An interview with the “Saltwater Buddha” himself: surfer, yogi, father, and author Jaimal Yogis
PHOTO BY PETER DAWSON
At the age of 16, Jaimal Yogis booked a one-way flight to Hawaii with a small, metal Buddha in hand and barely enough cash for a used surfboard in his pocket. He found solace on the island of Maui, picking pineapples for dinner, meditating in his tent by the shore, and getting pummeled by Polynesian waves. While recently reading his book “Saltwater Buddha,” which details this journey, I found myself annotating it by choice…something that I have rarely done since I was forced to code history textbooks in the eighth grade. In his book in praise of water, Jaimal quotes Captain James Cook first observing a native riding a canoe in the surf, “I could not help concluding that this man felt the most supreme pleasure while he was driven on so fast and so smoothly by the sea.”
Through his experiences, Jaimal learned to ride the waves of the Pacific in addition to riding the waves of his own mind. He found that in conquering his fear of surfing Mavericks, he was subsequently able to overcome other personal fears. After running away to Hawaii, studying the art of Zen in the Himalayas, and living in a hut in Bali, Jaimal moved to New York City for graduate school. While a student at Columbia, Jaimal began to once again seek the joy—finding comfort and relief during a New York winter while aboard a freezing fishing boat in Montauk. Inspired by Jaimal’s thirst for adventure and New York roots, I reached out to set up a zoom-interview and delve more into his story and perspective.
Being 16 and broke and alone was anything but ‘blissful.’
AN: You mention in “Saltwater Buddha” that your mother commonly relayed the phrase, “follow your bliss.” How did you find your bliss, and shape your life in order to fulfill that motto with balance? Did your runaway experience spark what helped you to achieve this?
JY: I think running away to Hawaii was definitely an adolescent shot at following my happiness, but I quickly realized how difficult it was being 16 and broke and alone—it was anything but ‘blissful.’ There were definitely moments of falling so in love with the water, but even more so falling in love with the challenge. Challenge is how the runaway experience set me up for a real perspective. There’s really no career that you can go after—that’s worth going after—that isn’t difficult in its own way. Surfing and running away set me up well for that, because it was my euphoria and I wanted to go after it, but I also knew that I was going to have to get beat up by reefs and learn how to do certain things on my own. Surfing became a good guide for figuring out my writing career, because writing is so vast and it’s hard enough to get published. Right now I feel like I’ve gotten closer than ever to doing exactly what I want to be doing as a writer, when I went to journalism school I envisioned myself doing the things I’ve accomplished now. Learning how to become the journalist I wanted to be before I had the chops was really like learning to paddle. I couldn’t actually “surf” yet, but needed to find out how our language works and publishing works first. There’s always this constant dichotomy between where your heart wants to go, and actually going toward it. You see the wave on the horizon and think “oh, I want that!” but you then have to do the actual paddling work to get there and create this foundation beneath your own dreamy cloud. You have to use intuition in addition to hard work and effort in order to follow your bliss.
AN: In your chapter “Surf-Nazis Have Buddha-Nature Too,” you discuss the often tense and defensive relationship between locals and tourists in particularly good surf locations. How do you keep the darkness of others from clouding your own light through these predicaments, and in life? Has practicing Zen helped with that over the years?
JY: Well, the easy answer for avoiding conflict would be to go find an empty beach! If you decide to surf a super crowded point wave, it’s like you’re going to the mall on Black Friday. Heated competition, with not the most high-minded side of humanity coming out. Not that anyone who is there is necessarily a bad person, I think that everyone is just trying to utilize their resources. It’s all about mindset, like anything in life that can be frustrating—traffic jams, difficult finals—you can either think “this suuuuuuucks” and let it drag you down and harsh your mellow, or you can recognize “hey, it’s amazing enough that I can just be in the water at all,” and take it as an opportunity to let it grow your comfort zone and not be bothered by people who are trying to take that joy away from you. You can highlight the positives and let people who are difficult be a teacher to you, because if you can’t be peaceful out on the water then really where can you be? And a lot of the time we head out to the lineup thinking, “I’m going to get all of these waves and it’s going to be totally awesome,” and then anyone who blocks that experience is dragging you down from the expectation you have. But if you go into any situation like, “I’m just going to be grateful and happy about whatever happens,” you can check your mindset. At the same time, I still certainly get frustrated in situations, but the worst thing you can do is let your frustration grow and beat yourself up. You’re a human being, and can’t fight your own emotions—let alone the emotions of others.
Montauk felt like the place to escape to…
AN: After years of absorbing the surf and sun, you were accepted into Columbia University for graduate school and found yourself in the concrete jungle. You wrote that you initially felt like a light in Times Square with “the pulse of America” running in your veins, but that the ocean called you back once more during a stressful period and you often migrated to Montauk. Can you talk about your experience in New York, and how (after the initial infatuation faded) such a life drew you to Montauk?
JY: Since my Dad is originally from Long Island, we first went to Montauk on vacation when I was 10 or 11 all the way from our home in California, so I kind of had this chip on my shoulder about our beaches being better than the ones on the East Coast. I was so blown away by Montauk. The scene became something that I was really drawn to and wanted to get back to. In a way I think New York City is sort of an “upper,” it’s just such a rush. So when I came down from the initial spark—I remember saying many times one night as I was walking home from the library—that I had never felt so truly tired in my life. It was a good tired, I had been out reporting and studying and feeling that NYC pulse, but it brought me to a stressful low point. Montauk felt like the place to escape to even in the middle of winter, I mean it’s just gorgeous and I’ve always been so impressed with how great the waves are there. The snow, beautiful peeling waves—it reminded me of being in Big Sur but will snow. I only surfed a few times there in the snow, but it was always really memorable. And I loved the cultural experience of being there in the winter, there’s so much camaraderie through the people who stick around in the winter and they seem to really support each other. Dropping into that winter fishing culture for my graduate school project felt as foreign as being in Swaziland or something, it was so anthropological and friendly and an amazing piece of the world.
I always loved flirting with that edge in surfing
AN: You’ve discussed surfing as a connection neurologically with “riding the waves of your own mind,” how can one practice overcoming said waves—fear, sadness, anger—and pushing the boundaries of their own comfort zone? What sparked your interest in the science behind fear and taking on Mavericks?
JY: I think every athlete has a little bit of an interest in fear, because we’re always trying to push our limits, and fear is really that limit creator. Sometimes in a good and practical way, but what can you break through and achieve with your potential? So I always loved flirting with that edge in surfing and kind of investigating it, but I didn’t really know much about the science of it. But what really propelled me to want to dig deep was having my heart broken—I think there’s really no pain other than losing a loved one than losing the person who you think you’re going to be with. The intensity and insecurity that it triggered was in one sense just amazing to me that something non-physical could really be that painful. So I was interested intellectually in launching this “Fear Project” and went and talked to all of these neuroscientists and psychologists to investigate how it works and how we know when it’s practical or when it’s totally duping us. So, Mavericks is right by my house. A handful of my friends surf there, and I felt like in theory I could surf Mavericks, based on how comfortable I had gotten on the pretty big waves at Ocean Beach. But it was like this mental barrier, so it felt like a really good testing ground as a culmination of everything that I was learning about the science of fear. So in The Fear Project I kind of combined the intellectual fear with my personal training—both internal and physical—in order to surf Mavericks. I don’t think I would have surfed there if I hadn’t had the excuse to push myself to do it for work, I mean it’s just nuts out there on so many levels. No matter how good you are, if you fall in the wrong spot it could be fatal, which is scary. However, if you train diligently, you can sort of get to the point where you feel like you love it enough that you’re willing to take that risk. It’s interesting, almost immediately after I rode the wave at Mavericks I felt that I was ready to propose to my then-girlfriend now-wife on land. It was something I hadn’t even associated with the fear project beforehand, but further proved how much our different kinds of fears coincide with each other. For me, surfing Mavericks was a great experience to succeed at something that I never thought I’d be able to do and shatter that fear, but I’m definitely more partial to a head-high day on my longboard with my buddies than to 50-foot waves!
AN: What has been your favorite failure?
JY: Ahhh. Well, I moved to Bali at one point when I was inspired to write a big fantasy novel, you know, living in this little hut on the water and going to write in a Dunkin Donuts every day for the air conditioning. And I wrote a 50,000-word novel…it’s pretty bad. There are elements that I may try to resurface at some point, but the overarching narrative was just awful; it was not cohesive. I sent it out to my book agent at the time, and she basically, politely, said, “I can’t try to sell this.” That really ripped my heart out and I just felt misunderstood, but over time as I wrote my next book I realized I had learned so much from that “failure” experience. It was almost like a draft of novels I could actually sell. Because I had to completely get lost in the woods and be rescued in order to then go out in the woods next time, this time with a compass, and a pocket knife, and a cooking stove, etcetera.
What did the Dalai Lama say to a hot dog vendor? One with everything!
AN: On page 98 of Saltwater Buddha you quote “Before one studies Zen, mountains are mountains and waters are waters; after a first glimpse into the truth of Zen, mountains are no longer mountains and waters are no longer waters; after studying Zen, mountains are once again mountains and waters once again waters,” from old Japanese philosopher. What do you think it means?
JY: I can’t say for sure what it means, because Zen uses an ideological style to produce a visceral experience in the listener, so it is emphatically not a ”1+1=2” style of speaking. I think what it means is that before you get into practicing Zen, you kind of assume everything to be what it is without question. I am me, you are you, this rock is a rock. And when you start to question what you are and what are the building blocks of reality, you’re kind of using your own consciousness to investigate consciousness and turn your awareness in on itself. Kind of in a scientific way, thinking, “how do my thoughts move and interact with the world around me.” What Buddhists found is that the world is not divided up as clearly as our senses tell us it is, everything is much more like a wave on the ocean. It looks separate from the sea, but actually is just energy transferring through this medium of water. So if you break down a human being, what is really holding us together is really just an idea of oneself, beyond molecules and particles and biology of it all. Going into a silent Zen retreat, as your ideas and thoughts still you can get into these states that have become a spiritual cliche—“What did the Dalai Lama say to a hot dog vendor? One with everything!” kind of thing. But it’s real! Your thoughts on the world start to dissolve a little bit, that feeling of when you’re running down a mountain and you feel like you’re really connected with the wind and the trees, beyond a mountain simply being a mountain, there are more layers to the experience and the world deconstructs. At the same time, delving into these topics too deeply could make one go crazy because there of course is still a pathetical object to life and a reason that we still recognize things as they are. So there’s no point in realizing that deeper truth unless it really helps you and the people around you—figuring out how this bigger picture of feeling interconnected with everything relates to everyday life. In Buddhism, the idea is that this makes you more free and selfless, because when you’re connected with everything you can let go of jealousy and be happy for people who may have “more” than you, while having a compassion for those who have less. So essentially, you have this new way of doing the usual stuff, bringing waters back to waters and mountains back to mountains.
In addition to ‘Saltwater Buddha,” “All Our Waves Are Water,” and “The Fear Project,” Jaimal has had numerous other intriguing, published works on meditation and the sea. His newest book, “Mop Rides the Waves of Life: A Story of Mindfulness and Surfing” is a beautifully illustrated story of a young child tackling the early obstacles of life through surf and meditation. It is his first children’s book, set to release on June 30, 2020.