So it was good to hear once more from Jennifer Cody Epstein a couple of days ago, to let me know that her novel, The Painter From Shanghai is now coming out in paperback. (If you're interested to read what I first wrote about the book, you can click here.) Delighted for Jenn... May she find many new readers...
Now comes Saltwater Buddha: A Surfer's Quest to Find Zen on the Sea, by Jaimal Yogis, former surf bum and now a journalist surf bum, writing mostly for San Francisco magazine. In part, the book is an engaging romp through some of the country's great surfing sites, from Hawaii to (yes!) Brooklyn in the dead of winter. In part it's a kind of Bildungsroman--the lit crit word for a novel of education. We follow Jaimal through childhood and teenage years to an early adulthood spent in search of self and some other purpose in life than riding the waves. The narrative is a bit hip and slangy, its tone appropriate to the age, and it catches the culture to perfection; it conjures what landlubbers like myself--even those of us who frequent the surfer city of Laguna Beach--imagine the surfer's life to be. It also, pleasingly, rides over easily at times into truly lyrical descriptions of the meeting points between land, and sky, and ocean.
That's all enough to appeal to the surfer audience. If you're like me and get sucked in by the title, you may at first find the Buddhist angle to be a bit too offhand and glib. Stick with the story, though, and the inner growth of its narrator, and you'll find a lot of Buddhist wisdom sloughed off as easily as water off... well, a wet-suited surfer's back. Little nuggets that threaten at first sight to look like casual cliches turn out to glisten appealingly because the metaphors are precise and fitting, and because they reflect something of the quintessential simplicity of the Buddha's teachings. Not least, too, because Yogis comes to keenly understand the continuity between the physical and the spiritual, the particularity of a life lived in the world and the lessons of the Buddha.
Along the way, be it said, Yogis takes us through some vividly hair-raising experiences, from vertiginous waves to a stomach-churning episode on a fishing boat caught in an Atlantic storm. His story is also, in part, an adventure story in which the sea is a powerful antagonist, at once the siren and the ogre, irresistible and terrifying in its sheer, monstrous power. For this author, it's a voracious and demanding lover, and he is skilled at summoning its ever-changing presence.
Others may disagree, but I like best the Jaimal of the end of the book--the one who has faced a number of his demons and has learned to to be honest with himself. The one who begins to see a way to grow beyond his ego's consuming need to find and conquer the waves, to compete, and to prove himself--to "paddle," his metaphor for that ninety-nine percent of drudge work and effort that accompanies, in all creative work, the one percent of inspired production. At the end of the book, surfing in a white fog, it's this Jaimal who writes: "It's a bit unsettling. Looking back toward the beach, I might as well be lost at sea: nothing but white in front, nothing but white behind, to the sides--white... [and] when I accept the fact that I can't mark my place, can't predict where I'm floating to, it becomes fun in a different way: completely intuitive." There's "Nowhere to paddle to," he concludes. "Nowhere for the currents to drag me from." And realizes that "finally I'm doing it: Zen surfing."
Okay, I'll admit the surfer dude gets on my nerves a bit, but that may just be the old geezer in me, impatient of youth and its laid-back excesses. Or maybe just envious. But it turns out that this dude, through the practice of his art, the special skill that he hones with passionate dedication, does learn to jettison along the way those delusions of "self" that get in the way of actual experience, as they do with all of us; and affords us glimpses of the perfect union that can exist between mind and body, thought and being. "Here's the thing I learned through all of this," he writes. "I am not what I think I am. I just am."