The Zen of Surfing

How to brave life's choppy waters and ride the perfect wave

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I remember listening to a dharma talk five years ago by one of my favorite teachers, Ajahn Amaro, a witty British monk in the Thai Forest tradition who lives in a humble hut in the Mendocino Forest in Northern California. He used a surfing metaphor to explain samsara, the endless cycle of birth and death. The Ajahn laughed as he talked about the ridiculousness of surfers.

They struggle to paddle through the crashing surf in search of their perfect wave. But when they finally catch one, they get a fleeting rush of adrenaline, get shoved underwater, come up breathless, and then struggle to get back out again for another round. This, he said, is dukkha-suffering.

Ajahn Amaro was pointing out that we are addicted to the emotional patterns that continually pound us down. We chase after them for a fleeting rush, but that rush is never quite enough. I agree. But, as a Buddhist surfer, I would like to suggest another lesson we can glean from the sport. I believe surfing can teach us to ride samsara, even enjoy it, like a wave, while still seeing through its illusory nature.

One of the highest insights in the Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhist traditions is to realize that samsara is, in fact, nirvana: that there is no need to escape because everything is originally pure and perfect. In a small way, surfing has begun to teach me this.

When I started surfing on the island of Maui at 16, I was just beginning to meditate regularly. I was living on the north shore of the island, where the waves are extremely big and powerful. For a beginner, it seemed impossible to paddle through the breakers. I would see a huge, frothy wall charging toward me, and my body would tense up. The wave would break on top of me and send me rolling back toward the sand. I felt like a failure, unable even to get out to the point of takeoff. But after a few weeks of daily beatings, I learned the most important principle of surfing: a wave, no matter how large, is still just water.

If you understand the wave and how it moves, you don't have to be afraid of it (or at the very least, you can be less afraid). After all, when you break a wave down to its basic nature, it is just cycling energy moving through water. When the conditions are right, when the water is shallow enough, the wave is born.

When I realized this on an experiential level, the waves lost their ability to paralyze me. I began to see through them and enjoy riding them.

The same thing happens in meditation with waves of thought. At first our minds are stormy, and the water is choppy and mucky with silt and sand. It's like jumping into a washing machine. We get thrown around by currents and whitewash with little awareness. The waves are too close together and they all seem very solid, very real. But as we practice regularly, the winds of thought become gentler and the sea gets what surfers call 'glassy.' There are still surges of thought, but they are distinguishable, like the sets of waves that surfers patiently wait for because they're the easiest to anticipate and have the clearest form. We see them coming and can ride them with poise, stability, and balance, or simply let them pass. And the more aware we become, we can even begin to see-while we're riding-that the wave is impermanent and lacks individuality.

The more we practice, the more we will be able to calm our minds to the point that none of the waves moves us or frightens us during our meditation. We can just bob in the crystal waters. Of course, as we go about our everyday lives there will be emotional rollers we will not be able to let pass, and these too are reasons to rejoice: Surf's up!

It's in those moments of sadness, anger, ecstasy, and lust that we can freak out and fall, or just relax and go with it. Once we are comfortable on our boards, we can carve it up, analyze it, just play. And when a beautiful wave comes, perhaps we fall in love or hold a newborn baby, we can catch it, maybe even get inside the hollow tube and see its beautiful emptiness. But we will know as the wave ends not to be attached. It's just a bunch of salt water. 

Jaimal Yogis is a freelance writer living in San Francisco. He is currently working on a book about Zen and surfing. Excerpted from the Buddhist magazine Shambhala Sun (March 2006). Subscriptions: $28/yr. (6 issues) from 1345 Spruce St., Boulder, CO 80302; www.shambhalasun.com.