By Rev. Dwayne Eutsey
The end of 2012 had its share of ups and downs, did it not?
Life went on after the Mayan apocalypse fizzled out, but it also ended abruptly for far too many folks due to a few uptight reactionaries waving guns around. On a personal level, as the year drew to a close, I attended my grandmother’s funeral but then happened to hear a week later that a good friend of mine gave birth to her new baby daughter.
It was in the midst of all that human comedy perpetuating itself into a new year that I received my copy of a new book I want to tell you about, a book by the name of The Dude and the Zen Master.
In this breezy, conversational book, Jeff Bridges and his pal Bernie Glassman, a Zen teacher, use The Big Lebowski as a Zen frame of reference for just checking in to see what condition their conditions are in.
For the most part, they succeed in achieving their modest task of using our beloved cult classic to help make the esoteric nature of Zen, as Jeff puts it, “more accessible to our times and culture, relevant and down-to-earth.”
They do this through using lines and references from the movie to guide their freewheeling discussion about Zen and to provide the book’s overall structure (a couple sample chapter titles: “It’s Down There Somewhere, Let Me Take Another Look” and “Nothing’s Fu**ed Here”…those asterisks appear in all the cuss words in chapter titles, by the way, which seemed a little undude to me).
The narrative is basically a transcript of a verbal jam session that Jeff and Bernie had one week while hanging out at Jeff’s Montana ranch, which I imagine would’ve been cool to witness as they spontaneously riffed off each other in the lively flow of a good conversation between good friends.
Sometimes, though, the energy of their discussion gets lost in the transcription of it and the breezy, conversational style can wear a little thin, too, as it did for me in what should have been a rather zesty chapter entitled “You Mean Coitus?”
But are we going to split hairs here?
Overall, I dug the book. Reading it is like relaxing in a nice literary bubble bath. Just as you won’t expect to explore the vast depths of the ocean by sitting in a tub full of water, you probably shouldn’t expect to discover the cosmic profundity of Zen insight by reading this book.
But sometimes immersing yourself in a tub of warm water and watching the foamy bubbles dissolve around you is all you need to appreciate Zen’s ultimate message of being here now.
The book’s free-flowing style is intentionally simplistic, following what Bernie says is Japanese Zen master Hakuun Yasutani Roshi’s admonition “that unless you can explain Zen in words that a fisherman will comprehend, you don’t know what you’re talking about.”
And while I don’t know if a Japanese fisherman who’s never seen The Big Lebowski will get Jeff and Bernie’s Zen lessons derived from lines like “The Dude is Not In”, most Lebowski fans will probably dig this metaphor they develop for Zen’s emphasis on non-attachment and letting go of the ego.
As Bernie notes:
“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.”
Dudeists will also appreciate Jeff’s musings on our religion’s affable avatar:
“I dig the Dude; he’s very authentic. He can be angry and upset, but he’s comfortable in his skin. And in his inimitable way, he has grace. He exudes it in every relationship: an unexpected kindness, unmerited good will, giving someone a break when he doesn’t deserve it, showing up even when he has a bad attitude just because it means so much to the rest of the team. Hugging it out instead of slugging it out.”
One of the unexpected treats of The Dude and the Zen Master is the insights into who Jeff Bridges is behind the Dude persona. Not surprisingly, he can be just as uptight and undude as the rest of us (and that’s cool, that’s cool).
As other reviewers have noted as well, Jeff’s touching remembrances of his parents, his reflections on life as a devoted family man, and his behind-the-scenes stories of movies he’s worked on could all be expanded into a purty good memoir someday (Note to Mr. Bridges: we here at The Dudespaper would be happy to hang with you at your Montana ranch and help you put one together…Call us!)
Finally, there are profound little Zen observations and insights sprinkled throughout the book (who says profound things can’t happen in a bathtub? Archimedes had his “eureka” moment in one, after all…and there was that time I was in a Las Vegas hot tub with that cute cocktail waitress…).
One example is when Jeff reflects:
“All the things that you love are going to change; you’re going to lose them one way or another.” To which Bernie replies: “It makes them all the more precious.”
A commonplace insight? Yeah, perhaps.
But, like savoring a nice bubble bath before it all goes down the drain, it’s still nice to take comfort in such simple insights when the whole world seems to be going crazy around us.
At its best, The Dude and the Zen Master can help you do just that.