound of trickling dew. I could walk to a good beach break and to my new job at the Farm Bakery. I fell in love with a pretty Santa Cruz girl and we tried to be healthy, spiritual do-gooders: yoga classes, monthly beach clean-ups, hospice work, lots of raw vegetables. All was well in the Santa Cruzian cosmos. And I could generally avoid surfing in town where the so-called Surf Nazis roamed.

I first heard this name in my oceanography class. “That’s what people call those assholes,” said a surfer from L.A. who sat next to me. “And they really are Nazis, man, I swear. They think they own the ocean. Man, L.A. was better than this.”

“Really?  L.A.?”

“Well, you expect it more down there. I thought northern Californians were supposed to be more  friendly.”

“We are.”

“Not in Santa Cruz, man.”

———————

To be fair, angry locals exist everywhere there is a combination of two things: good waves and male surfers. Serene as our sport can be, put a bunch of testosterone-crazed men in close proximity competing for anything, even just fleeting bursts of saltwater, and there will be problems.

On the whole, I’d say Barton Lynch, the 1988 surf champ, got it right when he said that surfers are “more cocky and judgmental than any group of people in the world.” And Santa Cruz surfers are known as the worst. Not that there aren’t a lot of friendly surfers in Santa Cruz, but the Nazis do enough heckling, shouting, and beating to eclipse the others.

I suppose it’s not their fault. Aside from the cold water—usually about fifty-five degrees—it would be hard to design a better surf locale than Santa Cruz. The entire bay faces south, which means the northwest winds that pound the rest of northern California blow offshore in Santa Cruz and keep the waves tidy almost every day, year-round. Santa Cruz is open to gentle south swells all summer. And in winter, the powerful northern swells that overfill many northfacing breaks get parceled, manicured, and groomed as they bend into the Monterey Bay and collide with Santa Cruz’s sedimentary reefs.When all the right factors combine, it can be a stunning sight.

At some point long, long ago in the dark ages of surfing—before the invention of the wetsuit—Santa Cruz surfers were a brazen, chill-tolerant few with the pristine sanctuary to themselves. But Jack O’Neill changed everything. In 1952, he invented the wetsuit and opened his first real surf shop in Santa Cruz shortly after. The wetsuit* allowed even old ladies, small children, and wimpy Buddhists onto the waves; Santa Cruz transformed from hippie town with a few polar bear club surfers to hippie town with a surf-driven economy. Today, the area seems to have more surf shops than it does gas stations. And from Sunset Beach to Scott’s Creek, when the surf is good, thousands of wet-suited surfers descend on the sea and fill every nook and cove, competing for anything that ripples, refracts, or gurgles.

It’s still a great place to be a surfer. But you have to feel a little bad for the born-and-bred Santa Cruz surfers, whose solitary Eden has been opened wide to every over-eager UC Santa Cruz student, every Silicon Valley drudge fending off a mid-life crisis, and every newly christened surfer coming back from six months in Hawaii and trying to beat culture shock.

So, of course they try to defend their turf—not that that justifies some of their actions. But everything is created by causes and conditions.

* For which, Mr. O’Neill, I am very grateful.

———————

I finally witnessed genuine Surf Nazi rage at a well-populated town spot called the Hook. It was a crowded, small day, and there was much more jockeying for space than surfing going on. But it was also sunny. The air was clear. And everyone who wasn’t getting waves—all but about seven guys—probably figured just sitting in the water was still better than whatever else they had to do.

After an hour or so, I watched three grinning boys paddle out with their shiny new gear, jabbering about girls in their dorm or something. They weren’t terrible surfers. They just had terrible judgment. They paddled directly to the wrong take-off point and dropped in on the wrong guy, a stocky blonde with a chin like Arnold Schwarzenegger.

“What the fuck are you doing?” the Arnold-chin guy yelled.

“Surfing,” the boy replied.

It was a brave response. But the wrong one. Within minutes, the boys were slipping on seaweed and ducking hurled rocks. The boys darted back into their SUV, not even bothering to change out of their wetsuits.

Arnold-chin and his friends were proud of themselves. In their minds, I imagine, they were doing their duty: protecting their pristine shores. The three of them laughed about it for a good fifteen minutes— “They were so fucking scared”—and on and on.  Then they went back to their conversation about the previous night’s exploits.

“I was sooo wasted. Keyed. Seriously.”

“I know, dude, how many times did you use the Nword?”

“About thirty. But I don’t mean it like that, man.”

Perhaps they had earned the name Nazis for a reason. Anyway, I didn’t want to deal with them. So I surfed conservatively, smiled a lot and apologized profusely whenever I came close to breaking a taboo. It worked for a long time. But then one day, I was in downtown Santa Cruz during a big winter swell. Normally, I’d have headed to one of the more secluded coves up north, but I only had ninety minutes before class.

So I drove down to Santa Cruz’s most famous and crowded spot: Steamer Lane.

———————

The Lane became famous in the ’60s as a good training spot for Makaha and Sunset and other bigwave Hawaiian surf spots. It has since become so “localized” that even the parking lot is divided between locals and non-locals. In other words, before you even touch the water, you know where you stand in the pecking order. And because the wave breaks in perfect view from the Santa Cruz surf museum and lighthouse, a popular tourist lookout, the Lane is like a surf auditorium built for show-offs. It breeds the worst in localism and the best in surfing acrobatics.

Not surprisingly, the two often go together.

I’d surfed the Lane a handful of times and I knew where I stood. I parked in the tourist lot and walked to the lighthouse to have a look. The railing on the cliff was brimming with families flashing cameras, students playing Frisbee, and mobs of surfers, all of them gawking.

“OH! MY! GOD!” I heard someone shout. And then I saw it. In the surf slang of the moment, the Lane was “going off”: ten-foot faces backlit by a warm sun unwrapped across the inlet like a magazine cover. I’d heard the Lane got good. But I had had no idea it could do this.

Dozens of surfers spread out in tight-knit groups like little islands. The best surfers waited in a pack at the most dangerous spot behind the jutting cliff. I watched a big set come in. The surfer furthest behind the cliff caught it, streamed down the face, narrowly missing the cliff’s edge as the wall of water collided with the sediment and shot white spume twenty-five feet vertically. “Oohhh,” the tourists cooed. “Sick,” said the surfer next to me. “So critical.”

———————

I grabbed my board and climbed quickly down the cement steps into the water. On a sign near the entrance, someone had written, “You’re not a local until you’ve lived in Santa Cruz for seven years.”

Charming. Just six years and eight months to go.

I paddled to middle point, a peak safely away from the rocks. And despite the crowd, surprising myself, I got a few very good rides; the waves were setting up in a predictable line, almost like—I hate to say it—a surfing video game. Plenty of room to carve around on the face, time to think about your next snap.

A few professionals (and lots of aspiring professionals) were out in the lineup. Everyone, even the women, seemed to be doing their best alpha-male impersonation: jaw thrust forward, eyes steely, shoulders back, no smiles. Only the good old boys were talking at all, cracking inside jokes to let everyone know that they did indeed own this wave (in case we somehow forgot).

It was a quintessential Santa Cruz day. Between waves, I watched in envy as guys like Darryl Virostko, known as Flea, pulled floaters and aerial maneuvers like his board was an extension of his body. He was like a human-board hybrid. A herd of seals was sunning on a nearby rock. Purple and yellow flower bloomed like fireworks. The cliffs twinkled like new sandpaper.

Peter, a guy I knew from English class, was out at    middle point, too. He surfed the Lane regularly and said he’d never seen it so good. “This is rare beauty,” he said. “Santa Cruz gold.”

“I think these may be the best waves I’ve ever ridden,” I told him.

“They may be the best waves you’ll ride for a long time, too. This swell’s gonna be over by tomorrow. Get ’em while you can.”

Middle point was plenty of fun. But after months in Hawaii, I had a chip on my shoulder. And before long, I paddled over toward the pack near the cliff. The waves were steeper over there, barreling in an almond shape as they rumbled by the cliff’s edge.

I was a little nervous. I still hadn’t gotten a good tube ride, ever.

The art of getting inside the wave looks easy in videos and magazines. But it’s actually about as difficult as threading a needle wearing mittens and a blindfold. Making it out of the tube was the hardest part for me. Almost every time I’d made it in, the wave had swallowed.

I knew I had to prove myself if I was going to sit behind the cliff and get any respect. And again, I got unbelievably lucky. On the first wave I paddled into, as I passed the cliff, the lip leapt outward like it was reaching for shore. I ducked, pressed my body close to the face, and a thin sheath of water just fell over my shoulder. It was like ducking behind a waterfall, like breathing underwater, like being shot through the barrel of a shotgun. It was all of this, and also like nothing else. It was my first real tube. I wasn’t deep inside the hollow section, but I was definitely in the shade of the lip, enough for the periscope vision I’d been dreaming about. I heard hoots from the crowd before the wave spat me out in a burst.

———————

I felt like I’d just won the lottery. I wanted to scream to the tourists: “I know what it feels like, suckers!” But one never breaks stoic coolness at a spot like the Lane. Never. So I acted the part—just one of the boys.

But as Kurt Vonnegut Jr. once wrote, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be.” I paddled back with fierce confidence: back arched, stare forward. I figured everyone had seen my wave and that everyone would gladly give me waves the rest of the evening. I paddled deeper into the pack and waited.

But then I made a slight faux pas. Okay, a big one. On my next wave, I didn’t even look to see if anyone was dropping in before me. I just rode, like Tupac, nothing but open wave ahead—pure freedom. And as I rode—yeah! yeah!—I heard a voice: “HO-HO-HO! HO-HO-HO!” Unfortunately this was not a festive greeting. This meant in surf-speak: “Get the hell out of my way, now!”*

* I have no idea which surfer started saying “HO” to signal that the wave is already taken. But it seems to be used all over the world now. I know one surfer who has tacked on a “Merry Christmas” when the other surfer gets off the wave. And unrelatedly, but in an interesting coincidence, repeatedly chanting “Ho” is also what Zen monks in Japan intone on their begging rounds—it’s the Japanese word for “Dharma.”

I looked back to see a surfer in a bright red wetsuit. And no one wears a bright red wetsuit unless they really want to be noticed. He was barreling down the line right toward me, screaming now: “HO! HO!”

Technically, it was his wave. And I tried to follow etiquette and pop off the back of the wave. But for some reason, when I did that I didn’t bring my board. I jumped off, diving over the lip. Thus, I was safely out of the way, but my board was not. And it tripped him. I was all set with my overdone apology when I heard him scream. “Errrggghhhmotherfucker!”  Oh man. He was angry, very angry. He paddled toward me spewing words in what almost sounded like fast-forward.

“Whatthefuckareyoudoingfuckingidiot

motherfuckinfaggothomoERRGGHH!”

“I’m really sorry,” I said. “I am really, really sorry! I tried to—”

“Faggotyourefuckingluckyyoudidntding

myboard. Errrghnowgetoutandlearnto

fuckingsurf.”

“Hey, I said I was sorry.”

“Whydontyoufuckinglooknextfucking

timefuckingbuttpirate.”

———————

Despite his poor manners and slurred speech I felt bad. It was my fault. If I hadn’t been pretending I was Kelly Slater, it wouldn’t have happened. I apologized again and expected the incident would be over. I wasn’t going to get out like he wanted me to. He didn’t look older than twenty-one and he wasn’t even a great surfer. Besides, everyone gets dropped in on from time-to-time. It happened a thousand times a day at Steamer Lane. He would let it go.

But for the next twenty minutes, the red-suited bandit and his friend, a guy in a bright blue suit and a fluorescent orange top, taunted me with more homophobic obscenities and fast-forward surf slang.

It was really annoying.

And I wasn’t going to fight them. For one thing, judging from their crew cuts, bright suits, and political incorrectness, I figured they probably had older brothers with black monster trucks waiting in the parking lot to run over Buddhist surfers. Secondly, I don’t think I could effectively hold my own against an aggressive starfish if I wanted to. And thirdly, back at the monastery I took a lifelong vow against killing (and fighting) that I’d upheld thus far—with the exception of a few mosquitoes, which I regret. And since I’d broken most of the other vows many times over, I wanted to maintain at least one. I tried to ignore them:

“Deedadeee. Happy thoughts, happy thoughts.”

But after the tenth time the red-suited surfer yelled “faggot” at me, I began to lose my patience. Perhaps if he’d been a little bit more creative—“Hey sea horse, are you pregnant?” “Hey hippo mouth”—I would’ve taken it in stride. But faggot? It was as if these guys had been stuck in a time warp—Miami Beach, 1985—and had suddenly beamed down to Steamer Lane just to test my patience.

I paddled away, but I couldn’t surf at all well. My chest began to tighten.My ribs compressed. I felt nauseous. I was getting… angry. And that was not good.

Good Buddhists don’t get angry, I told myself (unhelpfully). And every time I looked at their bright suits, the anger grew. And every time the anger grew, I got angry at myself for getting angry. Suddenly, on a beautiful day with the best surf of the year, nothing felt right.

The water was cold. My hands were clammy. I started hating everyone, all the stupid surfers, all the ridiculous followers who just wanted a cool surfer identity, which was the only reason they were out.

Unlike me—obviously the only soul surfer left— they were obstacles. Flotsam.

———————

Shantideva, a famous Indian Buddhist philosopher in the eighth century, said that a single moment of anger can destroy eons of good karma. The law of karma, of course, is the causal notion that wholesome deeds always yield wholesome results and unwholesome deeds inevitably lead to unwholesome results. What you reap is what you sow, basically.

Me, I didn’t quite believe that karma worked so straightforwardly just then. But anyway, I figured I should heed Shantideva’s warning and not act out my anger. Plus, I didn’t think I had much good karma to spare. I’d only just started being an official do-gooder in that year. And in all honesty, the beach clean-ups were more of a way to spend time with my girlfriend,who seemed to never have enough time to see me because she was always saving the earth.

So I told myself, “I need to handle this peacefully. I meditate. I’m spiritual. The red-suited demon is just a test. Remember Siddhartha, remember Mara.”

I dug deep into my Buddhist training.

I tried to analyze the anger. Hui-neng, the Sixth Ancestor of Zen, said of the enlightened mind: “The ear hears sounds but the mind doesn’t move.” I’d heard the sounds (“hey faggot”), judged them, and reacted by tensing up. That reaction was based on my perception of a fixed self—a self I felt was currently under threat and in need of defending—my memory patterns, and cultural programming, and this reaction was the proximal thing causing me to suffer. Sure, the guy was a bit uncouth. But he wasn’t shoving my own burning anger down my throat. The anger was coming from inside me. In principle, I had a choice.

Then I recalled that the Buddha said that the causes of anger were frustrated desire or wounded pride. I didn’t want to admit it, but obviously my pride had been wounded, a lot. “Learn to surf,” the jerk in red had said. In the space of a wave, I’d gone— in my own mind—from one of the best surfers at the Lane, to the worst. And really, I was more angry about that than anything.

I took a deep breath and recited my little Buddhist catch phrases: “Just surf, Jaimal. Present moment.

Everything passes. Nothing  permanent.”

It helped. But I still felt queasy and still kind of wanted that red-suited devil-child to faceplant in the cliff.

So I moved on to stage two: generate compassion. I silently recited the Metta Sutra, the Buddha’s discourse on loving-kindness: “Even as a mother protects with her life her child, her only child, so with a boundless heart should one cherish all living beings.” I tried to see the brightly colored homophobes as fellow humans who were in the same boat of suffering, who wanted to be happy, just like me, who wanted good waves, just like me. But I couldn’t do it.

I found myself visualizing throwing spiny purple sea urchins at their heads, each one lodging itself in their stupid little faces.

———————

So what about something more human, I thought, something witty? What would Dave Chapelle say? Or Mr. Miyagi? No. No. I racked my brain for something that would teach these boys a lesson. I remembered that surf writer Dan Duane (one of my writing heroes) had a similar encounter with a teenager at Steamer Lane and, in his book, he’d said to the kid, “I could have an Uzi in my car.” You know, just to shake the kid up a little. That was pretty clever. Yeah, I’d tell these guys I had an Uzi—oh, who was I kidding? If anyone had an Uzi, it was their older brothers with the freaking monster trucks.

The whole situation sucked.

I couldn’t calm down. And I couldn’t surf. And I couldn’t say anything to them. And I obviously wasn’t as spiritually evolved as I’d imagined. And I was probably repressing my anger into a spiky little bomb that would erupt years from now and turn me into a serial killer who preyed on people wearing red.

I tried to catch a wave and fell. The red-suited devil saw me fall and yelled again, “Faggot!

Man, he was a little shit. But I tried to fake it, play it cool. I met eyes with him a couple times, grinned and raised my eyebrows as if to say, you’re not bothering me so you might as well give up. But he knew he was bothering me. He splashed me. “Isaidgohomestupidfaggotidiothomoyou’renotwelcome

hereerrrgghhhgothefuckhome.”

And then, something strange happened, something cool.Well, first I threw more make-believe sea urchins at his head. But then something cool happened.

As he continued shouting, I watched his face in more detail. When he yelled, it contorted and tightened; it reminded me of a sick pig. The veins in his throat bulged. And it was obvious when I looked closely: the red-suited devil was not having a good time. In fact, he appeared to be in just as much pain as I was, and his pain was self-inflicted, just like mine. And he just couldn’t let go, just like I couldn’t— despite all my spiritual training.

We were both holding on to this thing, this monster between us. And now that I saw it, I could almost feel it hovering there, tangible. It was wrapping its stickiness around our throats—and we were helping it. We were grabbing on to it tightly, believing it was part of us. But it wasn’t. It was a thing we’d each created. It was a bad wave we’d caught and it had closed out and was holding us down. All we needed to do was let it pass. All we needed to do was stop grabbing at it.

And when I saw this, I did let go—a little. And then a little more. I let myself breath more naturally. And when I did this, I even felt kind of bad for the guy. And when I felt kind of bad for the guy, as if on cue, he and his buddy paddled in. As they walked up the steps, they continued shouting nonsense. The red-suited kid even stood on the cliff for a few minutes flailing his arms and screaming obscenities that I couldn’t even hear. I had to give him points for perseverance, but silhouetted against the sky, he just looked like he was having a seizure.

“What’s up that guy’s ass?” said Peter, who’d been surfing middle point the whole time and hadn’t heard the incident.

“I dropped in on him. But he seems to be more angry at life in general.”

“Yeah. Apparently. Must have a hell of a home life. What’s he saying?”

“No idea.”

We laughed about it a little, about the ridiculousness of fighting while playing in the waves, and the knot in my chest started to untie. I was still a little mad, but more at myself than at the kid. The redsuited guy seemed like a caricature of anger.

Or maybe a bodhisattva who’d come to compassionately demonstrate what can happen without anger management skills.

———————

A burly samurai once came to a Zen master and asked the master, “Sensei, please teach me the difference between heaven and hell.”

“Why would I give an uncouth cretin like you such a high teaching,” the Zen master said, in apparent disgust. “You’re a worm. You’re less than a worm. You’re a stupid samurai.”    Samurai were never treated this way in ancient Japan and the samurai grew instantly enraged. His eyes bulged and he raised his shiny sword, ready to slice the little monk in two.

But the Zen master didn’t flinch. (They never do.) He said to the samurai, calmly, “That, Samurai, is hell.”

Suddenly, understanding the teaching, realizing that he was about to kill a holy man because of his own pride, the samurai’s eyes filled with tears. He put his sword down and his palms together in reverence. He bowed deeply.

“And that,” said the master, “is heaven.”

———————

Looking back over thewater, I noticed it was actually a fabulous day. The sun, now a dark orange, was beginning to sink behind the cliff. The water was turning from a jade green to an oily black flecked with points of light. Brown pelicans, with their pterodactyllike wingspans, skimmed the water, reading the wave lines better than any of us. A spotted harbor seal near the cliff raised its whiskered head above water and glanced around before diving back down.

I breathed the cold salt air in deeply.

Heaven.

Jaimal Yogis lives in San Francisco. “Saltwater Buddha” is his first book.

For more on his writing and other projects, including the film version of “Saltwater Buddha,” visit his website, www.jaimalyogis.com