Riding the wave between Zen and surfing, Jaimal Yogis pens a book that balances the connections between both

By Bruce Willey • Photos by Siri Scull

Jaimal Yogis Surfing

Any self-respecting surfer who’s paddled out into the ocean’s fury and caught a wave knows that Zen and surfing are inseparable. It’s just that most don’t know it—yet. Now with Jaimal Yogis’ new book “Saltwater Buddha: A Surfer’s Quest to Find Zen on the Sea” (Wisdom Publications, 256 pages, $14.95) the connection between the two is at last articulated, coming full-circle into the reflective light of the ocean.

This breezy, coming-of-age tale is in fact a memoir, a quest for pelagic vitality and terrestrial enlightenment all rolled into the spiritual spindrift of Zen. Much as surfing requires countless days spent flailing at the mercy (and often merciless) power of the ocean, Yogis’ Zen quest is just as hard earned. But by using Zen to comprehend surfing and surfing to sort out Zen, “Saltwater Buddha” gets about as close as any previous surf narrative to answering the question: What are all those surfers doing out there bobbing in the cold water for hours only to catch a few brief moments of bliss?

Yet ask any surfer the essence of surfing and you’re likely to get a roundabout answer that is as convoluted and mysterious as a kelp forest. Yogis, on the other hand, manages to retain much of the mystery, imparting Zen as a way to find the deeper meaning in life both in and out of a wetsuit.

One of the answers, among many that Yogis proposes, is that Zen and surfing are somewhat historically linked. “Just about the time Bodhidharma showed up in southern China, the Polynesians, largely regarded as the most deft sailors ever, were navigating by the stars to Hawaii, where surfing was most likely born,” Yogis writes in “Saltwater Buddha.”

Another parallel emerges: Religion tried to squash surfing on the Islands and anti-religion outlawed Zen in China.

But it’s the energy of water and waves themselves that perhaps make the most fluid connection in the book. And as anyone who has caught a wave knows, the ride transcends time. Awareness is heightened. Focus is all encompassing. You are one with the wave, one with the ocean. “There was only this and this and this,” he writes. “Just power and presence.”

Saltwater Buddha Book CoverLike the ebb and flow of the tides, “Saltwater Buddha” floats between the esoteric surfing/Zen connection and the real life of a young man coming to terms with adulthood. He makes his escape from his wave-less, drugs and drinking teenage life in Sacramento to the island of Maui. There he buys a used surfboard and begins his introduction into the world of surfing. Following the young lad in his search for saltwater enlightenment is at times painful. Yogis realizes he must grow up, accept the responsibilities of adulthood while retaining the innocence of his Zen quest. What better place to move to? Why, Santa Cruz of course.

There, amongst the organic background of Zen centers, yoga studios and macrobiotic vegetables, he encounters the infamous “surf Nazis.” A red tide of testosterone seeps out of their wetsuits and pollutes the water with un-Zen-ness.

While surfing the agro-crowded Steamer Lane, Yogis is forced to reconcile with this disconnect, a challenge that continues to this day for the saltwater Buddha. “If you can see that the person is acting stupid because he or she wants to be happy just like you,” he says in an interview with ASJ, “but literally hasn’t been given the tools to connect to the deeper part of himself or herself, you can feel compassion and hopefully avoid conflict.”

Yogis now lives in the San Francisco neighborhood of Ocean Beach. Just 29-years old, he says he wrote the book, in part, to investigate the connections between Zen and surfing and explain these connections to himself as much as for his readers. He is currently a freelance writer who holds a Masters in journalism degree from Columbia University. (His chapter on surfing in New York City is especially frightening.) His writing has appeared in Surfers Journal, Sunset, San Francisco Magazine and others.

“Within that investigation,” he says, “I hoped that there would be glimpses at the heart of surfing and the heart of Zen, and that this would help people see these traditions with more respect and authenticity, something that is often lost in marketing schemes and the blur of modern life.”

Though Yogis is not the first to point out that surfing has lost much of its “soul” to the commercialization of the sport, he may be the first to make the point that both Zen and surfing have been marketed beyond recognition. “For people who are more interested in authenticity,” he says, “I think we can try to live that authenticity—live from our Buddha nature, you might say—that means constantly asking ourselves if we’ve been caught by a marketing scheme or if we’re really living our own truth, whether that relates to surfing, Zen, or something else entirely.”

With “Saltwater Buddha” due to hit bookstores this month, Yogis says he wants his readers—both surfers and non-surfers, Zen and non-Zen aficionados—to find a little self-acceptance in the book. And “hopefully they’ll have fun reading it too.”

It’s a tall task to ask of a little book, but one that Yogis deems entirely possible. All told, it’s pretty simple: “I guess what I’m trying to say,” he writes at the conclusion of “Saltwater Buddha,” “is that I’m learning to not want to be someone else, to just be who I am, as is, with nothing extra added on.”

Freelance writer/photographer Bruce Willey, an incurable latent surfer and newspaper editor from Santa Cruz, now splits his time between Atlanta, GA, and Big Pine in the Owens Valley, where he finds his Zen side near daily in the crags of the Eastern Sierra or pulling the steep sandstone of the Southeast. You can find more of his writings, musings and photographs at www.brucewilley.com