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Surfer and Zen Master Discusses Journey of Self Discovery

Surfer Jaimal Yogis stands ankle-deep in the sea holding his surfboard and peering out into the ocean in Bali. Author and journalist, Yogis write in his book "Saltwater Buddha: A Surfer's Quest to Find Zen on the Sea" about how he examines his thoughts like incoming waves and that he views the sea as a spiritual teacher.
Tommy Bensko
Surfer Jaimal Yogis stands ankle-deep in the sea holding his surfboard and peering out into the ocean in Bali. Author and journalist, Yogis write in his book "Saltwater Buddha: A Surfer's Quest to Find Zen on the Sea" about how he examines his thoughts like incoming waves and that he views the sea as a spiritual teacher.

Surfer and Zen Master Discusses Journey of Self Discovery
A visiting author speaks with us about his quest of self-discovery as he surfed Hawaii, traveled the world and became a Zen master.

There will be book signings and readings this Saturday, August 15, 2009, at 7 p.m. at DG Wills and Sunday, August 16, 2009, at 3 p.m. at Reader's Inc.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. Surfers here in San Diego and around the world have been known through the years for certain things. They have their own way of dressing, they've developed their own special lingo and many surfers have a unique way of looking at the world. My guest, writer Jaimal Yogis, certainly follows in that tradition. He's combined his knowledge of surfing with the lessons of Zen Buddhism and translated many of the mental states of meditation into metaphors for the physical experience of water. But that's really a little too high-falutin' to describe Jaimal Yogis' very accessible and readable book. In it he talks about his life, his adventures, his family, his introduction to Buddhism and how the sea has become his spiritual teacher. It's my pleasure to welcome Jaimal Yogis, a journalist and the author of "Saltwater Buddha: A Surfer's Quest to Find Zen on the Sea." Jaimal, welcome to These Days.

JAIMAL YOGIS (Author): Thanks, Maureen, it's great to be here.

CAVANAUGH: And, you know, our listeners who are surfers, I'd like to invite them to join the conversation and tell us if surfing is, for them, a spiritual experience as well, 1-888-895-5727. Jaimal, many of the surfers I've known have a very metaphysical edge to their way of thinking. Why do you think that is?

YOGIS: Well, I think the sport itself attracts introspective people, people who like to be out there on their own. It's a very – You know, it's a very personal experience. You paddle out on your own. Even if you go out with friends, a lot of the time you kind of often get separated and you're paddling and waiting for the wave and surfing the wave by yourself so there's just a lot of time to go inside yourself, and there's also – it also attracts nature lovers who, I think, often not – you know, just being outside is a way that we connect to a deeper part of ourselves, a part that gets kind of, you know, clouded over in our workaday lives.


YOGIS: And so I think surfers have those two things in common but also a lot of surfers are spiritual people to begin with and surfing is such a great joy. It's just – You can't be out there having a bad time or at least very rarely it's a bad time so – And every one of our great religious traditions and spiritual traditions talks about the fact that we have access to a joy that is sort of – that's very profound and always accessible and I think for that reason surfing has become really sacred to the people who do it. So whether they call it a spiritual part of their lives or not, just the fact that it brings so much joy and makes you feel like you've cut – you get out of the water and you kind of feel refreshed, you feel like you've been through some kind of baptism and you can go on your day anew. And so these are all experiences that surfers have.

CAVANAUGH: You know, your book, "Saltwater Buddha," is really a memoir and you're only 29 so it is quite young to be writing a memoir. I'm wondering why you wanted to write this book.

YOGIS: It happened kind of magically, the book did. It wasn't something that I'd planned and I think that's appropriate for a Zen book. I was living in New York City when I was about 24 and 25 years old, going to journalism school in Manhattan at Columbia. And it was my first time being away from the coast in quite a while and I wasn't surfing much at all. And so I was having withdrawls from – from my addiction and, you know, it's like not being able to go – to go to church or something if that's your habit. And I remember this one day I was reporting a story on rats in Washington Heights. It was all about how the city was infested and this one community wasn't getting access to the city's program, and I was just having a terrible time getting the right interviews and anyway I was really frustrated and I was having these thoughts of I just want to go back to California, I've got to get out of here, and those started turning into, you know, you're just kind of a bad writer and a bad student and you should just quit now. And it was like all of a sudden, you know, I felt that sort of storm of negative thoughts coming in and I thought I've got to – I should go home and just restart my day and I – I went home and I sat a little meditation period and I remember I instantly felt like I was just drowning. I had that feeling of drowning in my own negative thoughts. And when that happens, I don't know how it is for you, Maureen, but it feels like, for me, they're coming in rapid fire, like one wave after another.


YOGIS: And – and the nice thing about meditation is that you can sometimes pop out of your state and almost like see your mind from above, like you're checking the surf, the waves rolling in. And I just had this thought in the midst of my meditation that, wow, today's just not a surf day. I'm not going to ride or attach to any of these thought waves. I'm just going to let them pass over me. I know how to do this. I'm a surfer. I can, you know, duck dive or just let them pass and eventually I know the conditions will change. It'll be beautiful again. I'll be, you know, having a nice day and I'll ride those waves. And so I thought what a great little metaphor and I didn't – I was kind of almost embarrassed to write a spiritual article and let the world know that I was like secretly a Zen surfer but – because I was trying to write all these political and environmental articles and be real serious. But I wrote it for this magazine Shambhala Sun, it's a Buddhist magazine and to my surprise, it just buzzed around the internet and it was republished in all these other magazines and I thought, wow, people really resonate with this water metaphor. I don't know why but, you know, I didn't – didn't have a reason why at the time but the last magazine that republished it, they said we can't pay you for this but should we put something in your bio? And it just kind of popped out of my mouth, well, I'm writing – say that I'm writing a book…

CAVANAUGH: A book, right.

YOGIS: …about Zen and surfing. And, sure enough, I graduated Columbia and I was in Maui a few weeks later, first time since I'd gone there at 16, I was back and the publisher, Wisdom, called me and they said, we'd like to publish that book.

CAVANAUGH: Fabulous.

YOGIS: Yeah.

CAVANAUGH: And that book is "Saltwater Buddha," and I'm talking to the author Jaimal Yogis. He is a journalist, as we've heard, and also author of this new book. Jaimal, there are a number of people who want to join the conversation. Let me take a couple of calls, okay?

YOGIS: Great.

CAVANAUGH: Okay, let's hear from Shawn. He's calling from the freeway. Good morning, Shawn. Welcome to These Days.

SHAWN (Caller, San Diego): Good morning, Maureen. Thank you for having me. I just got – I had to call in because I'm 47 years old and I've been surfing since I was 15 and it's always been more of a spiritual experience for me than a sport. It's never seemed like a sport to me. And, coincidentally, I'm also into meditation. So…


YOGIS: Well…

SHAWN: …I was out – I was out of work for a year and the only thing that got me through being unemployed for that long was surfing and meditation. Otherwise, I think I would've gone crazy.

CAVANAUGH: Shawn, thank you so much. Before you go, let me ask you, do you find your – other surfers also share your spirituality about the water?

SHAWN: Definitely, the ones that are near my age group. I'm – I can't speak for the twenty-somethings but anybody in their mid-to-late thirties or into their forties, if they're still surfing, they definitely feel that way.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you for the call. Let's hear from Chris in Mira Mesa. Good morning, Chris. Welcome to These Days.

CHRIS (Caller, Mira Mesa): Hi, yeah, great topic, by the way, and very appropriate for San Diego in the summer.

CAVANAUGH: Yeah, right.

CHRIS: I wanted to say – And I'm 41, also to just play on what Shawn was just saying. I agree that if you're in the water that long you kind of have to become a spiritual person. There's two things about it, and I'm mostly a body surfer, I don't surf on boards, and I'm down there in the water not sort of on top of it. But there are two things about it that immediately grab my mind. One is, you have to be humble because the ocean will humble you if you're not. Okay, that's the first thing. It's way bigger than you are and you're out of your element when you're in there. So, you know, it teaches you some – if you don't start with humility, you will find it being in the water for a long time. The other thing is, is the instantaneousness of it. One of the things that Zen Buddhists talk about is being in the now, being in the moment. When you're riding a wave, there is no past or future; there is only the moment you are in when you are riding it. Nothing else exists but the pure moment that you're in. And it's the only time I can think of where I'm actually in that pure moment, is when I'm body surfing.

CAVANAUGH: Chris, thank you so much. Jaimal, these people are talking about things that are in your book.

YOGIS: They are, and it's – that's the thing, I really feel like I didn't even write this book. It could've been written – We could've taken a series of interviews from surfers around the world and sort of compiled every – all their experiences and put them into a book. I happened to have written it about, you know, my stories in my life, but the experiences are universal and I think that's what's impressive about this sport or this, you know, practice of surfing, is that it seems to have the same effect on people and there are – there is a very competitive sport-like side to surfing where maybe people don't feel that way at all, it just becomes something where you're just trying to perform on the waves. And – But I think the longer you develop a relationship with the ocean and that relationship deepens, I think what Shawn and Chris were saying, if you stay with it for that long, you eventually let go, I think, of the competitive side or the side where you are – where it's about showing off on a wave and it's about – it's about finding that humility, about letting the ocean teach you and also feeling connected to something much greater than yourself. And that's why I think it's such a great metaphor for Zen because Zen talks about again and again and again, the fact that we're not just these individual selves, we're connected to everything at all times. And the way to access that feeling is through being completely in the present, and it's true what Chris was saying, that when you're on that wave, there is no time to think about what's next, you're totally reacting spontaneously and it's a magical thing.

CAVANAUGH: Well, aside from telling your unique story about your running away from home and your studies in a monastery and fascinating – the fascinating personal journey that you've been on, Jaimal, your book outlines not only that the combination of Zen Buddhism and surfing is a metaphor in your life but you say you experienced firsthand the actual expression of compassion while living in Hawaii. Can you tell me what happened to you?

YOGIS: Well, it's – it's neat. Zen talks a lot about the difference between real compassion and this sort of put-on compassion that a lot of us, I think, get into. I do. In my life, I'm – I start thinking, oh, I want to do good, I want to be a good person, you know, and so you like try to put on your good person hat and go out there into the world but that often ends up backfiring because it's more about you. It's more about, you know, how am I going to look like a really good person today? And so what Zen often says is that helping people is – from true compassion is like the right hand mending the left – an injury on the left hand.


YOGIS: It just acts because that's what you do, you sense that everyone around you is really a part of yourself and that was always – felt a little, you know, high minded to me and difficult to access. But when I was learning to surf in Hawaii, I was out on the big island and I had a terrible spill where I duck dived and my board stopped and my face was just right over the reef and the wave broke on the back of my head and I basically did like a garlic press implant onto the reef and I…

CAVANAUGH: Oh, yeah.

YOGIS: …my face was just all mashed up and I was feeling, you know, like a kook, as Hawaiians say, anyway and was really nervous about kind of trying to fit in with the locals because I'd just moved to Hawaii. And you would've thought, you know, I would've gotten laughed at or someone would've told me like, hey, brah, you know, this isn't the break for you to go in. But I went in and one of the best surfers there, who was this young maybe 14 year old Hawaiian kid named Kokoa, he – he came right in and he had a noni fruit which is this local healing fruit that the Hawaiians use for all kinds of different things, for drinking and for abrasions like this, and he, you know, he told me how to use it, to mash it up, and I put it on my face and it healed up amazingly fast. And it was – I felt like the way Kokoa reacted to me, he didn't think about it, he just came in and gave me this and then he left. He didn't even like give me time to thank him hardly. And it reminded me of watching him surf. He was a very spontaneous surfer and he was always in the right place at the right time just kind of reacting to the ocean's movements, and it hit me, like that's the way – that is – that's real compassion. It's not something that's like, oh, I should help this guy. It's just you go in, you give the fruit, you go back out. And I think if – the more we sort of tune into our authentic self, the more the world would function and sway like kind of clockwork, everybody doing what needs to be done.

CAVANAUGH: We have time, I believe, for one more call. Joshua's calling from Ramona. Joshua, we'll have to make it brief but we really want to hear what you have to say, and welcome to These Days.

JOSHUA (Caller, Ramona): Well, I'll try to make it really brief. I've always been drawn to flying, soaring, things that involve touching natural energy. And I was always amazed that I might fly one day for five hours but get more out of a fifteen second ride on a wave than I did for all that time up in the air. And I think it comes from, after I've had time to think about it, a few different reasons. One, nothing is moving in the ocean other than pretty much pure energy. The molecules are pretty much staying put. They're just being acted on by energy. I mean, you're in touch with that energy directly through a surfboard. It is a extremely unique experience. On top of that, just being in touch with an ocean, right, that is connected to the whole planet and you're just sort of immersed in that for a period of time. And there's also a rhythm that's been mentioned throughout this interview that if you can get yourself into this rhythm of the ocean, you function extremely well. It seems like it's very easy. And if you can't, you get pummled.

YOGIS: Umm-hmm.

JOSHUA: And so it's a teaching experience, it's the most direct form of energy contact I've ever been able to find. And you're just letting yourself kind of become literally physically connected to a big thing that is this one big energy source and I derive great meaning from that.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you, Joshua, and I want to get your response, Jaimal.

YOGIS: Yeah, I think what Josh was saying about the fact that very little water is actually moving in the ocean, it's just energy pulsing through and I've always thought this is such a great metaphor for what the ancient – these ancient philosophies talked about about emptiness, about things having no inherent existence but they just – they're connected. And that was always abstract for me but if you think about it, a wave starts by wind blowing on the surface of the ocean and then the wind's energy is basically just transferring between molecules as it spirals through and the water isn't moving, it's, as Steven Kotler put it in his book, it's the memory of wind energy pulsing through the water and that's really, when you break it down scientifically, kind of how we are as humans, too. You know, we think we're sort of these hard beings but we're – there's no one atom in our body that was there when we were babies that's there now. It's really our – our memories and our minds that kind of hold us together as individual beings and just thinking about that, how we are really just this life energy, what, you know, this breath is the way the Hawaiians describe it, is a beautiful metaphor and it's something that I think becomes more clear when you're out there on this kind of aqueous surface that Josh was describing and really tapping into that energy so, yeah, I think he – he summed it up well.

CAVANAUGH: And my final question to you is picking up on something you said in a previous answer. I wonder, having immersed yourself, so to speak, in both Zen Buddhism and surfing, do you think if everyone surfed, the world would be a different place?

YOGIS: Well, if everyone surfed, we'd have a few crowd issues to deal with.

CAVANAUGH: Yeah, right.

YOGIS: But there are a lot of waves out there and I think – I think if everybody spent time connecting with nature, we would certainly be in a very different place environmentally. I think that the disconnect that's happened by, you know, just not being outside enough and not being in our natural rhythm has really allowed us to go to the extreme – the extremes that we've gone with, you know, the industrial revolution. And so whether it's surfing or hiking or, you know, diving or whatever it is you like to do, I think taking that time and giving yourself that time is so essential and I think the world would really be a better place…

CAVANAUGH: We'll need to…

YOGIS: …if everybody did that.

CAVANAUGH: We'll need to leave it there. Thank you so much for talking with us this morning.

YOGIS: Thanks, Maureen. I appreciate it.

CAVANAUGH: Jaimal Yogis is a journalist, author of "Saltwater Buddha: A Surfer's Quest to Find Zen on the Sea." Book signings and readings this weekend in San Diego. Saturday, August 15th, at 7:00 p.m. at D. G. Wills, and Sunday, August 16th, at 3:00 p.m. at Readers, Inc. And if you want to post your comments online, we'd love to see them, Stay with us for the second hour of These Days here on KPBS.