Often when I’m meditating, I catch myself fantasizing about surfing. My attention migrates from the breath to gliding on the steep face of a peeling wave. The water is warm. The wave is the color of clear jade. After almost ten years of regular sitting and surfing, I’ve noticed that my surf fantasies have a different quality than other thoughts. I let them pass like any other distractions, but I also notice that visions of waves help me settle into the sit.
The ancient Hawaiian sport of the gods, surfing never developed in India, China, Tibet, or Japan. But I’m convinced that it’s a Buddhist practice—a proper yoga and a great analogy for the mind. After years of hanging out with a lot of Buddhists, a lot of surfers, and some Buddhist surfers, I’ve realized that many meditators are interested in surfing, and vice versa. There’s an intuitive connection between the two activities. For many of you this connection will seem a little too hippy-dippy-1970’s to take seriously. Nevertheless, it’s my experience. I am a Buddhist surfer. And in a world where Buddhist teachings can be pricey and genuine masters as hard to find as cheap sushi, I have let the ocean be my greatest teacher.
I remember listening to a dharma talk about 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, he said. 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 I would like to suggest another Buddhist lesson we can glean from surfing. 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 sixteen, 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. It breaks. It dies. It becomes the sea again.
When I realized this on an experiential level—through learning how to “duck dive” under or through the wave so that its spiraling energy sucks you under and spits you toward the horizon—the waves lost their ability to paralyze me. I began to see through them, and also 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. Because of the quiet space between them, we can recognize these thoughts as they swell into our consciousness: excitement, pride, planning, anger. We see them coming and can ride them with the stability, balance, and poise of a skilled surfer, or simply let them pass. And the more aware we become, we can even begin to see—while riding—that the wave is impermanent and lacks individuality. It’s the same substance as the ocean, the basic nature.
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. But when we get off our zafus and return to work and social life, there will be many emotional rollers we will not be able to let pass, and this is when a surfer rejoices. It’s an opportunity to practice. Surf’s up! It’s in those moments of sadness, anger, ecstasy, and lust that we might suddenly realize we’re on a huge wave. We can freak out and fall, or just relax and go with it. Once we are comfortable on our boards, we can even carve it up, analyze it, play. I think this is how bodhisattvas are able to use strong emotions to teach their students, without being negatively affected themselves. The Dalai Lama is said to show intense wrath with his close students. I imagine that he is riding a wave of anger, but like the most skilled professional surfer, he is careening down anger’s face completely relaxed. Employing it. Then letting it go.
We may not be as good as the Dalai Lama, but we can, through developing lucidity, know when to let an ugly, dangerous wave roar by without catching it. And when a beautiful wave comes—perhaps we fall in love, perhaps we 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.