The Zen of Surfing
(c) 2002 by Ross Anthony

to Mark & Ryan

One rainy night, I woke up with the perfect idea. Surfers know the secret to life. It's just that they're so content; they don't have any interest in telling the rest of us. Yeah, why not? Hundreds and thousands of years searching for the meaning to life ... it figures that somebody ought to have found the answer. Surfers. Oh the irony, apparently, finding out's the important part, actually telling the story isn't. Like a really good kiss, there's no amount of talking that can relate it. No point. Only thing remaining is the desire to do it again! But why surfers? I should tell you that I was born hundreds of miles from the ocean -- plop in the middle of the states. It's funny that native Californians think the Midwest is on the East Coast. Well, I suppose all of the US is east of them. Anyway, I had never seen anybody surf except on the "Hawaii Five O" intro. They were incredible, but I still didn't think they held the key to a full mature truly activated life. In fact, later when I moved to So. Cal and met some surfers personally, they still seemed more atmosphere-headed than philosophically enriched. And therein lies the mask. Up at dawn, voluntarily subjecting themselves to frigid or down right freezing water temps; then remaining glossy-eyed for the rest of the day. Probably even dreaming of the waves .... always one or two steps behind in a conversation. The smile, the head nod, the inevitable phrase, "yeah, yeah, wait, what are you dudes talking about again?" What a perfect place to hide ultimate intelligence. In the brain of a surfer. Happy, seemingly, but existentially fulfilled? Who would have thought? The perfect hiding place for the Holy Grail of nirvana. Millions flock to churches, synagogues, temples, cults, drugs, sex, money -- but the answer all along -- religiously hidden in the head of a surfer. Dedicated it seems, only to the ocean's waves and waxing their boards, how is it that these rather undisciplined beach bums could find the discipline to remain so tightlipped about perhaps the greatest piece of knowledge of all time? The answer -- it's easy, they're so darned blissful that they don't even know there's a secret to hide. Or, perhaps the answer is only with them when they're riding -- balanced upon the waves. Like electricity through copper wire. Disconnected from the source of power, the copper has no memory of the current. But, atop the perfect wave, the surfer connects the circuit, perfectly balanced with nature, with God, with creation, the wind, the sea, even the fish. Solid state technology. Feet to board, board to waves, a flawless connection. A strong current, uncountable volts, ungaugeable amperage. Bliss, peace, nirvana, rushes through the surfer like a melody through the holes of a flute, along the frets of a guitar, upon the vocal chords in the larynx. But is gone when the vibrations stop. On the shore, the surfer is left with no verbal or written way to explain the happening, the event. He or she struggles hopelessly inventing words like, gnarly, tubular. For all practical purposes, the experience has dissipated, evaporated like puddles leaving the ground with no way to relate the experience -- only that they desire it again. That's the glossy-eyed look, every waking (and sleeping) dry-ground moment, the surfer desires the experience again. They've obtained nirvana, but it isn't a stable state. In fact it is the exact nature of nirvana to be unstable. Nirvana is the nonexistent border between two other stable modes. It doesn't exist while you're standing in either of the modes, you have to have one foot in each. Nirvana isn't flying, it isn't the clouds, it isn't the plane, it's the turbulence. It's the yellow circle of the traffic light. Only, you have to remove it from the signal. Then let speeding traffic decide when the green will turn to red -- that's nirvana. It's not stable by nature. Achieving nirvana MEANS a skilled flirt with disaster. Surfers know that. Surfers know true enlightenment. Can't you see it in their obliviousness? Everything we have to offer them is trivial to what they've done, achieved. Everything in this world is tedium to be endured while their bodies rest up to do it again. Think of it. Fine tuning your body, wrestling the waves, swimming up stream like salmon, as salmon have some instinctual drive, knowledge that wholeness resides upstream. Not on the beach, not on the towel with lotion and a margarita, but swimming against the very beast it aims to harness. Then through trial and error, finding an apt waiting area. Calming anticipation, trusting the senses, the wind, the size of the approaching wave, then with a little boost from human body, energy to prime the board, wait. wait, feel the swell of the ocean below, its life, its blood pumping one wave-beat at a time. And a beat is the only moment to catch it. It's not a state of its own, it's the exact nonexistent line formed by the borders of two states. Mathematicians know it as the limit of the function. The slope approaches a specific number that can be represented by a fraction -- but that number is never actually obtained -- the slope simply approaches it for infinity. Surfers find that number that functions only approach, that functions think is infinity. They feel that number! They pull their bodies up onto platforms that have no support, only a crack in water direction. They stand erect on the ocean. They rest their boards firmly (or not so firmly) on that illusive meeting of two planes; its the energy of that volatile instability that balances a human on the ocean. Tectonic plates are like that. Where else can you get an otherwise dormant Earth to spew spectacular amounts of fire and lava except at the rendezvous of meandering tectonic pates? Where else does an otherwise stagnant ground rumble, shout, break glass and building, create impossibly inspirational gorges miles long except at the nonexistent line that marks the intersection of continental plates? That's exactly it. That's exactly the place of energy of fullness of life. If indeed we are meant to live an eruptively exciting life, then we need to get off our stable states. We've got to seek out instability, turbulence. We've got to troll out to a place in our lives where the winds are quiet enough, where there aren't any distractions to cloud our view, where we can hear, feel, even smell the energy of an incoming unstable stage and ride that wave with all we've got ... knowing it's fleeting, knowing it's a cycle, perhaps believing as all surfers do, "One day ma, I'm gonna ride her all the way to the arctic circle." Surfers may have never been accused of working miracles; still, anyone can see, they walk on water.

Ross Anthony


You might also enjoy "Zen Repair and the Art of Riding Chili" (click that link, then the book cover).

Your comments are welcome. Here are a two quotes from a couple of readers who've written in:

"I agree with you 100%. The ten years I spent surfing were the best years of my life. After that, the more complicated life got for me, the more I lost that sort of surfer-zen state of mind. I have often thought that we had naturally developed a Zen-Mind as surfers even though we didn't know it at the time. But my friends and I definitely had it, no doubt about it. Now I read books on Buddhism and I've been working at regaining that Zen mind ever since."

"I have read your article "The Zen of Surfing". I can maybe add this, from my experience of last two Sundays: When you stand on the board and ride the wave, feeling the wave, its pulsation under your feet, you also start feeling that Ocean is Alive, you are connected to this life through your hara. This is probably because to keep the balance, you naturally start focusing on hara, and so it leads to this experience. Also, to me it seems that the waveriding is an ultimate let-go state -- no thinking, no worrying, -- just being relaxed while riding and feeling the ocean. Essentially, waveriding is about feeling -- you need to feel how the water moves, feel when the right moment comes... Otherwise you miss it." Gleb

Copyright © 2002. Ross Anthony, currently based in Los Angeles, has scripted and shot documentaries, music videos, and shorts in 35 countries across North America, Europe, Africa and Asia. For more reviews visit:

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Last Modified: Tuesday, 21-Jun-2011 08:27:48 PDT