Updated: Mar 15, 2022
By Mark Pearson
How many movies can you name that have fostered a new religion? Take a minute. What do you think? Two? Seven? Nine? None? The answer according to me, myself, and my sources, is one. One movie in the entire back catalogue of film making over the course of the last one hundred years. The movie is The Big Lebowski and the iconic avatar is a man who calls himself “The Dude”.
In 1998 the Coen brothers (writers and directors of The Big Lebowski) were riding high after winning two Oscars for their 1996 film Fargo. So it was with much anticipation that the public awaited the completion of their next project. A comedic crime caper starring Jeff Bridges as a middle aged hippie peacefully living out his days in early nineties Los Angeles.
On its release at the cinema the film was lambasted by the critics as a shambling mess and for the majority of those who saw it at the cinema they perhaps thought it was an okay two hours, but nothing special. And so it was, until its DVD release, when people started to see something more in it.
The film opens with the image of a tumble-weed tumbling through the city until it reaches the shore. Very much a metaphor for the Dude in his stained baggy t-shirt, board shorts, shoulder length hair and goatee.
When he is asked by a lady friend, who he is helping to conceive, (very complicated case) what he does for recreation, the Dude says “ah you know, bowling, drive around, the occasional acid flashback”. He wanders around, utterly devoid of ambition.
At various times in the film the Dude is referred to as “a loser” or “a dead-beat”. But on whose terms are such labels to be applied? The Dude has found a way of existing that harms no other, and brings him peace of mind, but still this is a red rag to some.
He is questioned on his employment status; once by a millionaire (the Big Lebowski of the title) and then by the police. He is assaulted by the Chief of Police of Malibu, who doesn’t want people like the Dude spoiling his nice quiet beach community. And then there are the nihilists, pornographers and angry best friends.
Essentially the film revolves around a case of mistaken identity, and it is the issue of identity, that one might argue is the reason that the Dude has taken on such an iconic quality. For you see the Dude is entirely at peace with himself.
A lot of Eastern traditions and religions have in their foundational tenets a philosophy of acceptance. Or in the parlance of The Dude “abiding”. Despite the strikes and gutters of life, the Dude abides. At the loss of a little money part way through the movie, and having temporarily lost his Dude-ness (that is got pissed off), the Dude reflects “can’t be worrying about that shit; life goes on man”. He recognises the truth in the words of the Buddha, that “all is change”.
The ensuing twenty three years since The Big Lebowski made its lacklustre entrance into the world has seen it grow to a cult status few artistic endeavours achieve. As well as annual Lebowski Fests where Dudeists meet dressed as characters from the movie, the film has motivated such book titles as The Dude and the Zen Master (a dialogue between Jeff Bridges and Zen Roshi Bernie Glassman); The Dude De Ching (a Dudeist interpretation of The Tao Te Ching); and The Abide Guide (an inspirational guide written by the founders of The Church of the Latter-Day Dude).
The Dude’s abiding is indeed the central message of the movie. We abide. Sure life can get pretty shitty sometimes, but we come through it. We can fight or we can flow. For sure some situations require fight, but I would argue that there’s a lot of times where letting go into the flow would be the more appropriate response.
The Dude has zero ambition, but what is this god ambition, that is held to be a beacon in our culture for a life well lived? As the Dude might say "that sounds exhausting”.
Too much the human is directed towards ‘doing’ at the expense of their ‘being’. At its extreme that would be identified as workaholism. Doing, doing, doing, and then, as is all too common, come retirement, left with their being, people are horribly lost. They never knew themselves apart from their doing persona. The Dude abides in his ‘being’.
As I wrote this piece it did at times feel as rambling as the subject matter; but as was highlighted earlier “can’t be worrying about that shit”. The key is letting go. So here it is.
Did I mention that The Big Lebowski is one of the most quotable movies in cinema history? If you know the film already you may have spotted a few along the way.
So in conclusion I’ll wrap ‘er all up with this passage that I read this morning, which I thought was very much in the spirit of the Dude, and felt like a nice ending -
“Everybody wants to be extraordinary, that is very ordinary. But to be ordinary and just relax in being ordinary, that is superbly extraordinary. One who can accept his ordinariness without any grudge, any grumbling – with joy, because this is how the whole of existence is – then nobody can destroy his bliss. Nobody can steal it, nobody can take it away. Then wherever you are you will be in bliss” - OSHO
And that’s the Dude, abiding in Los Angeles.
Mark Pearson is a Yoga Alliance (200hrs) accredited yoga teacher. He has written for Om magazine on the subject of Mindful Parenting. He tries to practice what he preaches, but is by no means a fully realised being. Some days he is barely human; more days he is fully cat. A cat that drinks coffee, reads, writes and overall sees his food bowl as being of the half full variety. "Sitting still, doing nothing, spring comes and the grass grows by itself" - Zen proverb.