Monday, January 12, 2009

Riding the Dharma Waves

A hopeful author and professional journalist, Jaimal Yogis, asked me if I would review his forthcoming book: Saltwater Buddha. I have to qualify any such reviewing. If you have read many of my posts, you may know better than I the quirks of my writing and ideas about religion. It turns out I am the one being done the favor because I thoroughly enjoyed the book and devoured it in one sitting.

Poetic intensity of the prologue is a promise mostly kept. It is the knack of the surfers, teetering on a plank in a constant state of falling down a slope of water, to gracefully make it look easy. Jaimal Yogis also makes vivid his struggles and emerging with sure and effortless sounding prose. It would be a disservice if the work were cataloged as merely an autobiography.

The reason, to resort to my own limited understanding, why zen eludes the typical American is that saying things like "it is so much less than you think" confuse a western mind, and confront the analytical habit, grown out of Greek philosophy, of penetrating reality by taking it into pieces. Jaimal manages to depict in the anecdotes that comprise his adolescence and young adulthood, how we westerners put our own minds in our way so thoroughly that we miss what is there. Jaimal's formal study and practice of Buddhism show up as a respectful knowledge of the sages of Zen traditions coloring many of the passages. But the merit of the book is very much how life outside the temple can be connected to and illuminated by practice.

Jaimal explores his hunch that the affinity for water is a primal human impulse with enough conviction to bring Elaine Morgan's works to mind. His rhapsodic exploration of water as metaphor for life affects me. I pick up the vibes easily as I read and his mode echoes in me as if these were my own thoughts: If it were not for the ripples, water would become a mirror and we would see exactly what it reflects. Instead we see only our own turbulence at the surface, image distorted, and the water itself lent a character it does not own but can transmit. But zen is knowing there is water.... Well, you would have to read yourself to see what you pick up.

A gentle protest against the trite co-opting of zen as a motif in media and marketing, runs through the book. The "Inner Tennis " for surfers this book most definitely is not. I would hope readers would not stop at the title just because such unfortunate and uninformed associations are so common.

The siren song of the surf seeps into his dreams. Jaimal's impulses to shed his conflicts by dropping out to go surfing, as if maya could be run away from, reminded me of Karen Armstrong's descriptions of the ascetic option in the early Hindu religion. This going off to the woods or begging has deep roots older than Buddhist tradition.

Jaimal does not say his life is more significant than any other. Rather, in an unassuming self awareness, he laughs at himself throughout the book:
"I figured I was destined, like Siddhartha, for spiritual greatness."
But it is the soul of good writing to transform the personal into the universal...why else read? The mundane, carefully observed, mounts into a praise of existing.

Chapter six gives a good example of how the quiet of the zen mind is not the quiet of a cloister or of the orderly life...it is on another, handier plane.

On page 76 he is bemused at himself trying to pass for a Buddhist monk at an age when his peers had gone off to college. But of all the things fanciful and unattainable on his wannabe list, there is one he has managed to do after a fashion in this book: "Write poems with wandering Taoists."

Surfing gets the upper hand. He sets us up to appreciate his own fall by observing others warped to hostility by confusing well being with possession of waves. He reaches page 156 with surfing morphed into an attachment more than the Zen practice he had earlier envisioned. But by page 229 the lust for wisdom with which Jaimal began his journey has ripened into a freedom from lust. The thrill of wisdom settles down into well adjusted living words:
"But it seems like the idea of paradise is just on the horizon, always, while life is here, under my feet, now."
As a worked example of how one can grow through Buddhist insights, this little book is bound to help at least a few sentient beings. Each person would have their own particular pathway into Zen Buddhism so anyone else's path must seem like an abstraction. But in that sense, abstractions from others are all we can exchange and so this sharing of Jaimal's path is for the rest of us an amble in the vicinity, an inviting introduction to its effects and appeal. The author has a mind born with spiritual habits and a brain able to write prose pictorially vivid and spiritually telling. I found it a pleasure to go along on this man's adventure.

3 comments:

Shokai said...

Great post, Greensmile - knowing you are not one to indiscriminately recommend a book, I look forward to reading this one.

Karen Armstrong's biography of the Buddha depicted him not so much as the revolutionary we sometimes romantically imagine him, but very much a man of his time, steeped in the Vedic religious traditions of his day.

In an earlier life, I enjoyed whitewater kayaking, and have often thought about writing on the parallels between Zen practice and whitewater practice. I can't wait to compare notes with Yogis on Zen, surfing, and kayaking.

GreenSmile said...

It worked for me. I will be interested in your evaluation.

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