Jack Hebner, the man better known as the Surfing Swami, started like the rest of us — chasing waves. In the process, he became a Krishna monk, the man responsible for bringing surfing to a sub-continent, India’s most celebrated surfer, founded a surf ashram. And learned a hell of a lot about life.
The Swami has been interviewed many times. But, in his words: “It’s time for a change.” Frustrated by years of being asked for fluffy interviews, and recently battling cancerous tumors, the Swami is more candid than ever. Like never before, he spoke about politics, how he’s beating cancer, and how surfers — and this whole mad world — have lost their way. We listened.
Why have reporters so often pressured you to give “feel good” interviews?
We must make everyone feel good — never mind the truth. Sometimes the truth hurts, but there’s no substitute for it. Sacrificing it for so-called political correctness metastasizes problems, it doesn’t solve them.
Nothing is being done to fix this broken world. The so-called world leaders have no idea how to improve things. Rather, they’re compounding problems, using every unfortunate incident to increase their wealth, power and control. It’s time for people everywhere to stand up and demand real solutions. And if the leaders can’t deliver, they should step down. A politician caught lying should be banned from politics for life!
How did you get to India and why did you stay there?
In 1966, four of us drove from Jax Beach, Florida to San Diego in a ‘53 Chevy with four longboards roped to the roof. My journey has taken me to California, Mexico, Hawaii, all over Africa, Mauritius, Madagascar, the Seychelles, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Israel, China, Indonesia and, of course, India.
My dream since childhood in the ’50s, from watching movies like “Jungle Book” and “Elephant Boy” on black and white TV, was to go to India and roam the jungles and the Himalayas. As a flower child of the ’60s, I searched for answers to the age old questions: Who am I? Where do I come from? Is there life after death? I read Herman Hesse’s “Journey to the East” and “Siddhartha,” Khalil Gibran’s “The Prophet,” and Thor Heyerdahl’s “Tibetan Book of the Dead” and “Kon Tiki.” These books and others influenced me to travel and accept the path of yoga and eastern philosophy.
When I got to India in 1976, I was home at last. But after 40 years, it’s sort of a love/hate relationship. India is far from perfect, but it is an amazing place with amazing people and virgin waves for the taking. So, “veni, vidi, surfing” — I came, I saw, I surfed.
You’ve been in India for over 40 years. What is your life’s work, and why did you choose that path?
I chose the path of self-realization in 1967 and have been on it since. Some people believe that every individual has a unique calling, something special to do in life, something to experience to achieve ultimate fulfillment, a journey that may take many lifetimes. Other folks that don’t believe in anything go about life with the, “YOLO” mentality.
I traveled around India staying in various ashrams until 2004. That’s when I opened the Surf Ashram and Mantra Surf Club in Karnataka, started taking in students and teaching them to surf. From my travels in India, I published several coffee-table photo books on Indian culture and spirituality. I also did a couple of documentary videos on the Himalayas and Kumbha Mela, and a number of books on the philosophy and the practice of Bhakti Yoga. Presently, I am working on a couple of spiritual writing projects.
What we do in the present determines the future. The most important thing in life for me is to live free and to give more in this world than I take. “Give to Live” is my personal motto.
Is there really a connection between surfing and spirituality?
I think surfing is a sport. It may awaken a person’s spirit, so to speak, but the spirituality of surfing is what the individual brings to it. A spiritually-inclined person may see surfing as spiritual, whereas another person may have no such feelings. I have only ever heard a handful of surfers refer to surfing as a spiritual activity.
In places like Australia and California, surfers often argue or fight. It seems surfing is rife with hostility….even hatred, if that word’s not too strong. We can barely go a day without hearing the word “kook.” Have surfers lost our way? How do we find contentment and peace?
Not only have surfers lost our way, this whole crazy world has. Seeing the insanity and the meaningless way in which people go about their lives makes me wonder. The problems of the world didn’t come out of nowhere. The problems have been in the making for centuries and even in previous lifetimes, creating the bad karma we see today. People need to get out in the water more often and give more thought to how we live in this world.
You recently had a serious battle with cancer. Has this changed your outlook?
You bet it has! Well, not really changed, but intensified my outlook. It has made me more appreciative of the gift of life and all I have — loved ones, friends, surfing, my path – everything!
I was diagnosed in 2014 with a cancerous tumor below my right kidney. I had surgery twice, but the tumor returned both times. First one tumor, then two tumors, then three tumors. The bastards kept coming back. The doctors said the best thing would be chemotherapy and to remove my right kidney — slice me, dice me and nuke me into oblivion. I decided that either I kill the cancer or the cancer kills me. After extensive research, I decided to see if cannabis oil could help me. My friends and associates were fully supportive of my decision. To make a long story short, within three months, all the tumors had completely disappeared.
At the same time, the legend of Mavericks, Brock Little was battling cancer. Sadly Brock lost the fight with cancer and passed away. There I was, happy to be alive but Brock was gone. Surfing lost a great personality and I was pissed. I didn’t know Brock personally, but my gut-feeling is that if Brock had tried cannabis oil, he would still be charging Mavericks today. I want everyone to know that there are natural treatments to cure cancer without side effects. When people ask me how I killed my cancer, I tell them, “I stoned it.”
What is your surfing life like these days? Where do you surf? How often? What do you ride?
I’m a logger, through and through. I can’t remember riding anything less than a 9’2”.
It’s funny, but here in India I’ve become a mini-celebrity because a surfer and a swami are at opposite ends of the social spectrum. In people’s minds, the party-all-night surfer and the meditate-all-day swami don’t have anything in common. But we’re changing that perception. The two make for a beautiful combo, and open up a deeper relationship with the ocean and the world around us.
The good that can be done in India through combining surfing with a spiritual path (in my case, Krishna-yoga) is immense. There are only a couple hundred surfers in India, but there are several million swamis. Until I came along, a surfing swami was unheard of. In India, swamis have tremendous social clout, so when a swami is involved in something, people take notice. To surfers, we offer lifestyle alternatives and a journey into infinite consciousness. To ‘yogi-veggie’ types, we offer the yoga-of-surfing and the enrichment it brings.
My favorite spots in India are Mahabs, just south of Chennai, and Manapad Point in the far south of Tamil Nadu on the east coast. And of course our home break here in Mulki on the west coast. There are tons of waves on Indian shores that have never been touched by a surfboard or seen by any human being. Here, the beaches are empty. Why anyone would prefer packed beaches over pristine, virgin spots without a single foot print or surfer — I can’t even imagine.
I go out whenever the waves are good. I love to travel to old favorite spots as well as new ones. Call it wanderlust or whatever, but the excitement of finding a new wave has taken me to a fair number of places on this planet. And by so doing, I’ve seen a lot of things that unless you get out of your comfort zone, you never would. Getting off the beaten path in life makes all the difference. The Prophet Mohammed said, “Don’t tell me how educated you are, tell me how much you have traveled.”
What essential truths have you learned about life?
The path of self-realization is long and arduous but the wisdom is phenomenal. It’s similar to how surfing can be difficult, but the good experiences overshadow the difficulty.
The struggle for life in this material world seems to be strewn with boogiemen, terrorists and the like. But even after defeating these enemies, our greatest enemies are within ourselves in the form of lust, anger and greed — the great enemies of self-realization. Only after defeating these enemies can we be truly peaceful and free.