Jaimal Yogis on Saltwater Buddha

written by Anjula June 30, 2009


About JAIMAL YOGIS As an award-winning journalist and photographer, Jaimal spends much of his spare time surfing and traveling the globe.  With a master’s degree in Journalism from Columbia University, his work has been published in The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, The Toronto Star, The Surfers Journal, Belief.net, Tricycle, San Francisco Magazine, and many others.  His first book, Saltwater Buddha, has been internationally praised and is the subject of a forthcoming PBS documentary. Nevertheless, he is currently working on a second release, while also traveling on an extensive book tour (along the coasts of course).


LM: Your book is a delight to read.  I came away with similar feelings I had come away with when reading Siddhartha.  There were so many ‘A-haa’ moments that I experienced.  Without forcing it on the reader, you  share some beautiful prose and help us all to focus on what is truly important — living more mindfully, being aware of our own happiness.  Have you always been on a quest for spiritual understanding?  When did this interest first strike you?

JY: It goes back as far as I can remember. I wouldn’t have called it spiritual when I was really young, but I’ve always had the desire to know what is “behind” so-called reality. I’ve always wanted to know the source of everything, why we’re here and all that.  When I was about 10 years old I was a little pretentious and even created my own religion called Jaimalism. The only tenant was that whatever you firmly believe would become your reality, afterlife included. I joke about it but I guess I’m still basically a Jaimalist.

LM: As a Junior High student, you ran away to Hawaii, equipped with little more than a copy of  Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha.  Can you share with us the reason for your trip?  Before this time, had you surfed, or was this your first experience?

JY: I had this impulsive feeling that running away to Hawaii was going to save my life. I was running into a lot of bad stuff in my hometown – drugs, trivialities, stagnation. I felt bad for putting my parents through all that worry, but running away really was the beginning of my spiritual path and the beginning of a quest to follow my heart, a quest I’m still on. I’d surfed a couple times before that in Cocoa Beach and I’d body boarded a bit, but as I write in the book, it didn’t prepare me for what I found in Hawaii. I had to get pretty beaten up before I even started to learn the basics.

LM: In your book, “Saltwater Buddha: A Surfer’s Quest to Find Zen on the Sea” (Wisdom Publications, $14.95), you trace your steps through the islands of Hawaii, while also discussing your travels to Mexico, UC Santa Cruz, India and a Berkeley Chinese monastery known for its strictness.  Of all the places you have visited, can you share with us the most spiritual of journeys you have taken thus far?  What was it about that specific trip that left you with a feeling that you were no longer the same person you were when you first stepped out on that quest?

JY: The cool, and sometimes difficult thing about traveling, is that you always come back a different person. The people and places literally become a part of you and you’re never the same. I can’t say any of the places were more spiritual or more life changing than the other, but India – specifically becoming very close with a Tibetan monk named Sonam, which I write about in an upcoming Shambhala Sun article – stands out in my mind as one of the happiest.  Perhaps it was because we were in the Himalayas. Those mountains will change anyone. Plus, I was coming out of a very sad break-up and just starting to feel my freedom and stability again.

LM: As a journalist and photographer, did you set out to document your story, thus creating Saltwater Buddha or did the idea for the book come about more organically?

JY: It arose organically. I was meditating in my room during graduate school in journalism, very stressed about deadlines, and I felt like I was drowning in bad thoughts: “You’re not good enough, etc.” I was able to pop out of that bad state by imagining that my bad thoughts were just really ugly waves that I could let pass over me like I do in a stormy surf session. I didn’t have to ride any of them, or identify with them. I wrote an article about this kind of surfing-meditation metaphor and that article became really popular online. One of the magazines that republished the story asked me what I wanted in my bio, and I said, “why don’t you say I’m working on a book about zen and surfing”.  I had only started the book in my head, but a few weeks later, Wisdom called me and asked if they could publish it. I said, “Sure, I just have to write it.”

surfing buddha


Surfing Buddha By Brandon Duke

LM: You have many friends who consider themselves avid surfers, while also being practicing Buddhists.  Do you see Buddhism being a commanality amongst the surfing community?

JY: I didn’t realize how prevalent surfing Buddhists were until I wrote the book, but it’s incredible how many I’ve met since Saltwater Buddha hit the shelves. We’re all over the globe. It seems to be a burgeoning community which is really exciting to me.  Most surfers consider surfing spiritual, but a lot of us haven’t learned to take the peace we get from surfing into our land lives . Buddhism offers practices that teach you to maintain mindfullness in any situation, surfing included.  I think they’re a great combo.

LM: With all the places you have travelled to, what is your favorite place to surf and why?

JY: I still love surfing most in San Francisco with my friends. The water’s cold but I just feel at home there. There’s nothing like feeling totally at home while floating in the vastness of the ocean.


Dharamsala by Kenji Babasaki

LM: While in India, what did you focus on? Was it a spiritual quest, were you travelling throughout the country?  What was the one thing you remember when you think back to your travels to India and her people?

JY: I was studying journalism and finishing my undergraduate degree in religious studies, but my main goal was spiritual.  I spent about a month in silent retreat up in the Himalayas and met some incredible hermits.  Getting one hermit’s blessing was a life-changing experience.  He approached me randomly on the street in Dharmasala.  I’ve never seen such compassion in a human’s eyes.  It solidified my faith in meditation and prayer as a vehicle for improvement and freedom.

LM: If there were one goal you want readers to come away with after reading Saltwater Buddha, would it be that we each need to follow our dreams, live our dreams, create our own destiny?  If so, why do you feel that this is important to each of us as we travel down this road called life?

JY: Yea, I’d like everyone to have the faith to follow a dream. But I think it’s important to do so without being caught in a narrow result. To follow a dream, or to follow your heart, and not be attached to the outcome, remain open to life and what it brings, is an art I’m still working on. But I have a hunch that that art is ultimately how we can be free and happy while still living in the world.


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Luanne Thulstrup July 1, 2009 at 4:04 pm

Thanks for the fine article on Jaimal and the outstanding video/music which accompanies it. Great read!

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