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'Surfing the Himalayas' concocts weird version of Buddhism

Books Section
Sunday, January 7, 1996

Byline: Broughton Coburn

Finally, we now have a novel derived from a popular juvenile joke. (Q: How doesa snowboarder introduce himself? A: "Sorry, Dude.") Don't laugh. The other punch lineis that Hollywood is fighting over the joke's movie rights.

The nameless protagonist in Frederick Lenz's heavily hyped "Surfing theHimalayas" has "successfully snowboarded most of the higher mountains of the U.S.and Canada." (Really? Not. This is fiction.) The young shredder needs no name becausehe represents all o f us, which empowers him to restate lines like "But what does thatreally mean? Now I'm really confused." In this way he becomes a primitive vehicle forthe monologue of the book's spiritual guide and only other character, Master Fwap Sam-Dup, "The last master of the Rae Chorze-Fwaz School of Tantric Mysticism andBuddhist Enlightenment." They meet when our snowboarder runs over the Master andexclaims, "It was right then and there that I surfed my first Buddhist monk."

In mystical tones, Master F wap takes the rest of the book to explain his brand ofTibetan Buddhism to the snowboarder, who is as bewildered as we are that a guywithout previous religious experience or interest would be selected as the recipient ofsecret Tantric Buddhist teachings. Well, Master Fwap's own guru prophesied that a tall,young man on a snowboard will "bump into" Master Fwap. This is how eastern dharmawill be transmitted to the West. Cool.

Was he ever there?

Whenever the snowboarder mysteriously "finds himself" on top of a mountain orat the door of a monastery, I found myself searching for evidence that the author hadever traveled to Nepal or been snowboarding, as he claims in the epigraph. Hisdescriptions of snow and snow surfing are bland and generi c. In Katmandu, thesnowboarder rides a yak-drawn cart, although the city's elevation is far too low for yaksto survive. The weather is way off, and monks' robes are the wrong color.

Fiction is most vibrant and believable when steeped in factual detail. The authormust convince us of his knowledge and acclimate us to solid ground before guiding usonto unstable snowboarding slopes. But Lenz in effect asks us to suspend ourpreconceived notions, our unwillingness to believe, our one-dimensional vie w of theworld -- in order to listen to his Master Fwap. Sorry, Dude.

The Master -- swathed in the robes of an omniscient Tibetan guru, conveysopinions that are frequently more western than eastern. Conveniently, he has learnedabout modern scien ce and society, which facilitates his conspiracy with the author'swide-ranging philosophy agenda. "Without my knowing how or why," says Fwap'ssnowboarding disciple, bathed (annoyingly, again) in waves of kaleidoscopic goldenlight, "I simply 'knew' that w hat he has told me was true." Another victim of subliminaladvertising.

Hearing master Fwap describe his pronouncements as "Tantric Buddhism" and"Buddhist Yoga" made me uncomfortable. He employs genuine elements of thesephilosophies and practice s, but his discourse mostly meanders through an agglomeratedmystical landscape of Hinduism, Zen Buddhism, common sense, contrivance, Chinesefeng shui (geomancy), the "Atlantean Mystery School," and new ageisms such as"vibratory soul types," "auric Pattern ing" and "psychic pollution of the Earth's aura."

Sole source of ancient wisdom

"Fwapism" would be a more appropriate title for his discipline. No known Tibetantraditions or sects are referred to, and Master Fwap is the sole source of t he book'sancient wisdom. Buddhist philosophy isn't copyrighted, so I wonder why he borrows andinvents when the real Tibetan Buddhist concepts work just fine.

Master Fwap correctly identifies karma (literally, the Sanskrit word for "action") asqu ite simply the law of cause and effect, sometimes realized over a period of manylifetimes. Later, he slips into the stereotypical and incorrect sense of karma as "fate": "...the winds of karma change direction, and we are blown into yet another life... A nd ifyou don't follow your karma, if you try to avoid it and run away from whatever yourkarma happens to be, you will never be happy..." Sounds good, but unfortunately, thatain't karma.

Master Fwap claims to have been enlightened in dozens of pas t lifetimes, whichdefies a core Buddhist belief that nirvana liberated one altogether from the cycle of birth,death and rebirth. At one point, the snowboarder proffers his girlfriend's secondhandtheory of reincarnation. Predictably, Master Fwap corrects him, but with an explanationthat is even more misleading. I longed for more from the distant girlfriend -- at least toinject a needed human dynamic into the story.

For me, "Surfing the Himalayas" raises questions about the introduction ofTantri c Buddhism to the West. Are half-truths better than nothing? Might this bookactually impair a proper understand of Buddhism?

Consider it humorous

"Surfing" fails at delivering a solid message, but it can be looked at as humorous,I suppo se. Our shredder says, "I had been sitting in meditation for several hours, eventhough it had only seemed like seconds to me." He ascribes this to the higher pranic(life-wind) currents of the valley where he is sitting. Real Buddhist masters recognizeth is state of mind as sleep.

After watching the aggressive marketing for the book, I was surprised by itssmall, trim size and reasonable price. The "Surfing the Himalayas" Internet Web page isnot so unassuming. Video clips include an "MPEG of our ED animated logo" and a"computer-generated MPEG of a Tibetan Monk snowboarding off a cliff." Web surferscan download the book's radio spots, play Tantric checkers with Master Fwap, hearmusic to snowboard by, and "link to snowboarding sites around the gl obe," which featureequipment manufacturers and travel agencies whose presidents are unashamedlyquoted praising the book. Cross-marketing the action. Way cool.

My advice to those interested in Buddhism? Snowboard past the poorlyresearched crud of "Surfing" and start with any of the readable, clear, consistent,humorous books written by the Dalai Lama.

Broughton Coburn lived in Nepal for 17 years, is a practicing Buddhist, and wason the 1969 U.S. Junior National Ski Team. His most recen t book is "Aama in America;a Pilgrimage of the Heart."

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