Jill S. Schneiderman reflects on seaside Dharma reading.
Yesterday I stepped onto the volcanic terra firma of St. Vincent, though I hesitate to call it that given the spate of earthquakes in the first quarter of 2010, after having sailed down the Grenadine islands with my partner, our two kids, and their grandparents. Chris, the skipper of our Barefoot Charter, was a forty-something nice guy who had recently checked out of Washington (state), left behind television, telephone, and internet connection, to follow his dream of skippering sailboats in the Caribbean Sea. When I saw that the name of our fifty-foot monohull was Planned Outage and glimpsed Chris reading The Art of Happiness by H.H. The Dalai Lama, I felt delighted about the experience we were about to have.
The book I’d taken with me on the three-day sail was Saltwater Buddha, Jaimal Yogis’ memoir about learning the lessons of Zen Buddhism while living a surfer’s life. I have to admit that after reading a brief excerpt I didn’t see immediately the appeal of the book. I thought to myself, “What is this guy going to teach me about lessons learned along a meandering course of thrill seeking?” I’d done my own share of thrill seeking and meditating and I’ve lived a lot longer than Yogis, encountering my own piece of disillusionment. But as Charles Darwin surely thought about James Hutton’s Theory of the Earth, his choice of reading material aboard the Beagle, “this book is great!”
I didn’t know Yogis’ tale and had no idea he ended up at the Columbia School of Journalism but I wasn’t surprised to find that out because Saltwater Buddha is a good story. From California to Hawaii to France, India, Brooklyn and finally back again, with richly described characters like a sagacious Hawaiian insurance agent immobilized by Elephant Man disease, leather-skinned commercial fishermen in dock-side bars in Montauk, red rubber-suited Santa Cruz “Surf Nazis”, and a hilarious caricature of Yogis as a bliss-seeking surf bum who gets closest to having a real job when as a barista in San Francisco he gets “really good at making the thick foam with the little leafy designs,” Yogis shows his readers how lessons of dharma abound in life experiences that range from the mundane—caring for a sick friend—to the absurd—surfing in a snowstorm in Brooklyn.
I was attracted to the book because I’m living seaside, having run away from professional responsibility with my family at the age of 50, so that we all could recover from the two-year ordeal of dealing with schools, psychologists, doctors and lawyers while negotiating the rough surf that’s called education for kids with learning differences in the U.S. Not to mention the exposure of our difference as a family with queer parents. I’ve been seeking the healing balm of the sea spray myself—an escape from the samsara caused by narrow conceptions of intelligence—meditating daily and interspersing my days and those of my kids with windsurfing and sailing. My whole family has taken to living in the present, and the blue waters surrounding this chunk of coral in the eastern Caribbean have certainly helped. As my friends say, it’s been a skillful move.
What I loved about Saltwater Buddha is the way Yogis easily accesses earth dharma. His observations about wind and water resonated for me as a geoscientist who alternates periods of sitting and adventures with wind on water. For example, Yogis describes the earth science related to surfing: creation of tides as the moon tugs at the ocean; materialization of waves as water feels the seafloor on its coastal approach; and, formation of wind owing to temperature differences between land and sea. Yogis sees the poetry of the earth system.
Of the four spheres of the earth system—rock sphere, biosphere, atmosphere and hydrosphere—the latter two, as fluids, are especially available to sentient beings as dharma teachers because they move and change in time frames quick enough for us to perceive them. Living this year at the edge of the sea, I walk daily along the shore and watch the fluctuating character of the air and water. When previously I’d been for short periods to places where I’d hoped for placid seas, it always seemed that my timing was off—according to the locals the sea was calmer or the wind more gentle just before I’d arrived. But living at the waters edge this year, I see that the ocean—the biggest reservoir of the hydrosphere— and the atmosphere change constantly. They manifest fluidity.
In Saltwater Buddha, Yogis quotes Suzuki Roshi: “waves are the practice of water. To speak of waves apart from water or water apart from waves, is delusion.” My shore walks reveal that we can say the same for the atmosphere; wind is the habit of air and to speak of the two apart from one another is fantasy. The ways of water and air bring home the Buddha’s fundamental teaching of impermanence. As Yogis recognized, each different face of the sea offers episodes of samsara and nirvana. Lately Caribbean breezes have taught me lessons that Brooklyn surf taught Yogis.
Huge swells and shifting winds have caused me to be caught up “in irons” on my dinghy and capsized in a mooring field; but I’ve also had the chance to ride winds on a beam reach while hawksbill turtles lift their heads for subaerial breaths above teal blue waters. As the surfer merges with his medium, so the sailor melds with hers. Connecting with our surroundings in these ways fosters the natural inclination to live with harmony on Earth.
Too, both pastimes are good metaphors for life. Since environmental conditions are mutable, attachment to any one set of circumstances causes suffering. Yogis’ book in combination with my Caribbean sailing adventures reminds me of a slogan on the door of the West End Racing Club in Provincetown, Massachusetts: “You can’t direct the wind but you can adjust the sails.” Or, as my dyslexic sailing instructor cautions, “you can only sail where the wind will let you.”
Read-aloud sessions are my family’s book habit. These past three days aboard Planned Outage we listened to sections of Saltwater Buddha. As sharp-eared dyslexics, my kids recognized a good story. They said they’d like to see the movie and were delighted to learn that the visual version is in production. No doubt we’ll all relish seeing the film when it’s released, but for the time being, we’re living Yogis’ lessons together in the present.
Chris Rundlett says
Jill – nice post! I am glad that I could be part of what ended up being a great experience for your family. I will have to keep an eye out for the book and give it a read.
It was great to see you all again in Barbados! Don't give up on the racing completely – you just need to find the right boat (crew). When you are on a boat that is sailed well and the crew work all comes together – it really is a great feeling to be part of it. There is a saying: A quiet boat is a fast boat. Yesterday was our quietest day and by far our fastest day.
This is very sweet Captain Chris. Thanks for your encouragement and kind words. We'll hope for another voyage with you in the future!