Saltwater Buddha - Selections

A Surfer’s Quest to Find Zen on the Sea

PART I: LEAVING HOME

While still young, a black-haired young man endowed with the blessing of youth, in the prime of life, though my mother and father wished otherwise and wept with tearful faces, I shaved off my hair and beard, put on the ochre robe, and went forth from the home life into homelessness.
—The Buddha

Indeed, one feels microscopically small, and the thought that one may wrestle with this sea raises in one’s imagination a thrill of apprehension, almost fear.
Why, they are a mile long, these bullmouthed monsters, and they weigh a thousand tons, and they charge into shore faster than a man can run. What chance? No chance at all, is the verdict of the shrinking ego.
—Jack London, writing of waves and his first surf session

1.

When I was three, my dad got stationed at a U.S. airbase on the island of Terceira off the coast of Portugal. We flew there on a military cargo jet, ears plugged to soften the engine roar. We moved into a white adobe apartment above a shoe store where wool-sweatered men smoked cigars and stray dogs begged.

This was before my parents started fighting and years before their divorce, so there were four of us in the family. A round number, I often thought, a good number.

My older sister, Ciel, and I found endless satisfaction in the novelties of the island: the bullfights on cobblestone streets, the patchwork lava rock walls that quilted the hills, the serrated bluffs dotted with old fishermen, the spitting llamas. We adopted fourteen puppies and fed them oatmeal. We built forts out of mud. We climbed into the foggy hills and searched for wizards. Most of all, we loved the beach.

The praia—as we called it in an attempt to feel local—lay just down the street, a two-minute walk. We could always hear it and smell it. The beach was littered with trash; the wall at its border was stained in graffiti and urine. But the sand was soft and the ocean warmed by the Gulf Stream.

My dad taught us to body-surf. As a teenager, he’d been a surfer in New York (one of the brazen few who’d surfed Jones Beach in the winter in jeans and a wool sweater) and then in Hawaii while stationed on Oahu during the Vietnam War. He often told us nostalgic tales of big waves, near drowning, heroism. Then he taught us how to watch the waves, how to jump off the sand at just the right moment so the wave caught you in its grip like a baseball mitt and thrust you forward like a roller coaster.

I remember the Atlantic all inky black and rough like crumpled tinfoil. But the inner waves, the ones we rode, were an opaque brownish-green, full of silt and rubbery seaweed. The waves were frightening. But we felt safe with my dad. He could lift us up above the water, or keep us steady in the midst of strong currents.

When a good wave finally came, we laughed and shrieked. Then we turned and dove down the face, shutting our eyes tight, gripping each other’s hands.

Sufficiently tumbled, we jogged up to our big yellow blanket where Mom was usually reading a book. We warmed up. And then we talked about the islands together, told stories about their strangeness and magic.

Three years later, my dad got transferred again, this time to McClellan Air Force Base outside Sacramento, two hours from the nearest beach.

It wasn’t so bad in the valley. I made new friends. I got a BMX bike and a Variflex skateboard. Mom ran a daycare so there were always screaming kids to play with. Occasionally, the four of us went to the beach near San Francisco and talked about how nice it would be to live by the sea again, if only we could afford it. Maybe someday.

But we never could afford it. My parents divorced after a few years in suburbia. And so there were three of us—a different three every other weekend. Then the numbers of immediate family–members rotated: six, then four, then back to three. But it wasn’t weird. It was ordinary. We just grew up: soccer and swim team, keg-stands at the river, fireworks and football. It was a normal American upbringing. I can’t complain.

But the sea never left me. I couldn’t let go. Or it wouldn’t let go. Or both.

 

2.

Dear family,
Please do not worry. I am somewhere in the
world and I will call you when I get there.
I had some dreams that led me to believe
that I need a change and I could not make
it here. I’m sorry. I took some money from
Mom’s credit card and I apologize. I plan
to pay it all back when I get settled.
I love you very much.

Jaimal

By the time my mom found this note on my bedroom pillow, I was on a one-way flight to Hawaii. I was a junior in high school and had saved a few hundred bucks mowing lawns and selling old baseball cards. Added to the $900 I stole from my mom’s credit card (which I did eventually return), I had just enough to start a shiny new life in paradise.

On the ATA flight, movies of waterfalls and women in hula skirts readied us for the islands. And the further from land we flew, the more I felt the shackles of adolescence dissolving. I was reading a book about the Buddha’s life, which I knew quite a lot about having grown up with what you might call “New-Agey” parents. (Our home libraries could fill an East-West bookstore.) But I read it again because the Buddha’s story made me feel better about running away. I thought of myself as leaving home, much like Prince Siddhartha did, to discover truth.

Siddhartha’s story began like this. He was born a prince in present-day Nepal around 2,500 years ago. At his auspicious birth, a soothsayer told his parents that Siddhartha would become a great spiritual teacher and abandon his kingdom, or else he would conquer a vast stretch of land and be a powerful leader. His father wanted the latter, so he tried to shelter his son from the sufferings of the world—old age, sickness, death. He feared exposing the prince to suffering would push him to seek spiritual truth. So the king kept his son surrounded with beauty and youth within the palace and conned him into thinking the whole world was roses and immortality. Of course, Siddhartha, an unusually smart young man, soon realized that it was all a lie, and when he witnessed the real suffering outside the palace—corpses, leprosy, famine, and an ascetic renunciant—he was overwhelmed with compassion and he vowed to do something.

He probably had a hunch suffering arose in the mind and could also cease in the mind. But he wanted to find out for sure. He abandoned the kingdom, renouncing all its pleasures to become a wandering mendicant and focus on ending the suffering within.

I loved Siddhartha’s story. And miles above the Pacific, I thought about how similar the prince and I were. My parents, having rejected their native Catholicism and Judaism, had raised Ciel and me to go to Hindu temples, too. Born in my parents’ full-fledged hippie phase, I was even named after an Indian saint: Baba Jaimal Singh. And it couldn’t have been just coincidence (I thought) that my Lithuanian grandparents’ name was shortened to Yogis. I figured I was destined, like Siddhartha, for spiritual greatness.

By running away, all the elements were coming together. I was abandoning the pleasures of the palace. Okay, so I wasn’t running away because I was overwhelmed with compassion for all living beings, and our four-bedroom home in Sacramento was hardly a palace. But we did have a pool and a hot tub. And I figured that in modern America, most people lived with almost as many luxuries as the prince had 2,500 years ago. And I was giving up quite a bit: television, QUAD 102.5 radio jams, my friends. And just as Siddhartha was fed up with the cycle of birth and death, I was fed up with the endless cycle of suburban trivialities—especially my midnight curfew.

 

3.

Before I could continue living out my version of the Buddha’s story, I had to decide which of the seven islands I would settle on. Oahu sounded too Disneyland. The Big Island: too volcanic. I hadn’t heard anything about Kauai. I looked for a spiritual sign. The in-flight magazine said that Maui was the “Island of Love.” This conjured images of me on the beach with a Hawaiian Tropic model.

I went to Maui.

 

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

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