where the writers are
Interview with Jaimal Yogis, Author of Saltwater Buddha

Saltwater Buddha - by Jaimal Yogis

You don’t have to be a surfer or a Buddhist to enjoy Saltwater Buddha: A Surfer’s Quest to Find Zen on the Sea. This coming-of-age memoir by San Francisco-based journalist Jaimal Yogis, with its crisp, clean prose and delightful self-deprecating tone, will pull in any reader who has ever yearned to learn something new as well as garner some spiritual meaning in life.

Yogis is an award-winning journalist and photographer. He holds a B.A. in Religious Studies from the University of Hawai’i and received his Master’s Degree in Journalism from New York’s Columbia University. His work has appeared in numerous publications, including: The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, The Toronto Star, The Surfer’s Journal, Transworld Surf, Beliefnet, Tricycle, Yoga Journal, The Utne Reader, Shambhala Sun, and San Francisco Magazine.

In the midst of preparing for an extensive West Coast book tour, Jaimal took some time to answer questions about writing, surf culture, and the spiritual and surfing life.

As a journalist, what challenges did you face writing a book-length work as opposed to shorter articles?

Unlike a lot journalists, I started off writing magazine pieces that would get up to 15,000 words, so writing a 40,000 word book wasn’t so difficult. The real challenge was writing about myself instead of other people, which I hadn’t done much. I just had too much information about this character, Jaimal Yogis, and most of it was fairly unimportant. Do people really need to know that I love cheesecake or what I named my first pet bunny? Probably not. But it’s a balance because in memoir, you also have to develop yourself as a character that people are invested in and that necessitates some details. Ultimately, I decided to try and follow Kafka’s advice – I think it was Kafka, anyway – and only give details that I thought were absolutely essential to the story. But that wasn’t always easy and I’m sure I didn’t always do it perfectly.

Saltwater Buddha has an interesting structure and is mainly comprised of very short chapters. What led you to pursue this format?

I honestly don’t know. I didn’t even think about it. It just came out that way and the publisher thought it worked so we decided to go with it. They even made the chapters more pithy in some places, which I think is a cool experiment. People always tell me that they read the book in one or two sittings so maybe it helps make the book more manageable in our time-constrained world.

But mostly, this is how Saltwater Buddha wanted to express itself. I’ve always been a fan of the idea that stories have a life of their own, and if the writer can relax and surrender control, the story can express itself more purely, as it wants to. Maybe because it’s a Zen story, Saltwater Buddha seemed to like this style. I’m not so sure I’d do it again, but it worked for this project.

My husband was born in Japan and grew up by default in a Buddhist culture. When he began surfing, it seemed he got more in touch with his Buddhist faith. Do you think an interest in Buddhism is common to many surfers? If so, why?

I always thought I was one of the few Buddhist surfers and I felt almost embarrassed to tell some of my surfing mates that I meditated. I guess I was afraid they would think I was weird or something (even more than they already did). Sure, I knew there were millions of people who saw surfing as a meditative experience, a “Zen” part of their lives. But I didn’t think there were all that many people who truly had a Buddhist practice and a surfing practice. It turns out that there are tons all over the world. You wouldn’t believe how many people have contacted me saying that they are long-time Buddhist practitioners and surfers. This book could have easily been an anthology. And there are even more people who are passionate about one of these two practices and sort of dabble in the other, or in something related: yoga, kayaking, t’ai chi, sailing. Why is this? I don’t’ know for sure, but as much as surfing and Buddhism (at least in the west) still seem a bit fringe, they aren’t. There are more than 20 million surfers in the world and many more Buddhists. So there’s a natural overlap that is inevitable. But if I were to pick one reason, I’d say it’s that both surfing and Buddhism attract introspective people, people who are interested in finding real freedom. I’m excited about the release of the book around the world because I think a lot of people with these common interests who might have felt a little bit alone, like me, will now have more of a reason to talk and come together. Your husband Manabu and I are the perfect example.

I’m fascinated by the culture of Surf Nazis, which you describe well in the book: those surfers who feel they are entitled to a particular surfing spot and bully those who dare to tread. What do you think causes this kind of behavior?

So many people are fascinated with this phenomenon, surfers and non-surfers alike, because it seems so strange. Isn’t surfing a peaceful sport? Well, yes and no. As far as I know, being in the ocean is a healing, joyful experience for everyone who loves to play in it. But we humans are strange. We become very possessive over the things that bring us the most joy; and since there are a limited number of ridable waves around the world on any given day, it makes sense that surfers try to hoard them and even fight over them. It’s human nature to try and covet what makes you happy. We do the same thing in relationships, in religion, with good art – and the list goes on.

That’s one way to look at it anyway. But localism in surfing is also very complex. It’s fascinating. It can be territorial, just like gang violence, which I suppose relates back to our tribal instincts for protection and belonging. But it can also be a safety thing that you can compare with, say, road rage. There are surfers out there – experts and beginners – who are plain reckless whether they know it or not. Like bad drivers, these surfers put other people’s lives at risk, either because they have huge egos and think they have entitlement to the ocean or because they are trying to surf somewhere they’re not capable of surfing and don’t know the common etiquette that exists iin surfing. So, just like the Los Angeles freeway, tensions are going to flare when the traffic gets heavy in the water. It’s unfortunate that this is happening more and more as the population grows. But from a Buddhist perspective, the days when anger is most likely to arise are also the best situations to practice patience and compassion. I think every fight that happens in surfing could be avoided with even the smallest amount of wisdom and compassion. This can be developed just by looking at the situation from a bird’s eye view and thinking about how silly it is to fight while you’re playing in the waves.

Do you anticipate a time when you will tire of surfing and move on to another sport?

No. The ocean is constantly changing, so it’s always interesting and challenging. It’s a teacher that never runs out of lessons. Thank the lord.

What is your favorite San Francisco Bay Area surf spot? Or is it a secret?

I don’t like driving so my favorite spot is right in front of my house on Ocean Beach. There’s nothing like walking out your front door and over the dunes to surf.

Does the act of writing parallel surfing in any way?

Surfers are very focused on waves and think that everything is like surfing – everything. Writing is no exception. There are lots of comparisons but I’ll just give this one: I write and surf best when I don’t think too much and just let myself be spontaneous. I’m betting that’s true for most surfers and writers.

What is next for you on the literary horizon? On the surfing horizon?

I’m trying not to plan too much. I have this huge west coast book tour happening all summer where I’m doing readings, talks, and signings at coastal bookstores between British Columbia and San Diego. It may go international too – hopefully some tropical places – but the summer tour is about all the planning my brain can handle right now. I usually don’t even keep a calendar so you can imagine why planning that many months out is a stretch. I’m really excited about the tour because I’m trying to make it carbon neutral by doing tree-planting volunteer work in state parks along the way, so let me know if you need some trees planted. (No, this is not an ad for free yard work!) I’m also dabbling in a novel, but it’s too early to talk about that. And I’m always doing some journalism pieces and writing some poetry that I often post on Facebook. Folks can keep up with my ramblings there, or at my Web site.