Surfing, Enlightenment, Samsara

Buddha Surfing

If Buddha Surfed...


The idea that surfing itself is Dharmic is rather askew. Since many great Lamas define one’s level of enlightenment by the level of one’s compassion for all beings, this would exclude a great majority of the world’s finest surfers. Many surfers, professional or not, are out for only themselves, their careers, and their own attainment of ego-hood. Surfing itself, even when done by the world’s best, is little more than samsaric activity. If surfing were truly a Dharmic practice, the finest of surfers would be the finest of Bodhisattvas.

Surfing is not really yoga either. Why? Because it is not only about flowing, it is not really about unity. Tube-riding and much of surfing is about union with the sea, and it’s waves but… Just as much of surfing is adversarial and warlike—fighting against the sea, using it’s own energy against it, and so forth. Surfing is more akin to a martial art. Nay, it is a martial art, only, without the martial element, without any military, without actual fighting.

Of course, there is the age-old Buddhist adage about the mind and its thoughts being likened to the sea and its waves. In meditation we are taught and trained to make no difference between the sea and its waves, they are both one and the same. Let the thoughts come, and pass, and break on the shore of calm mind, and the waves will get less and less. And, at the same time, the waves and the calm sea are both the mind. Or, just observe the torrid state of one’s mind—the waves.

In total and utter contrast to this, the surfer’s entire existence is to live for, and only for, the waves themselves. I.e. one puts all one’s effort into grasping at the waves, which are themselves un-graspable and impermanent. The calm sea is of almost no interest to surfers whatsoever! Unless there are great waves to be had, the surfer is not interested. All of a surfer’s motives for being in the sea are to catch the best, most perfect, synchronous ride possible, and to do it the best he or she can; with the most style and the greatest panache. Like a seasoned toreador who does not first have the bull maimed, but rides the full power, on his grace alone, for the sheer love of the wave itself – it’s power and glide, to the exclusion of all else in memory.

“When I’m on that one great wave in month, all the people, cops, politicians, teachers, priests, there all going head first, (over my head when I’m in the tube) are just going overhead into the reef. I forget all about all the shit in my life, all those people trying to pull their trips on me, trying to tell me what I should or shouldn’t do.”

—Mickey Dora—Surfing’s Original Dark Knight…

This may have some commonalities with Zen no doubt, the flowing; the absorption in the moment, but the Bodhisattva motivation is totally absent. Not to say that surfers are bad people, just that a surfer does not necessarily a Bodhisattva make. The art of riding waves, much like many forms of martial arts, or other arts for that matter, are forms of goal-oriented meditation. The practices of such activities are forms of focus, mental calming, shinay, or what have you, but there is a material goal in mind. This is why Jet Li explains he has come into the fold of the Karma Kagyu and H.H. Karmapa Orgyen Trinley Dorje. He has said that although there is meditation in martial arts it is for a purpose, it is goal-oriented meditation.

Surfing is by nature samsaric, the search for the greatest pleasure around, total communion with nature’s only rideable energy wave. You can’t ride lightning, or earthquakes. the riding of energy in the form of a wave, through the medium of seawater. The only rideable waves on our planet. You can’t ride light waves, or radio waves, or infrared rays, or ultraviolet rays, or any other energy waves. (Maybe wind, but that’s not a wave…) You can dance or ‘groove’ to sound, you occasionally experience extreme sexual rapture, but nothing really comes close to surfing. When it’s done right, on good waves, with perfect execution, nothing is better…

Samsara is alive and well in surfing. Pure snake energy, the wave of bliss that Siva rides in some of the ancient paintings, this is surfing. It is the kundalini accessible—pure pleasure, and very little to do with the enlightened nature of plain old – “everyday mind”. Such a state of rapture as felt when surfing, causes great pain when absent. “Much joy is actually the source of suffering.” Many surfers know this all too well. When we don’t get enough surfing days in, or if our sessions are off for whatever reason, we become intolerable. Some even resort to other means of pleasure gratification to make up from the inevitable ‘dip’ that surfers experience after such a ‘peak’ as a great surfing session.

The very equipment needed to surf itself is quite deplorable as well. All of the petro-chemically derived materials used are extremely toxic, carcinogenic, and quite frankly, just plain bad for you. Polyurethane foam, extruded polystyrene foam, polyester and epoxy resins, neoprene rubber, and wetsuit glues are manufactured using toluene. (Toluene is one of the most toxic chemicals around – one that was to be legally offed, along with DDT, but remained legal due to it’s extreme import and irreplacability, within the manufacture of marine products. Such as in the marine, naval, and surfing industries.) Then of course there is the whole China-produced line of products and clothing, which keep the surf industry afloat. The glamour, hype, and promo-machine; which allows amateur and professional surfers to make a living in the surf-industry, and not just starve to death. All these evils come together for you, the surfer, to experience the “purity” of surfing. That purity that you feel is just that—a feeling and nothing more. The ride itself is totally pure—but the devices to do so are most definitely not.

This seeking of one’s wave of bliss, to the exclusion of all else, will secure one’s own pleasure, sense of well being, peace of mind, and good health, but what does it do to benefit others? The only way is by sharing this experience with others so that they too may find benefit. But, is this not like self-realization in the Hindu tradition? If you focus on yourself, and your yoga with God, and you succeed, you can become a beacon for others if they do as you do, and follow your example? But you Brahmins don’t stop along the way to pull others out of the mud as Buddha suggests. Did not Buddha himself put more emphasis on benefiting others before oneself, and state that very beneficence to be one of the true measures of enlightenment? Tough questions there… I am a surfer, and am only qualified to discuss the surfing aspect; I’ll leave my other statements to be better handled by the great Lamas, Rinpoches, Khenpos, Geshes, and Roshis…

Tai Situ Rinpoche once said; “Many people from the west often come to me and tell me that they think that they might be enlightened. I tell them, well, go find a rock, the biggest rock you can pick up, then find a pool of water, and throw the rock in. If it doesn’t splash, come back right away, because you will be the first enlightened person I have ever met!”

Renunciation then is the next logical step to discuss here. I have been practicing under the auspices of the Karma, and Shangpa Kagyu lineages respectively, for eleven years. In that time, I still have not yet readied myself for true renunciation of my most beloved of samsaric acts – surfing. My father surfs, and has done so since 1966. I, in turn, rode my first wave at 6 months of age, bodysurfing all the way to the beach. So the story goes… I have lived and surfed in the Caribbean, Hawaii, Mexico, California, SW France, and Eastern Long Island. I was ranked 3rd overall in Jr. Men’s and Jr. Longboard for both NY State, and the entire NE region in 1993. (A lot of I/ me here but, everybody wants credentials these days…)

So, it is very hard to give up surfing. It seems like my birthright. What to do? Try and make it a Bodhisattva practice, and a lesson in shinay? Liken it to Aikido instead of a competitive sport? Surfing can teach you many, sort of Buddhist lessons about committing to your sitting practice. You go surfing when it’s cold, or hot, or big, or small, or foggy, or sunny, or summer, or winter, etc… As long as the waves are there, and the conditions are good, YOU GO.

When you are first learning to surf, you can barely even paddle around, much less get yourself out to the lineup (where you get your waves)—much like barely sitting still on the cushion, and learning to watch one’s mind, it takes a lot of practice. After a few months or so you begin to get the hang of catching waves—like sitting on the cushion, one starts to experience occasional stillness within one’s mind. About a year or three later, you become able to catch, and ride waves, sort of—like realizing that the thoughts don’t stop, they just come, and they go. Finally, after 3-5 years, depending on you propensity, you become sort of good at surfing—like lhatong meditation and deity practice, and Bodhisattva intention. After 10-15 years, you’re more or less totally comfortable out there, and you’re really a surfer, one who knows the joy of the ride—like being one of your sangha attending your local Dharma center, practicing regularly, it’s just part of your life. You just do that. It’s just what you do…

If you don’t practice surfing enough, and you just talk about it, you never get good. To be able to practice you have to commit to the waves and their schedule. That means you can’t stay out late and party. You have to be there early, or when the wind and tide, and waves are right. You have to sacrifice things. Like not always making it to appointments, or ditching useless drinking buddies who can’t comprehend your true love, the sea and it’s waves. You also have to put up with all of the stupid misconceptions and judgments others believe about surfing, and about surfers in general. You just surf for the love of it. For the rapture, the briny air, salty eyes, and wind, and sunburned skin.

When asked why he meditates Robert Thurman once responded that he did it “Just for the joy of swimming in the infinite!” There is no real purpose in surfing either, except to “paint on water, with no trace, and no real product, or gain.” You take home nothing except your memories and muscle memory of the act, remembrance of the joy…

But, if you had a good session, when you get back on land, you are totally calm, and at peace, and feeling healthy, and energized. Eventually, you bring surfing into daily life. You learn to relax when things get ‘heavy’, so you don’t use up all your “lung”—your breath, your energy. You remember when to jump on things, AND GO!! —Before they get away from you. You don’t grasp at things the way you think they are, but how they really are—NOW! Only when the conditions are right, and all coming together, do you bother to jump on things in the first place. You don’t have to prove yourself either, because you have already done that within the sea. Confidence! But, after too long without a recharge, all this slips away, and you’re back to your old neurotic self, all over again. Fallen from the god realms of bliss. Practice, practice, practice.

Another interesting parallel/fact is that thinking-mind gets in the way when you’re surfing. One must commit to the wave with the most of one’s being, and just—GO! Plus, it can be noted that many of the greatest surfers aren’t necessarily geniuses, when confronted with literary content or philosophy. Then again, some of the sport’s finest are extremely intelligent, like Kelly Slater, an A student and 9 time world champion. Either way, intellect has almost nothing to do with surfing ability. Much in the same way as one’s potential for enlightenment is of no relation to one’s intellect. Remember Kongpo Ben?

Essentially, surfing is samsaric. But, coupled with the Bodhisattva intention, to surf as a means to practice concentration, and healthy exercise, in order to be a calmer, more sane person back on land, and thereby be better able to benefit others, surfing becomes a great aid on the path. Sitting practice calms the mind, and allows the waves of thought their space – your mind! Surfing practice will give you a great healthy body, strong bones, and plenty of vitamin D, from all that sunlight. Surfing also can be quite ‘Now and Zen’ in it’s commitment to the act and to the moment. Plus, if you surf in the right places, your mind can also benefit from the natural beauty of your surfing environment. But, again, surfing’s focus is the wave itself, the rest be damned! This is the main difference.

Renunciation’s question still plagues me. I think of Buddha and his discussion to the monk who was a lute player, and their talking about the strings, being to loose or too tight. That lesson is the same in surfing, when doing turns. Finesse over force, like in a good golf swing. Was not that monk a renunciate? Did he not renounce a practice, which yet offered analogies useful to his path? Hopefully, Marpa will be my light, and my temper and failure to renounce will be in tune with his example of an enlightened lay practitioner. His anger was a mere show. But, I am no Marpa, nor a great practitioner, nor even a semi-decent one for that matter. I am just a lifelong surfer, who desperately tries to be Buddhist, in an effort, to tame my own torrential nature.

My main reason for writing this bantering verbiage is as follows: My great fear is that people will mistake the samsaric, bliss-laden act of surfing as a sole means to enlightenment. Or, that they will try to get away with saying it is a meditation, and therefore not do their sitting practice. Surfing is just a really, really, fun way to get your exercise. And by getting your exercise, and sitting regularly, the two will complement each other.

Let’s end with some words by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche:

“The practice of meditation presents itself as an especially powerful discipline for the shrinking [modern] world…. The age of technology would like also to produce spiritual gadgetry — a new improved spirituality guaranteed to bring quick results. Charlatans manufacture their versions of the Dharma, advertising miraculous, easy ways, rather than the steady and demanding personal journey which has always been essential to genuine spiritual practice.”

—From: The Foreword to Living Dharma in: THE COLLECTED WORKS OF CHOGYAM TRUNGPA, Vol. 3, pp. 575.

Trungpa Rinpoche again offers another poignant statement in response to a westerner’s question about merging regular activity with meditation:

Question: Our human bodies are designed to move almost all the time… Since most of our time is spent in movement, why not use movement as a form of meditation?

Chogyam Trungpa: “You can’t do that because it would be very convenient and there would be no discipline. You have to set aside a time for sitting practice that is especially allocated for that practice. Whereas with the approach you suggest, you could just say: “Well, I’m going to visit my girlfriend and I have to drive. So on my way to my girlfriend’s I’ll use driving as my meditation.” That approach to mindfulness becomes too utilitarian, too pragmatic — killing two birds with one stone. “That way I meditate and I get a chance to see my girlfriend at the end too.” But something has to be given up somewhere. Some renunciation somewhere is necessary. One stone kills one bird.”


These quotes are the foundation of my thoughts, which I have written above. I hope they are of some value. As a surfer, and follower (albeit a worthless one) of the lineage of H.E. Kalu Rinpoche, and Ven. Lama Norlha Rinpoche, I hope that people will not be duped into thinking they can surf, or golf, or ‘whatever’ their way to enlightenment.

©2011 Lutha Leahy-Miller


About mainbeach

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