Surfing or Suffering?

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Anyone in the material world looking for the perfect wave is looking in the wrong ocean.

In her book Prabhupada Stories, Govinda Dasi recalls her spiritual master’s reaction when he first witnessed American boys sporting in the ocean in 1967:

Sometimes when sitting on the beach blanket in New Jersey, Srila Prabhupada would look out at the waves while chanting japa. He was very beautiful and serene, always absorbed in Krishna, yet also carefully scrutinizing the world around him. On some days there were big waves and surfer boys would be out, swimming and surfing in the waves. Srila Prabhupada watched with great interest as they mounted their boards and slid down the faces of the waves. He asked us: “What is this?” Gaurasundara and I replied that this is a sport called “surfing” . . . Srila Prabhupada watched intently for some time, then began to chuckle. He said: “You call it surfing; I call it suffering. They are simply wasting their valuable human form of life by jumping in the ocean waves. They have no idea what will happen next. If they become so much fond of remaining on the ocean, then Krishna is very kind: he will satisfy their desire and give them bodies of fishes so that they can enjoy jumping in the ocean more and more, but that will be greater suffering . So I call them sufferers, not surfers.” He mused as he continued his eternal chanting of Hare Krishna, softly and serenely, with the crashing ocean waves in the background.

I grew up in Manhattan Beach, California, a hotbed of surfing and the home of a pioneer in the sport who attended my high school: Dewey Weber. One of the most famous and innovative surfers of his time, Weber seemed to derive a lot of pleasure from surfing. Was Prabhupada being unduly pessimistic? After all, writers glorified the enviable, apparently pleasurable position Weber enjoyed in the sport in his heyday:

Dewey Weber was part of the group of people who turned their backs on society in the hedonistic pursuit of the perfect wave . . . a great artiste, dedicated to his calling, a guru of a powerful American culture. If you were a surfer, or even one of the tens of millions of Highway Surfers who never set foot on a board, Dewey Weber was a god, the Pan of the Pipeline. The Beach Boys' music and Hollywood movies promoted the Southern California surfing culture. A small, energetic towhead, laid-back but filled with bravado, Weber was the quintessential surfer who spent his life pursuing the endless summer of California and Hawaiian beaches. He was the undisputed champ of the 1950s and ’60s . . . a legend.

In 1993, after I had been a devotee of Lord Krishna for more than a decade in Texas and had pretty much forgotten about surfing, I received a letter from my mother that included a newspaper clipping: “Surfing's Dewey Weber Dies at 53.” I was shocked, because Dewey had always seemed to be on top of the world; on a surfboard he literally played with the waves, as a cat toys with a mouse. But now he had “wiped out,” surfing slang for when a surfer loses control or balance and falls hard or crashes in the water. And his was the ultimate loss of control – the final wipeout – death. Although Weber did not die while surfing, the article seemed to support Srila Prabhupada’s conclusion that material life itself inescapably involves suffering; nobody can avoid its existential distresses (kleshas)by surfing or any other mundane means.

Recently, Mr. Weber had been ill with what his doctor reported was a failing liver, says Hermosa Beach police Cmdr. Mark Lavin. In recent years, Mr. Weber ran a surf shop in Hermosa Beach but . . . suffered setbacks because of a drinking problem, a divorce and the death of his father, his friends say. Dewey’s surfing friend Lance Carson recalled, "He had these personal things that were like his millstone around his neck. It is a sad story, but he will be remembered for all the good things he did for surfing."

As a former surfer, I’ve always marveled at the mystery and power of the ocean. Sometimes the weather is sunny and the ocean bestows beautifully formed waves, causing a surfer to feel giddy. At other times, the same sea can be dark and foreboding, spewing treacherous riptides, tidal waves, tsunamis, sharks, or stinging jellyfish. It is no surprise that Govinda Dasa, a great Vaishnava poet of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, characterized material existence as bhava-sindhu, an "ocean of nescience." That ocean is cancala, or unpredictable. It is a watery juggernaut that can easily wipe us out, as evidenced by the calamity of the Titanic: The state-of-the art luxury liner, touted as a ship that could never sink, was swallowed by the frigid North Atlantic Sea.

Trouble in the Waves

As a teenager I enjoyed many pleasant surfing experiences, but my two most memorable ones each proved to be traumatic. Once when I was twelve years old, a huge Pacific Ocean swell hit the California coast, generating powerful fifteen-foot waves. I enjoyed surfing, but was afraid of really massive surf, so I decided to stay home.

Then Bill Leis, one of my friends and quite a daredevil, came to my parents’ home and said, “Hey, man – surf’s up! Let’s go.”

I presented various excuses, but Bill could see that I was afraid, and we started to argue. My father told us to be quiet, so we went outside, where our argument turned into a fistfight. Bill was taller than me and tough, and he bullied me into submission. My penalty? I had to carry my surfboard behind him for a showdown with the furious ocean. I had no illusions about who was going to win.

It took me about ten minutes – a tremendous struggle – just to paddle out beyond the incessant breakers. Once I got past the crashing waves, I felt relieved, but a bigger challenge confronted me: Now I had to catch one of those massive walls of water, stand up on the board, and try to be an i shvara (controller) as I rode it to shore while trying to avoid getting wiped out.

I froze up, unable to muster the nerve to “go for it.” For more than an hour I hesitated and stalled until it became noontime, when lifeguards hoisted a yellow flag, signaling that all surfers had to immediately get out of the water. The other remaining surfers quickly caught waves to shore, leaving me as the last one in the water. Finally, a lifeguard shouted over a megaphone: “Hey you in the green trunks! Come in now. Catch the next wave, or else you’re in trouble!”

I had no choice. To my chagrin, the next wave was awesome, one of the biggest of the day. As I paddled towards the shore in front of that massive mountain of water, suddenly my board picked up speed and I stood up, plummeting down the steep face of the wave. After a dizzying drop of about fifteen feet, I hit the bottom of the monstrous wave, slipped off the board, and was crushed by an avalanche of water. Wipe out!

For ten or fifteen frantic seconds I was trapped underwater, fighting for air, upside-down, and ripped helplessly by the violent currents, unable to reach the surface. I didn’t think of God or anything sublime; my only emotion was gut-wrenching fear for my life. I probably felt very much like a fish must feel when caught in a net and pulled out of the water.

Years later, I was struck by a passage in Srila Prabhupada’s Teachings of Lord Chaitanya:

Chaitanya Mahaprabhu gives a very nice example . . . Formerly a king used to punish a criminal by dunking him in the river, raising him up again for breath, and then again dunking him in the water. Material nature punishes and rewards the individual entity in just the same way. When he is punished, he is dunked in the water of material miseries, and when he is rewarded, he is taken out of it for some time.

Even after this miserable experience, whenever the ocean displayed a more friendly face I continued to surf. One day about a year later, thousands of surfers were enjoying ideal conditions in gorgeous medium-sized waves all along the southern California coast. On that beautiful sunny day I was surfing off Tenth Street in Manhattan Beach. It was so enjoyable that it would be difficult for any of us surfers to agree that “surfers are sufferers.” But then one of my surfing companions noticed something strange: A surfboard had washed up on the shore near Ninth Street, but the boy who owned the board was nowhere to be seen. When informed of this, the lifeguards suspected the worst: Perhaps the boy had been struck in the head by his surfboard, had been knocked unconscious, and had drowned.

Suddenly, our “perfect” day of surfing turned grotesque. On their megaphones, the lifeguards requested all of us to bring our surfboards in to the beach. We were asked to reenter the water, link hands to create a human chain, and wade through the shallow water in an attempt find the corpse of the wiped-out surfer. I remember the eerie feeling of walking in that chain; I desperately hoped that we wouldn’t find that corpse. I certainly didn’t want to be the one whose legs brushed against it. How dramatically our enjoying spirit was extinguished by the waves of material existence that day! Eventually, the Coast Guard recovered the boy’s bloated body a few miles away. Momentarily we were forced to think seriously about material life. Although this calamity severely jolted our ability to enjoy the material world – in this case, through the sport of surfing – for most of us our sense of gravity or sobriety did not last very long. Srila Prabhupada explains this phenomenon:

Smashana-vairagya [“crematorium detachment”] means that in India, the Hindus, they burn the dead body. So relatives take the dead body for burning to the burning ghata, and when the body is burned, everyone present there, for the time being, they become [a] little renounced: "Oh, this is the body. We are working for this body. Now it is finished. It is burnt into ashes. So what is the benefit?" This kind of vairagya, renouncement, is there. But as soon as he comes from the burning ghata, he again begins his activities. In the shmashana, the burning ghata, he becomes renounced. And [yet] as soon as [he] comes home, again he is vigorous, vigorous, how to earn, how to get money, how to get money, how to get money. So this kind of vairagya is called shmashana-vairagya, temporary.
(Lecture, London, July 24, 1973)

Our vairagya, or detachment, was temporary: Quickly this ghastly experience retreated to our subconscious minds and we were out surfing again.

In his introduction to Bhagavad-gita As It Is, Srila Prabhupada explains how everything in material existence ultimately entails suffering, because material pleasures exist on a flimsy background of impermanence.

The purpose of Bhagavad-gita is to deliver mankind from the nescience of material existence. Every man is in difficulty in so many ways, as Arjuna also was in difficulty in having to fight the Battle of Kurukshetra. Arjuna surrendered unto Sri Krishna, and consequently this Bhagavad-gita was spoken. Not only Arjuna, but every one of us is full of anxieties because of this material existence. Our very existence is in the atmosphere of nonexistence. [my italics] Actually we are not meant to be threatened by nonexistence. Our existence is eternal. But somehow or other we are put into asat. Asat refers to that which does not exist.

Another View of Dewey Weber

When our surfing peer died that day, a naked truth graphically hit home: However alluring it appears, surfing can never be a panacea for the tribulations of material existence. Reflecting on Srila Prabhupada’s opinion of surfing and my own experience, I now see Dewey Weber in a different light. While I still admire him as a great surfer and a creative, free spirit who searched for the perfect wave, according to Prabhupada, “Unless one is awakened to this position of questioning his suffering, unless he realizes that he doesn't want suffering but rather wants to make a solution to all suffering, then one is not to be considered a perfect human being.” (Gita, Introduction)

Sometimes I wonder about Dewey Weber’s fate. Has he actually taken birth as a fish? At this very moment is he swimming in the waves of Malibu, Bondi Beach, or Hawaii, or does he find himself in the belly of a shark or pelican? Perhaps. But due to Srila Prabhupada’s mercy there is another possibility: Because Weber flew many times to Hawaii from Los Angeles International Airport during the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s – when Hare Krishna devotees were distributing thousands of copies of Bhagavad-gita As It Is, Srimad-Bhagavatam, and other transcendental books at that airport – there is a strong likelihood that he received at least one of Prabhupada’s transcendental books. At the ignoble end of his life, he had every reason to question his suffering and may have turned to one of those books for answers. In that case, a better future awaited him, perhaps similar to that of Alalanatha Dasa.

Surfing in the Nectar of Devotion

Alalanatha Dasa was one of the many surfers who became devotees of Lord Krishna in Melbourne, Australia, in the 1970s.

“Surfing was the only life I knew, [but] my anxiety increased day by day as I watched the force of time taking it all away from me. As my powers began to ebb, I had to face the fact that younger surfers would replace me. The life of professional [surfing] competition had meant a constant effort at building up a false ego – an image of myself as the supreme enjoyer. Now I saw my real identity as just a servant of the actual Supreme Enjoyer – God. By the time I finished the Bhagavad-gita in early 1976, I was a full-time devotee of Krishna in the Melbourne temple.”

Hari-shauri Dasa recalls another Australian young man, Charles, who was so addicted to surfing that he legally changed his last name; he became Charles Ofthesea ["of the sea"]. By this adjustment, Charles seems to have been moving closer to becoming an aquatic in his next birth, just as countless surfers or scuba-divers who wear fishlike rubber wet-suits are tangibly transforming even in this life to be more like aquatics –psychologically and physically. Fortunately, however, like Alalanatha Dasa, Charles seriously took up bhakti-yoga. Eventually, Srila Prabhupada blessed him with spiritual initiation and gave Charles a second, devotional name-change: Praceta Dasa. The Pracetas are described in the Srimad-Bhagavatam as spiritually inclined brothers who performed austerities in the water – not in the mood of material enjoyment like surfers, but for spiritual advancement. Like the Pracetas, we can use water or other material things Krishna consciously to get out of suffering, or we can misuse them and drown in the ocean of material existence, where there are no perfect waves but plenty of wipeouts.

Although Srila Prabhupada was rightly pessimistic about the material sport of surfing, on a morning walk in Durban, South Africa, in 1975 his disciple Pushta Krishna Dasa shared a realization with him about how Krishna conscious devotees enjoy a higher form of surfing.

“We tell them [surfers], ‘Yes, we surf in the ocean of bhakti-rasa [the sublime taste of devotional service].’”

From a similar perspective, Jayananda Prabhu, an exemplary disciple of Srila Prabhupada who passed away in 1977, sought to befriend surfers and to attract them to experience that higher spiritual taste, as Hari-vallabha Dasa recalls in the book Radha-Damodara Vilasa:

“Jayananda would quote Prabhupada, but he was always really interested to hear what you had to say. ‘Oh, you surf? Wow! What’s it like to ride those big waves?’ He’d get right into it with you. He didn’t say that surfing is maya. He was never like that. ‘Yeah, I’d like to do that – ride those big waves.’ He would just be your friend.”

Unlike my bullying “friend” Bill, who inadvertently tried to coerce me to “wipe out” in the waves of material existence, Srila Prabhupada and his sincere servants such as Jayananda Prabhu are our true friends and eternal well-wishers. Motivated solely by causeless mercy and compassion, they invite us to sport and surf in bhakti-rasamrita-sindhu, the ocean of the nectar of devotion, in the mood of seva (service), as blissful servants rather than self-centered sufferers.

About the Author: 

Sarvabhauma Dasa

Sarvabhauma Dasa, a disciple of Tamal Krishna Goswami, is based in Houston, Texas, where he engages in various Krishna conscious teaching and writing projects.