“The Dude Abides”: The Big Lebowski and America’s Path to Enlightenment

“Way out west there was this fella–Fella I wanna tell you about. Fella by the name of Jeff Lebowski. Least that was the handle that his lovin’ parents gave him. But he never had much use for it himself. This Lebowski, he called himself the Dude. Now, Dude–That’s a name no one would self-apply where I come from. But then there was a lot about the Dude that didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me, and a lot about where he lived likewise. But then again, maybe that’s why I found the place so durned interesting.” – The Stranger

One of the questions I have toyed with is the understanding Buddhism by a Western mind. The fundamental teachings of the Buddhist doctrine imply that the practice is available to anyone interested in pursuing it. But from an initial survey, it seems difficult for the Westerner to adopt because Buddhism calls for a type of lifestyle not conducive to the on-the-go, nine-to-five culture currently dominating the United States. The 1998 film, The Big Lebowski, offers a character that is popularly became identified as a Zen master (Green 16). Jeff Lebowski is a slacker, a drunkard, and a chronic bowler with a foul mouth and friends of varying backgrounds. “The Dude,” as he prefers to be called, models not only the shadow side of American culture, but also serves as a bridge to a religious practice different from Christianity. Even though following “The Dude” will not bring anyone to enlightenment, he is a cult figure in American popular culture that helps one see the initial stages of mindfulness.

Firstly, the Dude embodies simplicity. He constantly sacrifices the needs of material life– except for a Persian rug that holds the room together–in favor of leading a daily life in contemplation and mindfulness, which manifests through bowling, lying on the floor listening to whale song, or taking bubble baths while smoking marijuana. He lives an austere life, often accepting the handouts of others and begging for them. Jeff Bridges, the actor who plays The Dude, recognizes a degree of wisdom in his practice:

I like to call it the ‘Wisdom of Fingernails’: the wisdom that gives you the ability to make your hair and fingernails grow, your heart beat, your bowels move. These are things that we know how to do, but we don’t necessarily know how we know how to do them, yet we still do them very well. And that to me is very Dude…. He’s not a guy who has figured out the way to be or anything like that, but he is comfortable with what he’s got…. (Green xiv)

Buddhism has long held an attraction to Western audiences who are attracted to alternative forms of mysticism or alternative understandings of the universe. During the 1950s and Sixties, Buddhism and other Eastern traditions entered the American mythos as alternatives to the Christian establishment, and thus became a part of the counterculture. Alan Watts observes the roots of this, when Buddhism was incorporated into the Beat culture of artists and poets. He notes that this was a crucial point in Western conceptions of Buddhism, because the seeming lack of rule and dogma justified the Counterculture’s rebellion.

Understanding the distinction between true Buddhism and Western, modified Buddhism is essential for understanding the Dude. Alan Watts describes a phenomenon called Beat Zen as the Buddhism of Western counterculture that is designed to allow people to take it easy and to justify lazy behavior (Watts, Beat 24). In other words, Beat Zen is used as a justification to screw around. Watts’ criticism of this lies in the fact that it alters the doctrinal message of Buddhism enough that it barely resembles traditional Buddhism. Primary to this thought is how one can overcome suffering, considered by the tradition to be the ultimate problem of human existence. For the counterculture, this “suffering” is repression from “the Man,” “the Establishment” or any set of rules that restrict free will and free-thinking as opposed to facilitating a step towards liberation or some other transcendental experience. This liberation or transcendental experience was induced through various substances, some of which were still in the experimental stages and not yet subject to governmental penalty. The cycle of addiction and self-medication runs long throughout Western religious history, in part because the modes are not in place for one to transcend on one’s own. The fundamental problem with Beat Zen is that it takes the doctrine of Buddhist teaching and tries to fit it into a particular mold that justifies the accepted behaviors of the Counterculture, which are abhorred by the Establishment.

The Dude is not consciously practicing any form of religion, but he does embody the projected ideal of the Beat Zen movement. He is not held by rules, but he does like to stay within a social paradigm to keep things peaceful. This is well-demonstrated by his hobby of bowling. The sport involves rolling a ball down a long, narrow alleyway to knock over ten pins at the end in a sort of triangular formation. The ball is expected to stay within a set of guidelines, demarcated in the two gutters on both sides, but the outcome of the roll is left to skill and chance. The most skillful bowler will not always throw a strike, just as the most skillful Buddhist may not attain liberation, or the most counter-Beat will not be truly free. The Dude is okay with that. He does not assume a competitive view, although his team mates do. For example, his mate, Walter, a Vietnam veteran with a lot of issues, threatens a member of another team with a gun over a perceived foul. The Dude admonishes his behavior for threatening a pacifist:

Walter: “Well, it’s all water under the bridge. And… we do enter the next round-robin. Am I wrong?”

Dude: “No, you’re not wrong.”

Walter: “Am I wrong?”

Dude: “You’re not wrong, Walter. You’re just an asshole.”

Walter: “Okay then. Play Quintana and O’Brien next week. They should be pushovers.”

Dude: “Man, would you just–just take it easy, man.”

Walter: “You know, that’s your answer for everything, Dude. Let me point out something. Pacifism is not …. Pacifism is not something to hide behind.”

Dude: “Just take it easy, man.”

Walter: “I’m perfectly calm, Dude.”

Dude: “Yeah, waving a fucking gun around?”

Walter: “Calmer than you are.”

Dude: “Will you just take it easy!”

Walter: “Calmer than you are.” (Lebowski Chapter 6, 19:15-20:00)

The First Noble Truth: The Truth of Suffering

The first major tenant of Buddhism is recognizing the truth of suffering: All humans suffer, which means they all experience some crisis of life, whether it is physical pain, emotional distress or grief, or existential frustration and dissatisfaction at the outcomes of life. Modern Westerners, especially Americans, do not experience suffering to the same caliber as other cultures. It is very possible and easy for an American to satisfy basic survival needs, even with the country struggling through economic hard times. The difficulty comes when people confuse their primary wants with the basic needs and this leads to existential frustration. The government has systems in place to assist with shelter and food, leaving the other comforts up to the individual. This is very different from a time when food was harder to come by because there was no commercial agriculture, when shelter was not guaranteed because there was no governmental assistance, and, especially, when diseases had harmful effects on a person because there was no healthcare. The culture surrounding Buddhism was a culture that chose to leave the world behind at a certain age and devote oneself to asceticism, a culturally-sanctioned euthanasia disguised as spiritual growth. In an environment where material needs are so uncertain, a spiritual practice becomes more important. In the West, material needs are satiated beyond abundance. One would think everything should be okay, yet we still experience existential suffering.

The Dude serves as a reminder of the distinction between needs and wants. His possessions are few. When the thugs soil his rug or when his car is stolen, he is rightfully upset, but does not feel it is the end of the world. In fact, the only reason he is upset about the rug is because it really tied the room together, and his car because he was afraid of losing the one million dollar ransom money entrusted to him. Overall, he takes all of the crises thrown in his direction with stride.

The Second Noble Truth: the Origin of Suffering

As just mentioned, suffering comes when one confuses one’s needs and one’s wants. There are various cravings that contribute to this confusion, all of which can be experienced within the American culture. There is the craving for something to excite the senses. We need to touch, taste, smell, see, and hear something. Humans cannot function without some form of sensual experience or another, and need contact with things and people. There is the craving for existence, to be reminded that it is not all a dream, and, by extension, the craving to be known as someone, not just another body with no “success” in life. Conversely, there is a craving for non-existence, the opportunity to “check out” when one needs a break from all the stress and tension of living. All of these cravings root people to materiality and in the here and now, or, at least, in the “someday” when success can be achieved.

The Big Lebowski, a wealthy millionaire confused with the Dude, runs a community organization called the Little Lebowski Urban Achievers. These Achievers are given all the resources and support to ensure their success. They are told by the Foundation that they should feel these cravings, thus fueling the hard-working individualism that keeps productivity going. When the Big Lebowski first meets the Dude, he is angered at the Dude’s lack of motivation. He refuses to help the Dude on principle that he is more of a bum than he is a citizen with standing, especially since he does not have a job.

The Third Noble Truth: The Cessation of Suffering through Nirvana

“Because we imprison ourselves in our suffering, we lose the ability to experience the wonders of life. When we can break through ignorance, we discover the vast realm of peace, joy, liberation and nirvana. Nirvana is the uprooting of ignorance, greed, and anger. It is the appearance of peace, joy, and freedom” (Nhat Hahn 234). Alan Watts reminds us that the Western practitioner “must understand his own culture so thoroughly that he is no longer swayed by its premises unconsciously” (Watts, Beat 8). This suggests that the origins of and cessation of suffering are rooted within culture. To achieve liberation is to transcend one’s own culture, which means to achieve awareness or understanding that reaches beyond everyday observation. “All suffering is overcome when we attain understanding. The path of true liberation is the path of understanding. Understanding is prajña. Such understanding can only come from looking deeply into the true nature of things” (Nhat Hanh 233). The four Noble Truths suggest that if one lives rightly by cultivating virtue, pursuing happiness and wisdom, one can be freed from all of the barriers that tie one to the cycle of suffering. Culture makes a deep imprint on the psyche, one that can transcend the personal unconscious. The quest to attain the Self, whether through nirvana or Jungian process of individuation, involves breaking down these psychic barriers, and the possibility exists that one cannot achieve this goal within one’s lifetime. In fact, the cycle of samsara can repeat as often as needed before the soul is ready to break free. This makes liberation more difficult for the Westerner, with the cultural drive to be liberated now, not in a couple lifetimes from now.

The Fourth Noble Truth: The Path to the Cessation of Suffering

“The path I have discovered leads to transcending sorrow and anxiety by looking deeply into their true nature” (Nhat Hanh 234). This is also known as the Eight-Fold Path, which gives simple steps one can add to one’s life to transcend the negativity surrounding suffering. This path is described as “the Middle Way, which avoids both extremes and has the capacity to lead on to understanding, liberation, and peace” (Nhat Hanh 146). Symbolically, this is the bowling alley, and the bowling ball is the individual’s journey down the path. Needless to say, the Lebowski fans, who call themselves the Achievers, see the parallel between bowling and the Eight-Fold Path. “Many times we’ve looked at the Dude and seen a slightly thinner, slightly hairier version of the Buddha. Or, as we like to call him, the Duddha” (Green 16). A diagram of this path is included in Appendix A. The fact that fans use miscellaneous quotes to relate the Dude to the Eight-Fold Path is indicative of Beat Zen and making the doctrine fit the needs, but it is still amusing.

By rooting the individual into the quest for enlightenment, not on some omniscient higher power, Buddhist doctrine teaches devotion to the very inner soul work theorists such as Joseph Campbell or Carl Jung say is missing from central human experience in the West. In Old Path White Clouds, Thich Nhat Hanh describes the path to enlightenment for the Buddha, Siddhartha. The prince, driven by a strong calling, leaves his family and throne to seek the truth. He apprentices with several teachers, only to maximize their knowledge. He attempts asceticism only to become weak, deciding that this could not be the process to enlightenment because it invited too much self-imposed suffering. Why would someone want to live like that? It is one thing to shun material goods, or anything that ties one to his or her primal nature, in the name of holy pursuits, but to the point of denying fundamental human needs? Gotama learns and teaches that it is important not to deny the body, as it is the only an imperfect container for the soul. The Middle Path teaches that it is best to make do with the body and resources available, and to do the best one can with it. Under this model, one maintains a mind and body connection and accepts all of the problems inherent with it.

“In early Buddhism, the ultimate goal of religious striving was to reach the state of arhat, a ‘worthy’ a ‘saint’, one who has overcome desire; passed beyond samsara, the world of suffering and cyclical birth and death; and entered nirvana” (Watson 5). Furthermore, “they chose as their goal and ideal the figure of the bodhisattva, one who vows not only to achieve enlightenment for himself but to assist all others to do likewise” (Watson 6). In contrast to this are the pratyekabuddhas, “‘private Buddhas’, or ‘self-enlightened ones,’ beings who have won an understanding of the truth through their own efforts but who make no attempt to teach others or assist them to enlightenment” (Watson 7). In Lebowski, the Dude’s friend, Walter, played by John Goodman, represents a type of character who tries to pass off as a private Buddha, based on his Vietnam experience, but is severely misguided on his enlightenment. He does not explicitly teach his experience, but will offer advice as the situation presents. This type of character provides grounding, but rarely sound competent advice, which often gets the Dude, or anyone who adheres to the teacher, into more trouble than not. It has been my experience that this category is common in the West for various reasons, which makes it difficult to find a good teacher. I contend that when a physical teacher is unavailable, then one can look to the media to see what is available. Hence the Dude: He is an entertaining embodiment revered as a type of bodhisattva by fans. However, it is up to the student to filter through the excessive information, or lack thereof, to find all of the relevant information.

The good teacher leads the student astray, intentionally give him or her bad advice, in order for the student to come to his or her own realization that the teacher is not really needed at all, but that the student should learn to rely on his or her own inner voice as a guide. In doing this, the teacher hopes the student will learn for him- or herself, thus the teacher is more of an illusion than a real, valid “guru.” By learning to contradict the teacher, the student grows through the ability to see for himself the concepts.

One of Siddhartha’s first teachers taught that his teachings are not a “mere theory. Knowledge is gained from direct experience and direct attainment, not from mental arguments. In order to attain different states of meditation, it is necessary to rid yourself of all thoughts of past and future. You must focus on nothing but liberation” (Nhat Hanh 91). I am convinced that this degree of experience is what is so unattainable in my own life. The best thing I can do is rely on the experience of others to model my perception. To me, the Dude embodies the perfect sense of going with the flow, but it could be that my perceptions have been strongly molded by Beat Zen. “The Buddha felt that philosophical speculation about Reality was a waste of time and even a positive hindrance. Realty or Nirvana lay beyond all definition, and nothing was of importance but an immediate and intimate experience of it, and this could only be had by getting rid of trishna. Reality is here and now, but it is concealed by attempts to grasp it in this form or that” (Watts, Zen 7). Alan Watts describes trishna as selfish craving that attempts to grasp life in some form, more especially in the form of one’s own personal existence” (Zen 5). The Buddha’s goal was to free others from suffering, but he had to free himself before he could do so in order to know that the path worked. Freeing oneself from suffering includes freeing oneself from trishna, but Watts further suggests that this is fundamental to Beat Zen. The Beats were so tied to their cravings that they wanted to use Buddhism as a method to justify these vices.

In keeping with the thought that the Dude is a Buddhist monk of sorts, then his confrontation with a bowling competitor, aptly named Jesus, truly responds to the division between East and West:

Jesus: “I see you rolled your way into the semis. Dios Mío, man. Liam and me, we’re gonna fuck you up.”

Dude: “Yeah? Well, you know, that’s just like, uh, your opinion, man.”

Jesus: “Let me tell you something, pendejo. You pull any of your crazy shit with us–you flash a piece [a gun] out on the lanes, I’ll take it away from you and stick it up your ass…and pull the fuckin’ trigger till it goes ‘click.'”

Dude: “Jesus.”

Jesus: “You said it man. Nobody fucks with the Jesus.” (Lebowski Chapter 8, 28:40-29:20)

The West has a notoriously violent history of conflict with people it does not care for. Although Jesus historically is a genuinely compassionate figure, he has become the symbol for the entirety of Christianity. The character of Jesus reflects this violent history. He has a record as a convicted sex-offender. When he moved to West Hollywood, he had to go to every house in the neighborhood and tell them about his crime. He brings this to the bowling alley, and threatens the Dude for Walter’s flashing his gun during league play. Jesus is projecting onto the Dude perceived wrongs that have no bearing other than discomfort of someone different. The Dude, on the other hand, reflects the Buddhist principle of peaceful non-action. He is a self-identified pacifist. He opts to not fight back under any circumstance. He does not fight back or confront Jesus. His sense of peacefulness extends beyond the bowling alley. The one scene where he drops his calm, go-with-the-flow demeanor, his violent friend, Walter, checks his behavior:

Dude: “He hung up, man. You fucked it up. You fucked it up! Her life was in our hands, man.”

Walter: “Easy, Dude.”

Dude: “We’re screwed now. We don’t get shit. They’re gonna kill her. We’re fucked, Walter!”

Walter: “Nothing is fucked, Dude. Come on. You’re being very un-Dude.” (Lebowski Chapter 9, 33:45-34:06)

The lessons of the Dude exemplify mindfulness under pressure. The Buddhist principles he embodies are not used to justify his ultra-lazy behavior, which is one facet of Beat Zen. Nor are they used to pursue a higher path, as in Square Zen. The Dude just is what he is. Having a character like the Dude helps one understand a doctrine that initially seems complicated. The differences between the West and the East are legitimate, but they are nonetheless perceived. The Dude demonstrates that it is possible to embody mindfulness without needing to live in a monastery and study under a particular guru. Conversely, there is a degree of Buddhism that involves a specialized practice. The teacher helps guide the student, so he or she does not fall into the lure of Beat Zen. The clueless Westerner, such as myself, could very easily fall into Beat Zen, thinking that how easy it is to not be trapped in doctrine. But the Eightfold Path demonstrates that there is some doctrine. At least the doctrine is behavioral and can be incorporated into one’s daily life. As long as one maintains a proper meditation practice, then one can avoid the wrathful deities (Trungpa 57).

Cowboy: “How do you do, Dude?”

Dude: “I wondered if I’d see you again.”

Cowboy: “I wouldn’t miss the semis. How’s things been goin’?”

Dude: “Well, you know, strikes and gutters, ups and downs.”

Cowboy: “Sure. I got you.”

Dude: “Yeah. Thanks, Gary. Well, take care, man. Gotta get back.”

Cowboy: “Sure. Take it easy, Dude.”

Dude: “Oh, yeah.”

Cowboy: “I know that you will.”

Dude: “Yeah. Well, the Dude abides.” (Lebowski Chapter 21, 1:50:21-1:50:53)


“The Dude abides. I don’t know about you, but I take comfort in that. It’s good knowing he’s out there–the Dude, takin’ ‘er easy for all us sinners. Shush. I sure hope he makes the finals. Well, that about does ‘er. Wraps ‘er all up.” – The Stranger

Appendix A: Image of the Duddha and his Eight-Fold Path (Green 16).


Works cited

  • The Big Lebowski. Dir. Joel Cohn. Perf. Jeff Bridges, John Goodman and Julianne Moore. 1998. DVD. Focus Features, 2008.
  • Green, Bill, Ben Peskoe, Will Russell, and Scott Shuffitt. I’m A Lebowski, You’re A Lebowski: Life, The Big Lebowski, and What Have You. New York: Bloomsbury, 2007.
  • Nhat Hanh, Thich. Old Path White Clouds. Berkeley: Parallax Press, 1991.
  • Trungpa, Chogyam and Francesca Fremantle. The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Boston: Shambhala, 2000.
  • Watson, Burton, trans. The Vimalakirti Sutra. New York: Columbia U P, 1997.
  • Watts, Alan W. Beat Zen, Square Zen, and Zen. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1959.
  • Watts, Alan W. Zen Buddhism: A New Outline and Introduction. London: The Buddhist Society, 1947.