Life in Salt: ‘Saltwater Buddha’ Jaimal Yogis Talks Story About Surf, Family, His New Book – and Swim Fins

by Owen James Burke

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A Little Excerpt from Saltwater Buddha by Jaimal Yogis. 

Jamal Yogis is a Zen Buddhist and a bohemian in all the best senses. He’s a vanguard, a harbinger for the spiritual surfer who counters any left-over notion of the Jeff Spicoli-surfer. His appreciation for and commitment to the art of the written word and the ridden wave are a testament to that. 

Through personal experience and enlightenment along a hard road to hoe, Jaimal illuminates ideas everyone — especially any teenaged boy — could surely benefit from. His first book, Saltwater Buddha, is a coming of age story; Holden Caulfield with a surfboard under one arm, a copy of Siddhartha beneath the other, written with the un-muddled clarity of an older, wiser self.

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Jaimal Yogis drops in during a cold winter swell at San Francisco’s Ocean Beach. Photo: Mark Lukach/Courtesy of Jaimal Yogis.

Born into a military family, Jaimal had an upbringing few would venture to call conventional. Moving around during his formal years, he was fortunate that his family was more often that not stationed by the sea, he gained an awe and respect for the ocean while growing up in the Azores. But when the family landed in suburban Sacramento, California, Jaimal’s gill’s dried out. So at 16, he stole his mother’s credit card and ran away.

But this was not your average run away from home stunt — a bandana stuffed with PB&J sandwiches, a slingshot and two-figure life’s savings tied to the tip of a fishing rod. Jaimal hopped on a one-way flight to Hawaii. He was however, sensible and courteous enough to his parents to leave a note. He also promised to pay his mother back.

Fifteen years later after earning a master’s degree from Columbia University, Jaimal was strapped for rent money. He penned an article on meditation and surfing and at the time, he thought nothing else of it. But the next thing he knew, a Buddhist publishing company was approaching him with an advance for a book. He’s now authored three books including Saltwater Buddha, The Fear Project: What Our Most Primal Emotion Taught Me About Survival, Success, Surfing…and Love, and Turtles Don’t Surf, a colorful and spirited children’s book. His first memoir, Saltwater Buddha, is in production to become a feature film. He’s currently writing the the sequel; All Our Waves Are Water

With a wife and three kids, and another film project on surfing in India in his scope, Jaimal has a full plate, but he was still kind enough to set some time aside for us to discuss his adolescent exploits and his life in salt. — OJB


 

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In the water, Jaimal may be just as gracefully cool, calm and collected as he is on the page; he once paddled out at Northern California’s Mavericks, just to find out what it was like to face 40-foot waves. Photo Courtesy of Jaimal Yogis

Your family moved to the Azores early on and then to a Sacramento suburb before leaving for Hawaii, what were your really early years like, before moving to the Azores?

We moved to the Azores when I was three-years-old so I don’t remember a whole lot before that. Except falling down a flight of stairs in Tacoma, Washington (another place the military stationed us). That fall probably set me on this harebrained track of being a writer.

We all have our reasons for dreaming of running away as kids. What made you decide to do it?

I don’t know. I know that as teenagers our pre-frontal cortex, the part of our brain that restrains our impulses, is less developed – especially in males. That is apparently why teens can be so stupid about risky decisions and also why they can be so brilliant. Fear’s just not holding them back as much. I was always doing really brazen stuff as a teen – often stupid stuff, but occasionally brilliant too. Running away was a bit of both. It wasn’t totally stupid because the motivation was pure. I was so fed up with the popularity contest of high school and I started realizing many of the grown-ups I knew were still caught up in the same contest. I realized if I didn’t find a more meaningful way to look at life – a spiritual frame – I would be there soon. I wasn’t strong enough to find that spiritual frame doing the same old stuff with the same old crew. In the end, I think it was that fear – the fear of the ordinary – that trumped my fear of what might happen if I got on that plane.

Your runaway letter to the family is so confidently written, and so heavily influenced by Buddha (and I loved how you promised to pay your mother back), you knew you had to leave. How can you imagine this would have gone down with any other parents?

Oh man, I don’t know. I hope other parents would try to read between the lines and understand that their child was crying out for help. The reality is most parents probably would ground the hell out of their kid instead of helping them study abroad like mine. I got super super lucky. Thank you mom and dad!

You made some bold moves as a kid, but your father (who also comes across as a poet laureate of the water world) seemed to have a bit of wanderlust, too, at least as you wrote about him in Saltwater Buddha; did he influence your journey to Hawaii in any way? Were your actions so rebelliously driven as they were spiritually?

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Jaimal Yogis looking over his shoulder at a force to be reckoned with at Padang Padang, Bali, Indonesia, Photo Courtesy: Jaimal Yogis. 

That’s a good observation about my dad. I’ve always thought good poetry is about paradox and my dad is a walking paradox. He’s a super impulsive, wanderlust-driven bohemian who somehow managed to be in the military for 30 years. I still don’t understand him, but I love him a ton and he loves Hawaii a ton. He built that love into me.

As far as rebellion versus spirit, they were both driving me and both the same. I was rebelling against the conformity of the world, which is what it seems like all spiritual seekers are doing when they decide to commit to spirit. The Buddha rejected ruling his kingdom and domestic life to become the Buddha. Jesus rejected the laws of his own religion. Ultimately, the world and spirit are one, but you sometimes have to say “screw you world” initially in order to commit to the spiritual path. Then you can come back to the world and embrace it. I suppose that’s why the Zen master has to live on the mountaintop before she can come back down to the market and see that the market is the same as the mountaintop.

Why did you chose to run away to Hawaii specifically?

I’d had these magical dreams about surfing in tropical water that made me feel like I was being called. I briefly considered Mexico, but I wanted to stay in school (I was a rebel who cared about my GPA). And I thought leaving the country might make someone along the international travel chain of command call my parents. Even in flying to Hawaii, I was shocked that I was able to just buy a one-way ticket with no parental consent. Not sure if you could still do that post 9/11.

What would you say to kids these days, swarmed with i-These and i-Those, Twitter, Facebook, and all of the other social media platforms blaring rapidly in their faces – stuff you didn’t have in front of you at 16?  

On the technology note, it seems like we can’t run away from it. I’m co-producing a movie about surfing in Bangladesh right now and the kids there – literally some of the poorest people on earth – are all on Facebook and have phones. They’re more connected than a lot of American teens. The positive side is that we are communicating with each other and learning that we are – regardless of race, religion, politics – all pretty darn similar. The downside is that to be genuinely creative or just happy in the present moment, the mind and body need space. To find that space these days, we have to be really self-disciplined. I’m finding that to get any creative writing done I have to go to places where I can’t access the internet or my phone. Once I get to one of those sanctuaries, I take some time to meditate before jumping on my computer, which feels necessary just to wash internet brain off.

 

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Jaimal Yogis and son, Kai, atop the dunes at Ocean Beach, San Francisco. Photo: Carly Statsky/courtesy of Jaimal Yogis.

I think the world is struggling with how to differentiate information from wisdom right now. We have instant access to limitless information but wisdom is experiential. It takes space and presence. I’ve yet to find either of those online.

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Sequence above: Jaimal sitting pretty and slinging out of an Uluwatu barrel, Bali, Indonesia. Courtesy of Jaimal Yogis.

At what point in life did you decide to write Saltwater Buddha?

I’d just gotten out of grad school and I was planning on being a hard hitting investigative journalist, but while I was muckraking around San Francisco, I needed some extra cash and wrote a piece about meditation and surfing. I thought nobody would ever see it but it went viral. A Buddhist publisher actually asked me if I wanted to turn it into a book. At first, I thought, no way. I don’t want to be a Buddhist guru. But when they said I could just tell my story, I thought it could be really fun. And it was really fun, besides the fact that I could barely make rent on my advance. Thankfully it did better on the backend.

Saltwater Buddha is quite the saga, is there anything you feel that you’d like to further elaborate on that wasn’t fleshed out enough in the book?

I felt like I could elaborate on some of the ideas I just flicked at in Saltwater Buddha. For example, at the end of the book, I say that I’m realizing that “work-life” or “the world” is the same as the path to enlightenment – that old, “Before enlightenment, chop wood carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood carry water” idea. That’s a fine thing to say, but it’s hard to live from that place. Over the last decade, I’ve been trying and it has led to some pretty humorous stories. Writing is how I make sense of life so I wanted to write a few of those stories down.

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Jamal Yogis slipping into a cold, pale-green Ocean Beach barrel in San Francisco. Photo: Dennis Mahfud/courtesy of Jaimal Yogis.

Can you explain the title of your next book, “All Our Waves Are Water”?

In Zen, the masters are always talking about the 10,000 things being one and the one giving birth to the 10,000 things, a view most people are familiar with through the joke, “What did the Zen master ask the hot dog vendor?” Answer, “Make me one with everything.” The fact that a wave actually looks to be a bunch of water moving across the sea, but in reality is just energy passing through the medium of water, has always reminded me that we are also just energy moving through the medium of the universe or multiverse. It’s an idea that makes me happy and I wanted it to infuse all my stories in this book.

Who or what are you thinking about while you’re writing the book?

To truly write from the heart I think you have to get out of your own way and write fearlessly. It’s very tough to do except in those rare times when it happens and then it’s the easiest thing in the world. Anyhow, that’s my goal with All Our Waves Are Water. To get out of my own way.


Some of Jaimal’s Favorite Gear:

Jaimal’s not exactly enamored with technology — and certainly not while he’s in the water — but he says “the new new GoPro cameras — 120 FPS — are pretty darn awesome. We’re lucky to be using one for the Saltwater Buddha film.”

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He also did serious research on swim fins for our gear reviews with The Wirecutter and concluded that “When it comes to the best all-around swimfin, there’s no contest with DaFin.” Jaimal should know — he bodysurfs San Francisco’s hollow, dredging Ocean Beach which is notorious for rip currents and heavy waves. “Over two decades of obsessing about playing in the ocean, I’ve never found more comfortable and functional swimfins.” He’s also interviewed the best of the best, including Hawaiian lifeguard and legendary bodysurfer Mark Cunningham.


Books by Jaimal Yogis:

SALTWATER BUDDHA

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When Jaimal Yogis was a kid, he ran away from home in California with a few hundred bucks to Hawaii with dreams of learning how to surf. This is his story of being a wild kid who grew to become of the most wonderful and calm-under-pressure watermen I’ve ever known. (And a good neighbor of mine in SF’s Ocean Beach.) – Brian Lam


THE FEAR PROJECT

FearProject Library

This is a fascinating book, made all the more fascinating because the esteemed author is willing to throw himself headlong into some very scary situations. Some of his first-person research, I can surely relate to: fatherhood and love in particular. I’ve also sat out in the lineups at the Cortes Bank, Todos Santos, and Mavericks. But Yogis takes a further step that I (and most) simply never would. He paddles out into the heart of the lineup at Mavericks and describes what it’s really truly like to face a 40-foot-wall of water, and to try to ride one. Oh, and he swims with sharks, too. This gut-wrenching, hilarious, and ultimately highly educational ride will also teach you more about your amygdala than you ever wanted to know. – Chris Dixon


TURTLES DON’T SURF (A CHILDREN’S BOOK)

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If you or someone you know has a kid who are just a little too apprehensive about getting their feet wet, this is the book. – OJB


Jaimal currently lives in San Francisco with his wife and his two sons, surfing Ocean Beach when he can. Follow him on twitter and his website to keep up to date for the release of his upcoming book  and Saltwater Buddha, the film.

 

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