A Dude and A Zen Master

The Dude
Jeff Bridges as The Dude in The Big Lebowski

You know The Dude, right? Maybe you know him as His Dudeness or Duder or El Duderino, if you’re not into the whole brevity thing. But don’t call him Lebowkski. Maybe you can call him Jeff Bridges.

The Big Lebowski is a 1998 film that didn’t do very well when it was released but has achieved cult status since. It’s a comedy with some film noir elements. It was written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. Jeff Bridges stars as Jeff Lebowski, known as The Dude. He is an unemployed Los Angeles slacker who loves to bowl.

The film’s conflict occurs when he is a victim of mistaken identity. Some kidnappers mistake him for a millionaire also named Jeffrey Lebowski whose trophy wife has been taken.

Mr. Lebowski signs on The Dude to deliver the ransom to secure her release. This possibly easy-money job falls apart because The Dude’s friend Walter (John Goodman) decides that they can keep the ransom and dupe the kidnappers.

Joel Coen has said that he wanted to do a Raymond Chandler kind of film noir mystery. It reminds me the most of two of Chandler’s novels –  The Long Goodbye and The Big Sleep.  It feels like those stories because of its episodic, ridiculously complicated plot, oddball L.A. characters, and ongoing attempts to solve the mystery. The mystery itself might not be the kidnapping plot as much as figuring out why two thugs working for Jackie Treehorn beat up The Dude and urinated on his rug.

An even bigger influence may have been the film versions of those two novels.  I’m thinking that the 1978 remake of The Big Sleep with Robert Mitchum more than the classic Bogie and Bacall film may have been an influence. And The Long Goodbye remake with Elliot Gould which was directed by Robert Altman feels even closer to the contemporary Los Angeles of Lebowski.

ThisBut here is a leap – the film has been embraced by some Zen practitioners. It’s not the first odd film that has been seen to have a higher spiritual meaning. I already wrote about “The Zen of Groundhog Day” and there is a scene in that film where Phil, who is stuck in a time loop of repeating the same Groundhog Day over and over, is in a Lebowski-ish bowling alley. He asks two bowlers drinking with him, “What would you do if you were stuck in one place, and every day was exactly the same, and nothing that you did mattered?” One guy replies, “That about sums it up for me.” And The Dude might agree. And be quite happy with that loop.

Groundhog Day didn’t come from Zen Buddhist roots. The original idea for the story supposedly was The Gay Science (The Joyful Wisdom), a book by Friedrich Nietzsche in which the author gives a description of a man who is living the same day over and over again. Some Buddhists and others embraced the modern-day reincarnation and karma story of  Groundhog Day and Phil’s journey to reach an understanding of what he is meant to do with his life.

The Big Lebowski, 10th Anniversary Limited Edition DVD comes in a bowling ball

At least one Zen Master, Bernie Glassman, saw Zen in The Dude. He is a friend and teacher of Jeff Bridges and now they have written a book together, appropriately titled The Dude and the Zen Master.

Glassman is a well-known Zen teacher. His book Infinite Circle: Teachings in Zen is based on workshops he gave as Abbot of the Zen Community of New York. He had been an applied mathematician and aerospace engineer and sometimes works examples of science into his conversation.

In his approach to enlightenment, you will not reach it by doing Zen. But when you are enlightened, then you will be doing Zen.

If that circular reasoning (or path that is an “Infinite Circle”) sounds like a Zen koan, it is intentional. Their new book actually looks for the koans within the film. And, yes, the idea that the film was made by the Coen (Koan?) brothers is mentioned. Glassman is certainly well-versed in these teaching stories. He wrote the foreword to The Book of Equanimity: Illuminating Classic Zen Koans.

If it wasn’t for Glassman’s other work, you might toss off this book’s approach to the film and Zen as a joke. Certainly, there is some levity in the book. It has chapters with titles like “The Dude is Not In,” and  “Sorry, I Wasn’t Listening,”

So what does it mean in Zen terms to be like the Dude when “The Dude abides?”  We abide, as in “lives”, in a place and a time. We also abide in the sense of “approve.” We abide in the sense of “obey.” But The Dude is “not in” and he does not approve of much of what happens and he certainly does not abide by the rules. The Dude is not here.

The book came out of ten years of conversations and one intense week of recorded conversations for the book. It also certainly has some intention to introduce us to their Zen work in the world. Glassman has Zen Peacemakers. Jeff Bridges has his End Hunger Network.

So, is this really a kind of Buddhism, or is it more of Dudeism? Well, actually, Dudeism, is an online religion devoted largely to spreading the philosophy and lifestyle of The Dude that was founded in 2005. It is also known as The Church of the Latter-Day Dude and the organization has ordained over 150,000 “Dudeist Priests” all over the world via its website.

In The Dude and the Zen Master, the dialogue is pretty wide-ranging from Zen and the movies to the importance of simply doing good in a complicated world.

Bridges and Glassman

One thing that The Dude does is that he is there. That is a lesson Bridges learned from his father, another actor.  It is important to show up. In Zen, that matters. Showing up.

Glassman says in the book that “Trillions of years of DNA, the flow of the entire universe all lead up to this moment. So what do you do? You just do.”

In Buddhism, that translates as the difficult part of daily practice.

Glassman, who is the voice of knowledge in the book to Bridges’s experiences, also compares The Dude to Lamed-Vavnik who is one of the men in Jewish mysticism who “are simple and unassuming, and so good that, on account of them, God lets the world go on.”

The Dude is not a trained  Zen Master. He is an intuitive Zen Master. The Dude will always prefer to hug it out than slug it out. “I dig the Dude,” says Bridges in the book. “He is very authentic. He can be angry and upset, but he’s very comfortable in his own skin. And in his inimitable way, he has grace.”

Jeff Bridges brings a lot of his insights from his acting work to the Zen table.  Are we all actors wearing masks? Can we live in the moment of a “scene” without being consumed by the character we are playing?

If you want to throw the Big Questions net even wider than the Coen brothers’ one Lebowski philosophy, there is a book for you that goes into 13 more of their films. The Dude Abides: The Gospel According to the Coen Brothers by Cathleen Falsani looks at the big subjects of their films. Want to examine the nature of evil? Watch No Country for Old Men. Seeing their films as their own moral universe doesn’t really seem so outrageous.

Being present and abiding seems to mean taking the world for what it is. Suffering comes from desire but it also comes from trying to push the world away or expecting it to be different without your own action.

Maybe we all need to abide.

The Dude and The Stranger (Sam Elliott) at the bowling alley (spoiler alert) at the end of the film.

A Dark Carol for Christmas

            First edition of A Christmas Carol with Illustrations by John Leech

December 19, 1843, was when Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol was published. The full title is A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas

Dickens wrote the novella in a time when the British were re-evaluating past Christmas traditions such as carols. The holiday was becoming more secular and newer customs such as Christmas cards and Christmas trees were becoming part of what was being seen as a family holiday.

A year earlier, he had visited Cornwall to see for himself the horrible conditions of child workers in the mines there. He also visited the Field Lane Ragged School which was a place for London’s many homeless “street children.” It made him so angry that he decided to write a book exposing the terrible situation of children in poverty, and publish it at his own expense.

His previous novel, Martin Chuzzlewit had been a flop, and he was strapped for cash. Since the last book had been satirical and pessimistic, he ultimately decided to go for a heartwarming tale with a holiday theme. The book didn’t cause great social change in England but it is actually quite dark for most of its pages. What it did change was the way the Christmas season would be celebrated.

The story skirts the edges of being a religious story in a number of ways. The treatment of the poor and the ability of a selfish man to redeem himself certainly touches on many religions. The reconsideration of carols (a religious folk song or popular hymn, particularly one associated with Christmas) probably played a part in the book’s title, but Dickens treats Scrooge’s transformation without religious connotations. The book has long been seen as both a secular story and a Christian allegory.

Scrooge visited by Marley’s ghost

Many people know the story even if they never read the book from the many film and TV versions. Ebenezer Scrooge is an elderly miser who is visited by the ghost of his former business partner Jacob Marley and three spirits of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come. These experiences all take place on Christmas Eve and change him into a kinder, gentler man.

“You are fettered,” said Scrooge, trembling. “Tell me why?”
“I wear the chain I forged in life,” replied the Ghost. “I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it.”

As a child, I saw the classic 1951 film version with Alistair Sim as Scrooge. I was still a Santa believer and I know the ghosts scared me in the same way that the witches scared me in The Wizard of Oz. Now, that film version and some of the more contemporary ones seem to me to be almost film noir. I find it interesting that many holiday films, even fluffy ones such as A Christmas Story Elf or Home Alone, but also classics like It’s a Wonderful Life, have dark elements. As someone who has very mixed memories of Christmas seasons in my past both happy and sad, that seems right.

Yet to Come
The last ghost – Yet to Come

The final spirit to visit in this ghost story represents the future Yet to Come. It is silent and dark and the scariest of the spirits. Scrooge is concerned about whether or not the future is set or whether it can still be changed for the better. In Dickens’ version of this ghostly time travel, the future is not set.

“No space of regret can make amends
for one life’s opportunity misused”

The happiest spirit to visit represent Christmas Present. It’s ironic to Scrooge because he sees his employee Bob and his family, including the ill son Tim, being very happy on Christmas Eve even though he feels he has almost nothing to be happy about – and he knows he is partially responsible for their poverty.

“Reflect upon your present blessings
– of which every man has many –
not on your past misfortunes, of which all men have some.”

Christmas present

As I said, when the book was originally published the way Christmas was represented was somewhat controversial. Puritans in England and America argued that Christmas was a holiday from the days when pagans celebrated the winter solstice and many Christians felt that the extravagance of Christmas was an insult to the story of Christ.

But A Christmas Carol won out and was a huge best-seller in both England and the United States. It certainly set a different tone for modern Christmas that has numerous nods to a Dickens Christmas with figgy pudding.

I am not against seasonal generosity, gifting, feasting, and merriment but it does seem that something important has been lost in the holiday and our celebration. As I wrote last weekend about the Santa aspect of the holiday, the holiday seems much changed even from the Christmas I remember in the 1950s.

“And it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.
May that be truly said of us, and all of us!
And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!”

The Film Noir of Ralphie Parker and George Bailey


Over the winter holidays in the U.S., the films It’s a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Story play on TV in what sometimes quite literally is a loop. Channels TBS and TNT have a marathon “24 Hours of A Christmas Story” that has caused me (a fan of the film and the stories it is based on) to change the channel.

It’s a Wonderful Life is a great film and I have watched it many times. I don’t watch it every year but I did watch part of it on Christmas Day 2020. I love the scene in the car when George and Mary are just married and have their $2000 in cash to go on a honeymoon that fulfills some of George’s dreams to travel. They are so very happy and hopeful. But then the trip is delayed and finally canceled because of a run on the Bailey Savings and Loan. I watched until they use all but two dollars of that cash to pay people and maintain solvency. I turned off the film then because I know that the film turns quite dark before the happy ending.

I am not the first observer to say that both of these films are actually pretty dark – as in film noir – considering they are also coated in nostalgia, family, and all kinds of love.

A Christmas Story loosely threads together five stories that Jean Shepherd performed on the radio and published first in magazines and then in his 1966 “novel” (really a story collection threaded together), In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash and in the Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories. (The stories were later republished together atsA Christmas Story.)

I devoured both of those books and was a faithful listener to Shep on late-night radio from WOR-AM in nearby New York City.  Ralphie’s story about the quest for a Red Ryder BB gun first appeared in Playboy in 1964. That may seem like an unlikely place for such a story, but don’t confuse the stories with Bob Clark’s nostalgia-tinged film adaptation.

The original story starts in an NYC Automat in the 1960s present. The narrator is a grownup Shepherd/Ralphie who is interrupted in his lunchtime chicken pot pie by an old lady who sits at his table. She is wearing a pin that says DISARM THE TOY INDUSTRY. He engages her and she rants about a toy industry that forces “implements of blasphemous War on the innocent children,”

The narrator (and I would say Shep) doesn’t agree at all and the conversation sends him back to his own childhood innate desire for that BB gun. Of course, if it wasn’t for the ads that he saw in magazines for the gun, he would never have been driven to become obsessed with getting one.

Ralphie fighting
Ralphie unleashed

None of that makes it into the film, and this past week I read an article, “Betrayal: Jean Shepherd and ‘A Christmas Story‘” by Lee Vinsel, about the film. Vinsel goes a lot deeper into mass communications and consumerism in American life than I will here, so read the article.

I agree with him that Shepherd often strongly declared that he did not like or deal in nostalgia. At the end of his career and life, I often heard him bad mouth radio, which made his career. He also was a big critic of consumer schlock, junk art and even mass media but he used all of it in his work.

I don’t think Jean Shepherd was really very honest in his proclamations. I think he was at least a cynical nostalgist. He enjoyed the schlock that he found on his journeys into New Jersey on his TV show Shepherd’s Pie.

Some of the cynicism gets into the film. The best example is Ralphie’s love of the  Little Orphan Annie radio show and the offer of a decoder ring that you could get with Ovaltine labels mailed to the station. His mom buys the required Ovaltine and he finally gets the ring which allows you to decode a special message from Annie. He realizes with the first message decoded that is’s just an advertising scam. He has been duped by the company, radio show, and Annie herself.

Mass media doesn’t influence kids? In the film, there are several fantasy scenes in the film where Ralphie sees himself in a Western movie or melodrama. His fantasies are very much based on radio shows and movies. Director Bob Clark, shot those scenes with a soft focus and hazy framed look that quite literally softens most of the sharp edges from the stories.

I never heard Shepherd criticize the film, which he was intimately involved in, though he denied the nostalgia label on it. In the article, he is quoted as saying he saw the film as “Dickens’s Christmas Carol as retold by Scrooge.” It’s not really that but the film is filled with disappointments. They occur not only for Ralphie but for his father and his always suffering mother.

Shepherd’s cameo in the film is at the department store line to see Santa. he tells Ralphie to get to te back of the line. Of course, Santa is pretty cynical too and responds to Ralphie’s wish for a BB gun in the same way as his mother: “You’ll shoot your eye out!”

But all’s well that ends well. He gets his rifle and he almost shoots his eye out but just breaks his eyeglasses.

Ralphie’s Captain Ahab obsession with the gun is not just a childish thing. His father – the Old Man – becomes just as single-minded about things like his “major award” leg lamp, getting a deal on a Christmas tree, decorating it, dealing with the furnace in the basement and those damn Bumpus hounds next door.

Mild-mannered Ralphie finds an animal fierceness inside of himself when the bully, Scut Farkus, terrorizes Ralphie and his friends. After long suffering from this bully, when he hits Ralphie in the eye with a snowball, Ralphie goes reptilian and beats up Farkus.

Vinsel’s article reminds me that the funny late movie scene of Christmas dinner at a Chinese restaurant was not funny at all in the written version.  Shepherd writes that “Ordinarily this would have been a gala of the highest order, going to the chop-suey joint. Today, it had all the gaiety of a funeral procession. The meal was eaten completely in silence.”

It’s a Wonderful Life had a disappointing 1946 premiere, recording a loss of $525,000 at the box office for RKO. A clerical error prevented the copyright from being renewed properly in 1974.and the film became a perennial holiday favorite in the 1980s, possibly due to its repeated showings on hundreds of local television stations.

It found a new audience at Christmas time  A Christmas Story also had a disappointing showing at its 1983 but found a cultish audience in the 1990s on cable TV.

George Bailey
Suicidal George

If you read about film noir, these two films do not fit the general definition.  Most of these films center around crimes and sexual intrigue. They are often filled with characters who have cynical attitudes and that does fit my two films. The classic period of American film noir is the 1940s and 1950s. Not necessarily by choice, most are in black and white and are known for a style of low-key visual style that owes much to German Expressionist cinematography. Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life is much closer in this classic visual style than A Christmas Story. These two films hide their darkness under a series of happier and even funny scenes.

In a 2010 essay for Salon, Richard Cohen described It’s a Wonderful Life as “the most terrifying Hollywood film ever made”. In the “Pottersville” sequence, he wrote, George Bailey is not seeing the world that would exist had he never been born, but rather “the world as it does exist, in his time and also in our own.” Pottersville: is a noir city, with pool halls, strip clubs, bars, dance halls, and pawnshops. Violet is possibly saved by George but in the no-George world, she is all noir femme fatale. George is ready to commit suicide.

I listened to a podcast years ago that made me think about George Bailey’s story as noir. Without the right people in charge, the world will become a noir world. One of my sons said after seeing George’s wish to never be born come true that it reminded him of Kevin’s wish in Home Alone that he never had a family. Kevin’s wish comes true through stupid oversight while George’s wish is fulfilled by an angel.

This was the first movie Frank Capra made after returning from service in World War II. He never meant it to be a Christmas film (though it was released in December). To him, it was a celebration of the lives and dreams of America’s ordinary citizens and a post-war country that would offer them a real chance to see those dreams come true with the help of their friends and neighbors.