I come late to everything. My first R.E.M. album was “Green.” I just started “Deadwood.” I have not seen the entire “Gangnam Style” video. The great exception to my tardiness is “The Big Lebowski.” While most fans of the Coen brothers’ Los Angeles story about mistaken identity, German nihilists, Sabbath observance and bowling were straphangers on the bus — the movie was no hit when it was released — I grokked its genius on first viewing, at a cineplex in North Haven, Conn., in 1998.
How did I love “Lebowski”? Dude, let’s count the ways. I loved Jeff Bridges as Jeff Lebowski, the pot-smoking, White Russian-drinking, pacifist bowler known as “the Dude.” I loved Philip Seymour Hoffman as the obsequious toadie to the other Lebowski whom the Dude is mistaken for. I loved the absurdist plot, something about a missing rug. And I seriously loved Tara Reid, pruriently painting her toenails.
But above all I loved the movie’s deep unseriousness. In the second year of graduate school I spent my days jostling with Foucauldians, trauma theorists, critical-race-studies scholars and other people generally hostile to frivolity and fun. Seeing “The Big Lebowski” was like sneaking over the monastery wall for a night at the Chicken Ranch.
It was with befuddlement and a nontrivial amount of anger that I saw come-lately DVD fans turn “The Big Lebowski” — a movie I thought resisted cultural criticism — into a text to be groped for meaning. Some of the worst offenders have been the armchair Buddhists, who have found Zen koans in various catchphrases from the movie, to be puzzled over in their quest for enlightenment.
So I would prefer to dislike “The Dude and the Zen Master,” the edited transcript of a five-day “hang” on a Montana ranch with Bridges and Zen teacher Bernie Glassman, who wrote about anti-hunger activism in his 1997 volume “Instructions to the Cook.” This book’s audience is the worst kind of Lebowski fan: one who takes the movie seriously.
But this meandering exchange is likable because Bridges and Glassman are likable, and smart, and interesting, in an undergraduate sort of way. Maybe it’s that I read the book over holiday vacation when I was looking to rest my weary brain, but those qualities seemed enough.
The two are old friends apparently. When Glassman informed Bridges that many Buddhists consider the Dude “a Zen master,” Bridges was unfazed. “We never talked about Zen or Buddhism while we were making ‘Lebowski,“’ he told Glassman. But after Glassman persuaded him of the koanlike quality of phrases like “the Dude abides” and “the Dude is not in,” Bridges agreed to do a book, or what’s more of a booklet, about Buddhism.
“This is where ‘Lebowski’ comes in,” Bridges writes in the introduction. “Bernie has been interested for some time now in making Zen more accessible in our times and culture, relevant and down-to-earth, and he felt that ‘Lebowski’ did that big-time.”
Those of us who browse used bookstores are now thinking, “Wait, aren’t there already a thousand books to make Zen accessible?” For at least two reasons Zen has produced an IKEA shelf of idiots’ guides. First, the Buddha’s teachings and the riddling koans of the early Zen masters can seem impenetrable. Second, the central practice of Japanese Zen Buddhism, although not all Buddhism, is sitting and meditating for hours on end. That’s really hard, so many opt to study Zen philosophy, particularly as explained by Western popularizers, rather than sit silently in a weeklong sesshin.
“The Dude and the Zen Master” is an incomplete and spotty guide to Zen philosophy. And there’s actually not much Lebowski here. But sometimes the Lebowski and the Buddhism mix in a helpful way. Here’s Glassman on “The Dude is not in, leave a message”:
“Not being in — not being attached to Jeff or Bernie or whoever you are — is the essence of Zen. When we’re not attached to our identity, it allows all the messages of the world to come in and be heard. When we’re not in, creation can happen.”
Got that? Fret not. You can’t “get” Buddhism, in the Western sense and certainly not in one paragraph or even one book. “The Dude and the Zen Master,” fortunately, is not just less but also more than it wants to be. It includes compelling discussions of Bridges’ marriage, acting technique and close relationship with his father, the late actor Lloyd Bridges. Many readers may not know Glassman, a former aeronautical engineer who has used Buddhist teachings, which many treat as an excuse to withdraw from the world, to start effective, lasting programs to help the poor and the homeless.
“The Dude and the Zen Master” also bakes in hackneyed references to Camus’ “Myth of Sisyphus,” Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning” and the notion that some Eskimos have multiple words for “snow.” It may take you back to sophomore year of college, that time you had your mind blown by the musings of some older student who had taken a couple years off to see the world. Within a few years you’ll realize that half of what he said was totally bogus. But the other half will stick with you, and it may even change you. And you’ll always be grateful for the hang.