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.