So Dude!? Zen with Big Lebowski

“That’s just an opinion, man,” Bernie Glassman pointed out recently in his talk about the Zen teachings of the Big Lebowski. He urged his audience at the Sweetwater Zen Center in San Diego to be cautious of any notion of “truth” that is presented as fixed and universal. In his humble opinion, truth claims ultimately lead to war and genocide. In contrast the “dude,” protagonist of the comedy Big Lebowsky, does not have a fixed position. He simply “abides” or in other words waits patiently and accepts without harsh objection. This stands in contrast to the mantra of success, individual achievement, and competition that dominates American society in late modernity.

The Coen brothers knew little about Buddhism in general and Zen in particular when they directed the cult movie Big Lebowski. At least they did not have the intention to produce a piece about meditation. For Glassman this may just show how Buddha Nature can manifest virtually everywhere. The dude is a role model for patience and kindness. Although he can be upset, like when someone pees on his rug, he is not driven by anger and rather works from where he is in each new moment. From this perspective, the likeable outcast and anti-hero becomes an enlightened Zen practitioner and an expert for mindful relations.

Bernie talked about his collaboration with Jeff Bridges who so naturally embodied the dude. Together they wrote the book “The Dude and the Zen Master” to provide a philosophy that can be applied to being a dude in everyday life. No idea to what extent they are familiar with the religious movement called Dudeism that has emerged out of the Big Lebowski’s cult following. Everybody who vows to be easygoing and to keep the mind limber can become an ordained priest of Dudeism online and for free. In contrast, Glassman warns that passivity can take over when things are taken too lightly. For the Zen master abiding is about more than hanging or just taking the easy way out.

The dude was in search for his rug that “tied the room together.” For Bernie this rug stands for nothing less than “love” that can be found in the interconnectedness of all life. In his Socially Engaged Buddhism he does really dude things rather than taking it easy alone. In fact, by hanging and taking things lightly he wants to enter a place of “not knowing” that gives rise to spontaneous actions that benefit other people. This social engagement may fit the circumstances better than rigid plans and may even help to reduce the effects of trauma in conflict zones such as in Rwanda and Gaza.

Bernie

Bernie Glassman provides Bearing Witness Retreats for individuals and families who have suffered from poverty, war, and genocide. These retreats seem to be motivated by love rather than expectations about change. He and other Zen Peacemakers are doing things for the sake of doing them with humor and compassion. With an inner smile I silently resonated with much of what was said at the Sweetwater Zen Center. At the end of the day, I felt an inner urge to participate in Bernie’s next retreat at Auschwitz. But as he pointed out, “My opinion is my opinion and if you have the same one, it doesn’t make either of us kosher.”