Tuesday July 14, 2009
I was brought up not far from the sea, and I have many happy memories of childhood days spent stomping along the shore-line in wellington boots as the dog hurtled around the almost deserted beaches in search of unpleasant-smelling things (usually dead seals) to roll in. Later on, we got a small sailing-dinghy, and on summer evenings, I would go out sailing with friends as the seals came to bob around the boat, poking their curious heads from beneath the waves. But although all of this planted in me an enormous love of the sea, my relationship with the sea was always somewhat distanced. I was never a great swimmer, I tended to get seasick when things get too rough, out of sight of land, and where I used to sail, everybody knew stories about people who had died out on the mudflats when the tide came in too quickly, or when their boat capsized during an afternoon’s sailing. Such stories bred in me a kind of circumspection, a kind of wary regard that has never left me.
Jaimal Yogis, the author of Saltwater Buddha is, however, made of sterner stuff. The child of New-Age parents and brought up on a diet of Buddhism, Hinduism and Eastern literature, Yogis ran away from home whilst still at high school, pocketing several hundred dollars from his mother’s credit card (money that he later returned), and caught a plane to Hawaii, where he eked out a meagre existence as he learned how to surf. After a phone-call home, he found himself taking refuge from loneliness in the practice of meditation, and from then onwards, the two practices of surfing and Zen (practices that he speculates may be around the same age, with Bodhidharma turning up in South China at around the time that the Polynesians arrived in Hawaii, the spiritual home of surfing) began to intertwine, both of them, in different ways, holding out the promise of a kind of freedom.
Saltwater Buddha is a seductive book: part memoir, part reflection, Yogis writes in a light and breezy style as he traces his restless journey from monastery to monastery, and from surf-spot to surf-spot, all the while wrestling with the tricky business of how to make his way through the world. Written in short, beautifully-crafted sections, with good doses of self-deprecating insight, Yogis pulls off the difficult trick of writing seriously about his search, but without preciousness or self-indulgence. And for all the lightness of touch, there is – whether he is talking about meditation or about surfing – the unmistakable mark of hard-won experience here. By the time he is writing of his experience of watching the sun rise from his surf-board far out from the shores of Kalani, I am almost won over:
We would float out there as the moon sank behind the palms – alone except maybe for tiger sharks submerged under the silvery waves – until a huge orange sun rose right out of the sea. Dolphins swam by, coming just inches from our boards.
There was really nothing better in the world.
Almost, that is; but not quite. It is probably something to do with those tiger sharks, but for all of the considerable charm and insight of Saltwater Buddha, I think I’ll stick to stomping along the shore, and I’ll leave the surf to others. Nevertheless, as I walked along the coastline last week down in Devon, and watched the people out there in their wetsuits riding the waves, I could not help but feel a surge of exhiliration as I watched those saltwater Buddhas going about their everyday business, out there where the waters rolled in from the Atlantic.
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