Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Surfing and the Zen Buddhist Art of Happiness- by Len Barrow

If you are a typical surfer today, you may be faced with a number of frustrating problems in the surf. As time goes on the ocean is getting more crowded with many different types of surf craft. Depending where you are, people can become very aggressive and greedy when it comes to procuring waves. Some surfers go out of their way to “bad vibe” other surfers as they are on different equipment or they are perceived as “outsiders” or “insiders“. This can all add up to a bad surfing experience. Alas, what could possibly be the solution.

As I study Buddhism as an academic, especially Vietnamese Zen, I came to a solution which I use to great effect on a daily basis. In fact this method is so effective that I have ceased to have bad sessions because of this methodology. I wish to share these ideas with you, the reader, and wish that you benefit from them.

Before I dive in to this technique, it is important to get a background of where the ideas and methods come from. The Buddhists have many sutras, or “bundles” of writings. I will briefly describe to you the Abidharma (quite literally translated into “super teaching“ or “super knowledge“) and its general concepts.

The Abidharma was probably written in India around 1,500 years ago. It is striking as it deals directly with psychology and the mind over a millennia before the Westerners came to similar understandings with modern psychology of the 19th and 20th century. The Abidharma has been called the Sutra of Buddhist psychology by some.

What it teaches is very simple but profound. For our purposes as surfers and watermen it is most appropriate. The sutra views the mind as an infinite field. In this infinite field there are an infinite number of possible seeds (for a lack of a better translation of Sanskrit into English we shall use the term “seed“). The seeds can manifest in ones mind and most importantly in ones actions given certain causes and conditions. These infinite seeds include jealousy, anger, hatred, frustration, paranoia, greed, agitation, arrogance on one “end” and compassion, altruism, love, patience, joy, peace and equanimity on the other “end”.

This is why Zen Buddhists and Buddhists meditate! They are utilizing the power of concentration to water the proper seeds with attention! It is that simple. Zen Buddhists are just selecting the seeds in their mind that they water. If you water a thorny weed seed it will grow into an ugly thorny weed. If you water a beautiful Lotus seed it will become a beautiful Blooming Lotus.

If you don’t meditate or pay attention you will not be able to recognize the bad seeds and will be lead around life by them like a man who is on an out-of-control horse heading toward the nearest cliff or wall. This is sadly the case for the majority of the people on our planet. They are not in control of themselves, their negative emotions are dragging them around like powerless slaves. I should know, I often slip into angry and jealous ways when I don‘t pay attention to the seeds that I am watering in my mind.

The question arises. How can this be practiced in the surf? I will use an example that happened to me a couple of years back to help illustrate the Abidharma’s effectiveness. I was surfing a break on the Northwest side of Oahu that is relatively un-crowded and localized. This was during the time period when Stand Up Paddling was taking off. There was this guy who would paddle out and consistently get the set waves as on a SUP board you can get into a wave before anyone else can even stand up. My mind began dragging “me” around. I allowed my seeds of anger, frustration and jealousy to be watered by my own mind without even knowing it. It was like I was on auto pilot with no free will; a type of slave if you will. Why? Quite simply I was not paying attention to the seeds that I was watering in my consciousness‘.

In relation to the aforementioned paragraph, it is interesting to note that in Zen Buddhism, beings of Hell do not live somewhere on a different plane of the Universe. In fact in Zen, there are no Gods, nor heaven or hells that are elsewhere. “Demons and devils” live right here and we meet these hell beings or Hungry Ghosts (as the Zen Folk say) right here. There is no “other-where“. There is only now and this place. By not controlling the seeds I was watering in my mind; I HAD JUST BECOME A TYPE OF DEMON FROM A ZEN BUDDHIST PERSPECTIVE. READ ON!

I became a little devil. I hated this guy with a passion. I remember my mind becoming agitated as this man slid into every wave. I became extremely jealous as he seemed to be having the time of his life. He was not a very skilled surfer and I believed that I had more rights than him. I remember having the arrogant thought that as the reigning US Long board Champion that he should be giving waves to me. I was allowing all the destructive seeds of my consciousness to be watered.

Then it all came to a head.

The SUP guy came speeding down on a set wave (in fact a 12 foot face!). He lost control and ran me over at a terrific velocity. All I remember was a loud bang. Then we both cart wheeled underwater often colliding with each other as the bomb wave dragged us underwater.

I came up out of the water wanting to literally kill the guy. He popped up out of the water gasping for air for I believe that he had never gotten drilled that hard in his life, not to mention doing this in tandem with running someone over in such a terrible manner. He was coughing up water and terrified. I was angry and getting drilled by a six foot Hawaiian Size wave was normal for me thus I was not out of breath . In my fury and ready physical condition I was about to launch into a verbal barrage at him or worse.

But I had a flash of insight. For some strange reason the Zen philosophy of the Abidharma floated into my head. I began to concentrate and pay attention to the seeds that I was watering and simply DECIDED TO WATER DIFFERENT, MORE POSITIVE SEEDS. IT WAS THAT SIMPLE. [I JUST CHANGED MY MIND]….. BY WATERING DIFFERENT SEEDS IN MY CONCIOUSNESS THROUGH THE USE OF FOCUSSED ATTENTIONED ATTAINED IN MEDITATION. As I saw terror in the mans face I watered the seeds of compassion in my mind. I automatically put on a little smile and asked if he was Ok. He said he was not. I suddenly felt impatient (as I wanted to get back to the business of surfing good waves) yet I focused my attention on the seed of patience that we all have in our consciousnesses and I offered to help him paddle in. He was understandably perplexed at my attitude but he held on to my nose as I paddled him towards the channel and to then beach.

The day became magical after that. It was as if the weight of the world was off my shoulders. I did not have the seeds of hatred, arrogance, and jealously being watered in my head anymore. Because of this I was able to pay attention to the seeds of happiness contentedness, cheerfulness and especially mindfulness. The turquoise blue waters of the shoreline became extremely impressive. I noticed a bird calmly riding the updraft of a wave. Even the seaweed was an emerald green and amazing. It was as if I was hallucinating but in a good way. I appreciated everything so much more. I came home in a wonderful mood and was just buzzing over life.

The above may sound like tree hugging hippie talk as well as overt pacifism. But before you write the philosophy of Zen and the Abidharma off:




  1. May I also suggest Zen and the art of surfing.

  2. You know, something I've been interested in for a while is finding a place to go into retreat and to surf. Do you know of such a place? I would like to spend a month (Jan-Feb) in a warm climate surfing and doing practice. any suggestions?

  3. Aloha Patricia,

    I will attempt to get your contact information but Hawaii is a great place to surf and their is the Daimond Sangha Zendo to practice at.

    Aloha Len Barrow

  4. Interesting. I have not studied Buddism, but I own a surf clothing brand called Bondi Buddha. it was inspired by a year-long journey through Asia and an Aussie from Bondi Beach who took me surfing for my first time. I think the surf industry has got so corporate and competitive that it's helped contribute to the mindset that out there. Certainly, where I live in Huntington Beach, I've seen a lot of aggression over waves and it just doesn't make sense to me. I try to inspire a fun and the spirit of adventure through my brand. I felt the Buddhist culture to be calming and generally find surfing to be a very Zen experience.


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