March 12, 2009

Book Review: Saltwater Buddha: A Surfer’s Quest to Find Zen on the Sea

Jaimal Yogis’ soon-to-be-released book Saltwater Buddha: A Surfer’s Quest to Find Zen on the Sea is the latest and a very fine addition to the ever-growing canon of Buddhist memoirs. Though the title suggests a disposable, New Agey sports tome grabbing loosely at Buddhist terms, the reality is that this is warm, perceptive, and often quite vividly drawn stuff. Regardless of interest in or experience with surfing, practitioners hungry for a good read would do well to look past the light-hearted title and dig into Yogis’ engrossing story.

The book begins with the author recounting his headstrong adolescence. Fed up with “the endless cycle of suburban trivialities,” the teenage Yogis left home for Hawai’i to devote himself to surfing. “My main goal was to learn to surf,” he writes.

There were, of course, subtexts to this: a struggle for independence; a rebellion against the deadness of suburbia; the first sparks of a spiritual path; a need to shock my parents, especially my dad, from whom I’d grown distant since the divorce.

Armed only with a few belongings (including such books as The Teachings of Don Juan, the Tao Te Ching, The Dharma Bums, and Siddhartha), he settled in Maui, struggling initially with taking care of himself on the street. Likening his experiences to those of the pre-enlightenment Prince Siddhartha Gautama, he is careful to keep things tethered to Buddhist thought and practice. (The book is distributed by Wisdom Publications, the premier Buddhist publishing house in the United States.)

Yogis then moves on to developing his thoughts about Zen and surfing that were forged during this time in Hawai’i. Though obviously unintended, this section will have special relevancy in the wake of a much-referenced New York Times article about President Obama’s “Zen-like calm” and how this might come from being a Hawai’i native.

The author’s subsequent adventures take him to France, where he studied with Thich Nhat Hanh at his Plum Village monastery; college; a commune back in Hawai’i; and Columbia University’s School of Journalism in New York City. Among other things, he reflects on important mentors—from Buddhist clergy like Nhat Hanh and Reverend Heng Sure to an Australian surfing “wizard” named Romney and a Christian insurance salesman named Lambert—and describes important lessons learned along the way (such as the one about how “Surf Nazis have Buddha-Nature too”). Like a meditator coming back again and again to his or her breath, Yogis returns again and again to his experiences “water-walking”; his time spent on the sea as a surfer is an important foundation for both the man and his book.

Written in a very effective, deliberately fragmented style, Saltwater Buddha draws the reader in with its genial, enthusiastic, and humble tone. The reader sticks around, though, for the fascinating trajectory of Yogis’ life and his remarkably insightful perspective on it all. It surfs into bookstores this May—just in time for you to grab a copy as you head off in search of fun in the sun—and is recommended.  You can pre-order it at Amazon.com.

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