Nonduality: The Varieties of Expression Home

Jerry Katz
photography & writings

Search over 5000 pages on Nonduality:

Click here to go to the next issue

Highlights Home Page | Receive the Nondual Highlights each day

The Nondual Highlights

#2131 - Monday, May 2, 2005 - Editor: Jerry Katz



This issue is devoted to a form of Oceanic Satsang: Surfing.





Lisa Palac


Initially, I stuck with it because I was in love: I met Mr. Right and followed him into the water. But soon, it became a love triangle: me, him and the sea. I was, as they say, stoked. I felt so alive in the ocean, and it connected me to the world in a way that shoe stores and cocktail parties didn't. Surfers always talk about the spirituality of the sport; they'll call someone who's fluid and graceful a "soul surfer." But the truth is, it's pretty hard to tangle with the waves and not feel soulful. The ocean is primal -- it's just as heavenly and hellish today as it was thousands of years ago -- and it continually reveals the essence of being to me, in the most primal way. takes on a new perspective when you're face-to-face with the beautiful violence of nature








Brad Melekian



I sought out Dr. Lekshe Tsomo Caalaman, who is a Buddhist nun and professor of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of San Diego. Raised in Malibu, Dr. Tsomo wasn’t always called so. Her former appellation, coincidentally enough, was Patricia Zenn, and she was once a member of the Malibu Surfing Association. Now she dons saffron robes and walks the middle path through the ornate hallways of one of Southern California’s most affluent universities.

I liked this contrarian bent, but when I approached her and asked if she thought surfing could be a religion, she shot me down right off the bat.

“I think that surfing comes closer to spirituality than to classical definitions of religion,” she said, with a tone that sent me back to my university days, as though I had come to her office hours with an idea for some “totally awesome” thesis paper about surfing and religion, and she was responding to me with the caring-but-knowing tone reserved for students submitting flimsy ideas. Then, as I had come to expect, she intimated once again that the lack of a supreme being was what precluded surfing from religious status.

And at that, I grew defensive. I mean, what about Buddhism? There’s no God in Buddhism, is there? And yet it’s widely accepted as a religion. What about that, Dr. Tsomo? Huh? Momentarily, I forgot that she’s a Buddhist, and therefore has infinite patience.

“That’s always been the question. I think that some people consider it a religion, particularly those who practice it, but it’s also been considered a psychology, a philosophy, a way of life. There’s no defined membership, no required code of belief, no talk of a supreme being—unless it’s the Buddhist as a human being.”

There it is. Like a little red-and-white-striped life preserver sent to save me as I floundered in a muddled sea of spiritual confusion and abandoned editorial columns. It is the out. The savior.

Let me explain: Buddhists believe that the enlightened self is the closest thing to a deity, or a supreme being, that exists. If that’s the case, and if this is what’s garnering them religious status, why can’t the same be applicable to surfers? Why couldn’t the fully actualized surfer—the surfer that embodies not some esoteric relationship with nature, but the values that are the best things about our sport—be a deity unto itself?

I presented this idea to Dr. Tsomo—Dr. Tsomo who is, I may remind you, a religious scholar, ahem—and, truth be told, she got kind of excited right along with me.

“I like where you’re going with this. I think it can be a spiritual pursuit, and some elements that I would point to from a Buddhist perspective are the idea of stillness and calm that we feel when we’re waiting for waves, the kinship with nature and other beings that we feel when we’re in the water. Plus, surfing is definitely a way to get in touch with one’s own mind, which is of course the point of Buddhism.”

But she was quick to point out that, like anything, the main hindrance was the manner in which we go about our surfing lives.

“It depends on how you surf, right? I mean, in some ways, surfing has become cutthroat competitive. That’s not spiritual. If it’s all about my waves, then it’s just ego. Sometimes surfing becomes so competitive that it’s sort of about offing the other person—where one’s own ride is at the expense of whoever gets in my way—and it gets vicious, and that certainly has nothing to do with spirituality.” And while I didn’t want to align surfing specifically with Buddhism, I did think that this could be a jumping-off point. Just like becoming fully enlightened would be the goal of any good Buddhist, so too should becoming a fully actualized surfer be the devotion of anybody pursuing surfing as a religious devotion.

But there’s the rub. What the hell is a fully actualized surfer? Dr. Tsomo may have been able to recite Thomas Aquinas word for word, but she couldn’t answer this question. And if I went around a surf industry trade show—surfing’s own Sodom and Gomorra— asking the same question, I’d probably just get a ration of inquisitive looks, and maybe a beer in the face. So I thought I’d take a stab at answering it myself.

To be a surfer in the full sense of the word means to pursue surfing not just as an athletic endeavor or as a sunny day diversion, but to try to glean whatever lessons you can from the practice. It means being aware of your surroundings, and respectful of the people and places that you interact with. It means being patient, mindful, kind, compassionate, understanding, active, thoughtful, faithful, hopeful, gracious, disciplined and…good. It means thinking about things while you’re doing them, and trying to embody the universal truths that all of us—Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, whatever—know that we’re supposed to live. You’re laughing now. After all, how do you learn all this from surfing? I think there’s a way, and my glass has been half-empty for a long time. Maybe you give up a wave here or there. You let someone go. You show a kid how to paddle through the whitewater and into the channel. You help people. And when you’re not doing that, you’re enjoying the time alone, the time to think—about your life, about your surfing, about what your place is in the world—and you’re becoming more and more aware of your surroundings. You enjoy nature, you relish the time spent pursuing waves, you try to glean lessons from the act of surfing. You try to contribute in some way to making the world—and the lineup—a better place every time you paddle out. You’re pursuing surfing not as a forum to do three good top turns, but as a way of life, a way to make yourself better. You keep this in mind while you’re doing it. You try to make yourself the best surfer you can be, regardless of how much spray you’re throwing on your turns. And then, maybe, it becomes something closer to a religion.

So, in the end, is surfing really a religion? And is God really a goofyfoot? I guess that depends: Are you?







The Spiritual Side of Surfing

More than any other sport, surfing goes beyond a mere activity, and seems to encompass a unique lifestyle and philosophy. When describing a day spent in the waves, surfers can even speak in spiritual or quasi-religious terms. What's really behind this notion of surfing as a spiritual experience?

Corky Carroll has surfed all over the world, and has risen to the highest levels of the surfing scene. A professional competitor with an impressive collection of trophies and titles, Corky also teaches surfing in California and designs surfboards. Asked about the spiritual nature of his chosen sport, Corky had a number of things to say:

For more information on surfing, check out the following organizations and websites:


Surf and Soul Thought Of The Week

The One Minute Farbringen

Nat Young, Honolua Bay, and Passover!

T hose younger surfers just don't get it! With an absolute cavalier attitude, they paddle out at their favorite surfing break, drop in (usually vertically!), and proceed to stuff their "pocket-rockets" ( 6 ft. boards and smaller) into ridiculously insane tubes, pull out and get ready to do it all over again! Seems they just don't appreciate the "short-board revolution" and the impact that it had on the world of surfing, how it literally changed the way man perceives a wave. The very concept of "riding" the tube, carving turns while locked in the barrel instead of just "escaping" out of the tube, was an event no less momentous than the discovery of gravity!

Where did it all start? Some people say that the world of surfing owes a debt of gratitude to Robert "Nat" Young, the great Australian, who along with Bob McTavish paddled out one day at Honolua Bay on their "short" ( 8"6') boards and made history. John Witzig recorded it all on film back in '69. His movie, the "Hot Generation", captured the imagination of a world still bound by the constricting "straight" lines of the older, heavier boards.

Nat's revolutionary break with a world of confinement, restrictions, a "narrow" mindset, recalls the very Exodus out of Egypt! The word "Egypt", the sages of the Kabbalah tell us, infers "limitations, restrictions". For in order for a people to become really "free", not only must physical limitations be broken down, but there must also be a spiritual element, represented by "the bread of faith" ( michla d'meheminuta, according to the Zohar)- motzohs or unleavened cakes- symbolically so well illustrated by Nat's incredible performance years ago at the "Bay"!

A happy Passover to all!




...surfboard designs are now directed specifically towards certain styles of riding and wave types. Three main elements, the rail curve, the tail design and the bottom contour, which aids performance by channeling the flow of water underthe board, evolved. Through these elements four basic designs sprouted. Some of the more significant tail and bottom contour designs include:

And how's YOUR surfboard designed?


top of page