Saltwater Buddha - Introduction

A Surfer’s Quest to Find Zen on the Sea


256 pages, 5 x 7 inches


ISBN 9780861715350

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In water, everything is “dissolved.”
—Mircea Eliade

A person of the Way fundamentally does not dwell anywhere. The white clouds are fascinated with the green mountain’s foundation. The bright moon cherishes being carried along with the flowing water.

Ua ka ua, kahe ka wai.
The rain rains, the water flows.
—Hawaiian Proverb

In Zen there is nothing to explain, nothing to teach that will add to your knowledge. Unless it grows out of yourself, no knowledge is really of value to you, a borrowed plumage never grows.
—D.T. Suzuki

Two weeks ago, I moved onto my girlfriend’s dad’s sailboat in Sausalito. Dulce is the boat’s name. She is thirty feet long, mostly white with lacquered wooden paneling around the windows. Her sails are wrapped in teal canvas.

At first, I thought Dulce rocked too much. But now she lulls me to sleep. The bed is so small, curling up in it while the waves lap against the hull is a bit like returning to the womb: not that I remember the womb, of course, but I imagine it to be something like sleeping in the bow of a sailboat.

I don’t sail. Simply to live on the water is the point. After a couple years sequestered inland, always driving to the coast for surf, being on the boat feels like a homecoming. “To come back down to the ocean,” writes Thomas Farber, in On Water, “is to re-experience an essential memory trace, something once known well, to recall that one has been trying to remember.” I like that Farber writes “to recall that one has been trying to remember” rather than, “to recall what one has been trying to remember.” It describes the truth that when away from the sea you can easily forget what you feel homesick for. But the vestiges are always there. And upon return, the salt air, the incessant roar of waves, what Mark Twain calls the “limpid depths.”

Basho, the seventeenth-century Zen monk and poet, said in a haiku:

Mother I never knew
Every time I see the ocean
Every time

Maybe having evolved from aqueous amoebas, and being in our current form two-thirds water, we are hardwired to connect to the sea.

Or maybe we are even part of water’s big plan. Tom Robbins suggests that human beings (like every other living creature) “were invented by water as a device for transporting itself from one place to another.”

Farber points out that we are not so far removed from the sea as we think: our skin is smooth like that of a dolphin or whale; our fingers and toes are slightly webbed; we float; we are streamlined and surrounded with a subcutaneous layer of fat; our blood itself is close to the consistency of seawater. And as demonstrated in recent years by free divers, we even have the capability, like dolphins and whales, to slow down our heart rate in order to reach great depths—more than 400 feet without oxygen.


The view from the boat is impressionistic: specks of light flickering on the bay like stars looking up. The golden grasses of Angel Island twitch under the first rays of light. Directly south, the San Francisco skyline stretches up, barely cresting a comforter of fog—“a city inside a snow globe,” as Anne Lamott once described it. North, Mount Tamalpais, a pyramid of green, blocks the winds, creates this sanctuary: one of the most expensive stretches of waterfront property on the planet—expensive, that is, unless you live on your girlfriend’s dad’s sailboat.

As on many mornings in Marin, there is this sly strip of fog—water in its most mystical incarnation— slithering over, around, and through the hills, making everything look ancient and unsolved. I climb back down into the cabin, a cramped space barely tall enough for me to stand in, and sit down on a little bench, pulling my legs into full lotus: left foot on right thigh, right foot on left. Today will begin, as most mornings do, with a little zazen, a little Zen meditation.


It’s such a common word these days, Zen, used mostly it seems for marketing, as in the current ad campaign for MP3 players—“Find Your Zen”—or San Francisco restaurants—Hana Zen, Now and Zen. But many people have no idea what real Zen is. And sometimes I fear I don’t, either. I know what the word means, of course. Literally, Zen is Japanese for a Sanskrit term, dhyana, that translates loosely as “meditation.” Dhyana, as I have heard it described by one of my most academically versed meditation teachers, might better be translated as “the concentration that is completed,” a focus that encompasses rather than narrows.

The Zen school of Buddhism arose in China around the fourth century ce when a South Indian Buddhist monk named Bodhidharma allegedly brought the “mind-only” teaching there and started a lineage. The tradition’s simplicity, rigor, and wit flourished and eventually spread through much of Asia, becoming well known to Americans only in this past century.

But Zen is more than a lineage, more than a practice of sitting still. It’s more than an aesthetic style, and certainly more than a marketing scheme. It is an attempt to express the ineffable, the deepest paradox of being. And its definition alone may be as indescribable as its core teaching. One of the great pioneers of Zen in America, Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, often said Zen is best expressed simply by sitting.

In my limited experience, Zen practice has been something like returning to the waterfront, or like paddling out into the surf after days without waves. Matthieu Ricard, the French biologist who ordained under the Dalai Lama, writes of the stages of meditation: “Finally, the mind becomes like the sea in calm weather. Ripples of discursive thoughts occasionally run over its surface, but in the depths, it is never disturbed.” Sitting quietly in zazen or on my surfboard, I am reminded that I’ve somehow been away from myself too long, that I need to return more often.

It makes sense to me that surfing and Buddhism should meet in a concrete form, a book. “Surfing is really more than anything else a faith,” says former editor of Surfer magazine Sam George. And surfers often sound like Buddhists in describing their art. “Then the world vanished,” writes Steven Kotler in his surfing memoir West of Jesus. “There was no self, no other. For an instant, I didn’t know where I ended and the wave began.” The photograph of pro surfers Dick Brewer, Gerry Lopez, and Reno Abellira meditating cross-legged next to their surfboards at Mount Tantalus has been branded into the mind of almost every surfer. More recently, meditating pro surfer Dave Rastovich (“Rasta”) has become something of a guardian angel to the sport, instructing other surfers in forms of meditation and helping rescue dolphins and whales in his spare time.

On the other side of the spectrum, Buddhist teachers have often employed water metaphors to express the Buddha’s teachings: impermanence (“The myriad worlds are like so much foam on the sea,” wrote eighth-century Chinese master Yung-Chia), karma and reincarnation (a human’s life force will “produce the next life just as the energy of one wave produces the next wave. This energy will never disappear, resulting in a continuous formation of successive lives,” according to the twentieth-century master Hakuun Yasutani), and the fundamental buddha-nature within everyone (it “is like the sea, and each individual is like a wave on the surface of the ocean,” says Yasutani).

But my all-time favorite Zen-surfing quote is by Suzuki Roshi, one of the people credited with helping to bring Zen to America, via—where else?—California. Suzuki founded Tassajara Zen Center in Big Sur (near some of the best surf on the West Coast) and I like to think he had surfers in mind when comparing thought waves to ocean waves. He said, “Even though waves arise, the essence of mind is pure… Waves are the practice of water. To speak of waves apart from water or water apart from waves is a delusion.”

Yes: enough talk of tepid, serene pools reflecting moonlight. Let us speak of waves, of glassy ocean surfaces enlivened with surging swells. If waves are the practice of water, and thoughts the practice of mind, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we all learned to surf?


Some say that the “goal” of Buddhism is to become a Buddha—to become awake. And one of the historical Buddha’s very first teachings, recorded in the Avatamsaka Sutra, says “the Earth expounds Dharma,” meaning, I think, that the very world we live in describes how to awaken. And since most of the earth is ocean, I don’t think it’s going too far to say that, with the right intention and awareness, you can learn to be a Buddha by playing in the waves.

My parents introduced me to Buddhism. But I fell in love with it in high school through the Beats. I recall reading Kerouac’s Dharma Bums and almost weeping with joy when Japhy (modeled on the Beat poet Gary Snyder) tells Jack, “I meet my bodhisattvas on the street.” I could hardly fathom a religious tradition in which I could find truth wherever I go, on my own. I soon found out the historical Buddha stressed that I had to find it on my own. I could get help from the Triple Jewels, of course: the Buddha, the Dharma (the teachings), and the Sangha (the community of practitioners). But ultimately, the Buddha said to test everything on your own, make your own proof.

Upon his deathbed, the Buddha spoke these final words: “All things are impermanent. Work out your own salvation with diligence.”

Ridiculous as it may be, I see myself doing just that as I flail around on the sea, gliding on the fringes of our blue world.


How to cite this document:
© Jaimal Yogis, Saltwater Buddha (Wisdom Publications, 2009)

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