In the 1998 Coen Brothers comedy The Big Lebowski, Jeff Bridges played a chronically unemployed middle-aged slacker who calls himself “The Dude” and takes league finals at the bowling alley more seriously than paying his rent. He likes to “just take it easy, man,” spending most of his time in bathrobes and flip-flops, sipping White Russians and smoking joints while listening to cassettes of whale song in the bath. Little upsets The Dude—notwithstanding his rug, car, Creedence tapes, and the occasional outburst from his trigger-happy friend Walter (John Goodman). But he decides to get proactive after a pair of goons, a trio of nihilists, and an angry marmot upend his leisurely life in a case of mistaken identity.
The film became a cult classic upon its video release, and the Coens have since won further acclaim for their work on No Country for Old Men, Burn After Reading, and True Grit. Bridges earned praise for his work in Seabiscuit and Crazy Heart, played a cool villain in Iron Man, and reprised his role as computer guru Kevin Flynn in Tron: Legacy. But many point to Lebowski as being a showcase for a Westerner espousing the virtues of Zen Buddhism. Whether he knows it or not, The Dude’s laissez-faire attitude has become a model for coping with life’s complexities. Without knowing how he does it, he’s able to tune out instead of in and gain a wholly unique perspective on life’s little ins and outs.
Bridges has studyied Buddhism for nearly a decade with mentor-friend Bernie Glassman, an American “roshi” who founded the Zen Peacemakers center in Los Angeles with his late wife. The two men meet regularly to discuss hot topics like war and homeless, and how their spirituality might be employed to catalyze change in the world. Their new book, The Dude and The Zen Master (272 pages, Blue Rider Press), captures many of their intimate chats.
While Bridges carefully distinguishes himself from The Dude in his introduction, he concedes that he recognized the essence of Zen in the iconic character after fans began pointing them out. Noting how the Coen’s surname sounds a lot like the Japanese word for a Zen story—koan—Bridges decided to use The Dude as a touchstone for several “deep thought” conversations with Glassman, who visited the actor’s scenic Montana ranch with a soundman and photographer. The bearded buddies were left alone to chew the fat, but tiny clip-on microphones captured their words for later transcription and editing by Glassman’s wife, Eve.
The resulting dialogue finds the actor and the sensei rapping on life, the universe, and everything in Dude-centric chapters like Enjoying My Coffee, New Sh#t Has Come to Light, Just Throw the F@#king Ball, and That Rug Really Tied the Room Together. Bridges leans on his acting experience and musical skills when raising subjects or responding to Glassman. Bernie is informed by his early years as an aeronautical engineer at McDonnell-Douglass, his considerable Zen training, and his socially-engaged philanthropy with the Peacemakers when leading the discussion or giving Bridges feedback.
“If you can’t explain Zen (or anything) in words a fisherman will understand,” Glassman says, “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
So the charismatic men keep it as simple as possible, confining the Eastern parlance to quotes from other Zen masters during their verbal volleyball, always remarking how The Dude might behave in certain situations. Zen has often been distilled in literature over the last half-century, with authors like Benjamin Hoff (The Tao of Pooh, The Te of Piglet), Robert Fulghum (All I Really Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten) and Robert Pirsig (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance) dealing in precepts and platitudes with varying degrees of sophistication. Even adventure novelists like Rambo creator David Morrell (First Blood, Covenant of the Flame) incorporated Zen in their fiction. Alcoholics Anonymous borrows the tenets of “The Way” for its twelve-step program. Even everyone’s favorite spinach-munching sailor dabbles in dotoku, even if unawares:
“I am what I am,” declared Popeye. “And that’s all that I am.”
The first of Bridges and Glassman’s many “groks” include stress and over-thinking in a deadline-sensitive, instant gratification world. Thinking isn’t the problem, argues Bernie—whose teachings emphasize the seemingly paradoxical notion of unknowing. “We freeze up because we expect a certain result or want things to be perfect. We become attached to the outcome.” Jeff agrees, noting how people (himself included) often end up worrying themselves sick over the wrong thing. There’s a kind of wisdom in insecurity, they conclude, a beauty in accidental moments and unanticipated results. Advantages to practicing non-practicing.
Bridges put some of these life skills to work on movie sets. For Tucker, he engaged in free association exercises with costar Martin Landau in order to develop the dynamic between their characters on camera. On The Morning After, he heeded Sidney Lumet’s advice: “You learn your lines, then get off book and just do it.” Glassman sometimes subverts the norm and nudges people out of their comfort zones by wearing a red rubber nose in the unlikeliest of circumstances. It’s an ice-breaking, edge-dulling social tactic he picked up from Clowns Without Borders’ Mr. Yoo-Who and 1960’s counterculture cutup Wavy Gravy. Bridges injects elements of play into his work because this “plorking” approach often yields faster, better results. He also jots the word “aimless” on his scripts so he doesn’t wind himself up so tightly that he overshoots, missing his mark for particular characters in specific scenes.
“You relish the accidents,” says Bridges, who marvels how Japanese sculptors (and some contemporary artists) welcome the odd break in their pottery. The Tron star also expresses admiration for colleagues like Tommy Lee Jones: “He’s opaque. You don’t see the wheels turning. He’s just there, and you don’t see the work put in.”
Bridges credits his wife for “dampening” his overzealousness, lest his high expectations get “blown out of the water.” While resistance is a norm on movie sets, the tension usually breaks once you stop pushing.
Several Jeff films pop up throughout the book: Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, American Heart, The Fisher King, Eight Million Ways to Die, Jagged Edge, the Vanishing, and the forthcoming RIPD all bore philosophical fruit for the open-minded Bridges. The Academy Award-winning actor even made a few mental notes while doing voiceover for the penguin cartoon Surf’s Up, wherein his hippy penguin teaches a protégée how to properly wax a surfboard. In living a life, as with waxing a board, you go with the grain. But don’t let those seemingly obtrusive knots in the wood bother you. They might actually represent possibilities rather than encumbrances. One can learn to perceive failures and limitations as opportunities in disguise.
“It’s more important to work with what happened than with your opinions about it,” Glassman suggests.
The verses to “Row Your Boat” are examined piecemeal, with Bridges and Glassman observing how life really is about the journey rather than the destination. “The other shore is right under our feet,” says Bernie. “This is it—what we call the Pure Land.”
Sometimes we just need to change the boat (our mindset) or swap oars (our way of doing things) to make a better go of it. Lose the burden. This often requires diminishing the ego to the point where one is completely detached from the identity others recognize as “you.” The actor and the roshi remark how The Dude’s answering machine greeting (“Phone’s ringin’, Dude”) embodies this notion (“The Dude is not in.”) on a small—but not insignificant—scale.
You befriend what’s happening now, the authors agree. You don’t have to feel like you’re pulling the train. Lose your burden and work in harmony with others, like musicians, who tune to A440, “the resonance of the Earth.” Understand what it means to be a mensch—in Yiddish vernacular, a “real person” who is so humble that he’s not even aware of his own integrity.
Readers will learn the three refuges of Buddhism: Buddha (the Awakened One); Dharma (his teachings); and Sangha (his community of practitioners who aspire to awaken as he did). We get a crash course in the Three Tenets of Zen Peacemakers: Not Knowing (abiding “nowhere”); Bearing Witness (to all joy and suffering); and Taking Loving Action. Bridges and Glassman riff on the Four Noble Truths of Shakyamuni Buddha: Life is suffering (dukkha); suffering arises from attachment or desire; suffering ends when desire ends; and the way to end desire is to follow Buddhism’s Eightfold Path.
We’re taken under the wings of the 36 righteous people comprising the Lamed-Vavnik of Jewish mysticism. We’re schooled in the ways of the Bodhisattva, the compassionate individual dedicated to fostering total enlightenment in others. We learn that the common mediation mantra of “ah” is based on the first letter of the Sanskrit alphabet, hailed as the “syllable of the universe.” We hear the wisdom of peasant wood-cutters, share in a bit of Eskimo culture, derive insight from Greek mathematicians, and receive life lessons from a bowling coach. We become privy to ancient Chinese secrets, like Bridges’ middle name—and how he and wife Sue cope with snoring.
Music, hiking, exercise, fasting, painting, and even rote activities are proffered as means by which to “kill” the self, become un-knowing, open oneself to possibilities, and maintain what Tibetan Lojong regards as “the joyful mind.” Cigar aficionados Bridges and Glassman concur that the body is a temple, but temples benefit from the occasional “incense.”
Earthquakes, 9/11, poverty, hunger, and violence are identified as world problems requiring constant attention (bearing witness), but also as amoral events occurring in larger systems humans probably aren’t meant to understand. Social engagement is how we bear witness, Glassman asserts. Accordingly, his Zen Peacemakers devote a couple weeks each year to living on the streets to better grasp the plight of the homeless, hungry, and otherwise disenfranchised. They regularly bear witness at Auschwitz, joining concentration camp survivor Marian Koldziej in advocating for positive change now by recognizing humanity’s horrors past. For his part, Bridges cofounded the End Hunger Network and is an active celebrity spokesperson for Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry campaign (see links below).
Glassman also founded the Let All Eat Café in order to feed people in a sympathetic yet non-pitying manner that lets invites them to participate in the process (by cooking, cleaning, or merely socializing) instead of humiliating them with charity. Like the Dude (and unlike pugnacious Walter), you leave people an “out.” Because even when someone wrongs you, cornering said “rat” typically yields little benefit for either the aggrieved or the offender. Absolutes cause wars. It’s harder to fight over an opinion. The Dude hits on this at the bowling alley, when he rebuffs Jesus’ taunts: “Well, that’s just like, your opinion, man.”
Unlearning our uptightness is no small feat. Every action has a consequence, Glassman observes, and these “ripples” (karma) affect everything else. So it becomes an ongoing struggle—or practice (non-practice)—to strike a balance between “befriending the self” and relaxing verses that well-conditioned urge to do, do, do, achieve, achieve, achieve.
Flipping through The Dude and The Zen Master, one gets the impression he or she is eavesdropping on an intimate conversation between a couple stogie-chomping sages mulling over a few Great Ideas concerning the self and the human condition. That’s because we are eavesdropping, albeit by invitation. It’s more than chicken soup for the soul. Equal parts “Zen for Dummies” and “Life’s Little Instruction Book,” it’s cacciatore for the spirit, a winner’s guide to optimal living—a manual on how to Dude-ifying oneself and just abide, man.