Jaimal Yogis is the author of the book Saltwater Buddha: A Surfer’s Quest to find Zen on The Sea. Equal parts spiritual memoir and surfer’s tale, a chronicle of finding meditative focus in the great salty blue. We ask him a few questions.
What was growing up in a spiritual household like for you?
It was cool. My parents were both very spiritually-minded – meditated and did yoga – but also pretty grounded in the everyday world too. My dad was in the Air Force and my mom was a French teacher and they both loved to travel and be outside too, which was just as much a part of their spiritual lives as any yoga or meditation practice. I feel especially lucky that we were exposed to different ways of approaching a spiritual life. For a while, we all went to an Ashram where yoga philosophy was taught, but teachers also read from the bible. Other times, we went to Buddhist meditation classes. Sometimes we went to Christian mass, and other times we didn’t go to any formal spiritual places, but we worked in the garden or went to the beach. They always let us know that it was ok to follow any path as long as we could also think for ourselves too. We openly discussed the pitfalls of religion and the benefits, which I think is a great thing to do with your kids so they can choose for themselves what path they want to follow.
When did you get your first surfboard?
I bought my first surfboard when I ran away from home to Hawaii when I was 16. It was a 6’6” board that apparently belonged to Christian Fletcher at one point and I paid $100 for it on the north shore of Maui. It had probably snapped at least once and it was way too high performance for learning. But I eventually learned on that board and rode it until it barely floated.
What was the feeling you had when you first stood on a surfboard?
I used to rent a board on our vacations to Florida when I was pretty young and I’d stood up on a longboard a handful of times on really small waves. I felt a sense of accomplishment from these little rides, but I didn’t really get the full feeling of surfing until I first stood up on that 6’6” and dropped in on a real wave in Maui. I was out alone in a rain storm on Maui and my dad was watching me from shore. I couldn’t believe what was happening when the wave picked me up and I was dropping full speed down the face. It felt both effortless and so powerful – like flying in a dream. The wave seemed monstrous even though I think it was about waist high. When I came in my dad gave me a big hug. We’d been having a hard time in our relationship, and since surfing is always something we’d wanted to do together, it felt so good that he’d seen me and was as stoked as I was.
Who did you look up to and admire when you were a young man?
My cousin Jim Klar was rambling around with his best friend Varsh in a VW bus, playing music and traveling the globe when I was in my teens. They were so happy and kind hearted and creating art. They were a huge influence on me. Jim is creating music for the
Saltwater Buddha film and he’s still one of my heroes. I had tons of well-known heroes too: Jack Kerouac, Jaques Cousteau, Michael Jordan, The Dalai Lama, Bono, Rob Machado. I just looked up to people who were really focused and dedicated, but also seemed happy, like they were really living from their hearts.
Where were you educated?
I went to a bunch of different public schools growing up. After high school, I Iived in a Buddhist monastery for a year, which was probably the most educational experience I ever had. In undergrad, I literally attended about five different schools, studied in India, Mexico, California, and Hawaii, but I ended up with a degree from the University of Hawaii in Philosophy and Religion. I then got a master’s in journalism at Columbia in New York.
Of all the interesting places you have traveled to, what place in particular stands out? And why?
The Northern California Coast, from Santa Cruz up to Crescent City, is my favorite stretch of land on this planet, all the more so after seeing so many other places. I love it here and I can’t even describe exactly why. It’s just home. We have it so good.
Explain how the idea for the book Saltwater Buddha came about
I was in journalism school in New York and all depressed because I was super stressed in school and not surfing at all. I sat down to meditate one particularly stressed out day and felt like I was drowning in my own negative thoughts. It was a down moment, but as I sat there I thought about what I would do if I was surfing on a really stormy day. I’d just let the waves pass by, not attach to them so to speak. I decided I’d let my stressed out waves pass that day, and it really helped my mood. I’d never written about my spiritual practice or surfing, and was trying to be a serious environmental journalist, but I wrote a short
piece for Shambhala Sun Magazine about using surfing as a metaphor in meditation. The article got a ton of hits and was republished in a few magazines. I started thinking I should make it into a book about Zen and surfing, but didn’t really know how to go about it. Coincidentally, The Utne Reader republished it and asked me what I wanted in my bio. I asked them to put that I was writing a book about Zen and surfing. A few weeks after that bio ran with the article, Wisdom Publications said they wanted to publish it. I couldn’t believe it and I suddenly felt nervous that I was going to have to be an authority on the topics, but they let me do the book my way, which was just writing stories about my own experiences. I felt that was the only way to keep it real. The rest is history.
What has been the reaction to Saltwater Buddha?
I’ve been stoked. People write me all the time and tell them that it changed their life in some big or small way. I love that a lot of these people aren’t surfers or Buddhists. You can’t ask for more than that. I’m excited that it’s being made into a film as well and getting translated into a few different languages.
What is it that makes you such a nice person? What code do you live by?
I honestly just try to be myself and live by the Golden Rule.
Who/what inspires you?
My family and friends are my biggest supports and inspirations. But I recently surfed with Bethany Hamilton, the young Hawaiian surfer who lost an arm in a shark attack, at Padang Padang when it was cranking, double over-head solid barrels. It was intimidating stuff and she was surfing it, with one arm, better than almost anyone out there, getting really shacked and making every wave. She was really nice and humble too. That was inspiring. Thanks Bethany.
What is the greatest thing you have learned in your life?
If you’re true to your heart, things work out. Life is magic.
Do you have any regrets or wish you had done something differently?
Who are some of the authors you feel are shaping the path for surf writing today?
Tom Farber and Dan Duane have been my mentors for a while. They were my biggest influences to get into surf writing. Tim Winton, Steven Kotler, and William Finnegan have also been really inspirational. JM Coatzee, Jonathan Franzen, Steinbeck, Salinger, Fitzgerald, Kerouac, and Melville are authors who have left a huge mark on me too. Oh, and Shakespeare, but that’s kind of like saying the bible.
What is in your current quiver? What is your favorite board?
My favorite board of all time is this 1980’s 5’7” twiny fish by Eddie Dunnavant. It’s part of the old Lipstix series. Magic. I also love Danny Hess’s boards and James Mitchell’s Las Olas boards.
What project are you currently working on?
My main project still seems to be surfing. But we’re filming Saltwater Buddha (you can follow at www.saltwaterbuddha.org) and I’m doing some environmental type stories for San Francisco Magazine. I’m also working on the next book, but it’s still in its infancy.
The book “Saltwater Buddha: A Surfer’s Quest to find Zen on The Sea” is available here.