Wednesday, January 23, 2013


"The Dude and the Zen Master," Jeff Bridges

In collaboration with his longtime friend and "Zen master," Bernie Glassman, Jeff Bridges has presented the world with a jam session in book form (Amazon | Indiebound). The scare quotes are not meant to undermine Glassman, who seems like a very nice person with fine, legitimate credentials engaged in the process of doing very nice things in a thoughtful manner, but rather to make clear, from the beginning, that this is the Zen of "....and the Art of Your Chosen Hobby or Pastime," and not, strictly speaking, Zen-Zen, which is an assumption on my part, as I know nothing about Zen. Western Zen, we'll say, is what Bridges and Glassman are presenting to us, although perhaps drawing an arbitrary distinction between the two concepts is horribly un-Zen? Jeff Bridges would probably not care either way.

"Book" could also be rendered in scare quotes, as Bridges prefers to think of their creation as a snakeskin. "A snakeskin is something you might find on the side of the road and make something out of—a belt, say, or a hatband. The snake itself heads off doing more snake stuff—getting it on with lady snakes, eating rats, making more snakeskins, et cetera." You get the idea. This is a book in which sentences are likely to end with “...right?” A book in which koans appear chiefly in pun form as “The Koan Brothers,” and the question of how a rug could really tie a room together is paramount. It is a book for stoners, a book for Parrotheads, a book for people grooving uncomfortably into middle age, and a book for people who just happen to like Jeff Bridges. Most people, in other words, and people who are unlikely to take it more seriously than they should. The Dude abides, right?

Broken down into a series of dialogues between Bridges and Glassman, "The Dude and the Zen Master" is an exercise in likability. Bridges, a man so exceptionally amiable as to beggar the imagination, is in rare form here. What could be objected to? His chosen philanthropic undertaking? Child hunger. His wife? Long-suffering and beloved. His weakness? Cigars. “The body is the temple, so you should offer it some incense.” Bridges never forgets to thank the crew, even when he’s not on a movie set, a charm which approaches but does not quite reach the zone of self-parody. It is no coincidence that the crisis of “The Big Lebowski” involved a mistaken identity. To know the Dude (and, by extension, Bridges’ own meditational endgame) is to love him. Once the self has been sufficiently effaced, there’s no edge left to dislike or object to.

And that, ultimately, is what we are dealing with. The cheerful annihilation of the self, not necessarily as a spiritual exercise, but as a different way of being a celebrity. Does that make Bridges’ book and persona a schtick? Not necessarily—if anything, the man seems overly authentic on the page and in the flesh. Rather, Dude-fashion, we are watching a religious tradition stripped of its aggravating difficulties and demands and left with a thoroughly unobjectionable kernel: you do you. Or, as Glassman puts it, “you just do.”

For Bridges, just doing can mean a few things. It can mean making tiny clay heads to give to his loved ones, or turning a ridiculous fight with his hair and makeup guy into an opportunity to admit he’s heavily invested in his own self-image as a chill-to-a-fault Dudester. On the set, he claims, he transcends his own abilities by turning the project over completely to the director. Barring, of course, any revelations that seem to come to him “from a higher power.”

Glassman’s role, it would seem, is both to rein Bridges back in and to attempt to elevate the discourse back onto the plane of the spiritual. While Bridges riffs on his own shortcomings and foibles and all-around goofiness, Glassman is more likely to pop in and remind him of the danger of expectations, of prioritizing the “final outcome,” a downfall which Bridges, to be fair, does not seem to be in imminent danger of. The life of Jeff Bridges (a subject one expects his editor begged him to include in at least some detail) is explored in bits and pieces; a tribute to Sidney Lumet, the joys of improvising with Martin Landau, childhood dance lessons, the surprising wit of Kevin Bacon, resisting following his father into the profession, his band, meeting his wife and finding himself horrified that he would have to get married, losing his parents, being the Dude. Abiding.

Glassman approaches Bridges’ degree of adorability at times, although, without having a mental image of a slouchy-sweatered Dude gesticulating with a White Russian, he has to work a little harder to do so. Or, rather, he works lightly and expends his energies on intentional simplicity. His central metaphors include both “row, row, row your boat,” “The Wizard of Oz,” and the wisdom of Robin Williams’ Mork. When he claims to always carry a red nose in his pocket (for the purpose of diffusing “serious” conversations), one can’t quite decide if the correct reaction is to emulate his attitude or say: “Jeez, guy, you’re Patch Adams now?” Upon learning that his time in clowning (trainer’s name: Mr. YooWho) led him to work with “Clowns Without Borders,” an organization which works primarily with small children in refugee camps, the second reaction seems exceptionally un-Bridges. The Real Bridges: “Clownsville, man.”

Various critiques of relentless likability—a natural development of a culture which enjoys nothing so much as clicking small thumbs-up buttons next to blog comments and images of cats wearing hats and reminiscences of 1990s pop culture—have been attempting to gain a foothold this past year. That they have largely fizzled out is unsurprising. What’s the alternative? The mutual admiration society of “The Dude and the Zen Master” may be a little pop-y and a little vacant, but in the world of celebrity memoirs, it’s practically “The Education of Henry Adams.”

Admiration, in general, drips from these pages. Bridges likes people who are good at things, or at least better than him, and he likes to give them their honorifics accordingly. Glassman, as previously established, is a Zen master (without even coaching the Lakers!) The Coen brothers hired a “master bowler” to whip him and his costars into shape for “Lebowski.” It’s not just Bridges, of course. At the gym the other day, I was presented with a coupon for a free spray tan session with a “master technician.” (Picture the multi-year apprenticeship involved! No doubt said master was pledged to the spray tan guild as a young child, laboring ceaselessly at the throttle under the watchful eye of his own master, and so on back through the ages.) Bridges’ “master bowler,” accordingly, is inserted into the text to undermine the very idea of theory. Having been brought to his knees by an attempt to use “Zen and the Art of Archery” to further his craft, you say, the bowler had to go back to basics. “I just throw the fucking ball! I don’t think.” Bridges: “I dug that.”

“The Dude and the Zen Master,” for the most part, does not want to encourage you to complicate either your life or your spirituality. Concrete advice is at a minimum, and would probably seem helplessly vacant and obvious were the tidbits not pleasantly sandwiched between Bridges’ charm and Glassman’s anecdotes: “Do the best you can and don’t take it so seriously.” “Look in the mirror, and laugh at yourself.” “Keep on trucking.” “Everyone you meet is your guru.” Like many popular approaches to the self, and reasonably useful ones, at that, “The Dude and the Zen Master” wants you to figure out you’re already in the other place you want to be. What’s not to like?

41 Comments / Post A Comment


Ugh, I always have mixed feelings about this sort of pop-culture approach to Zen. On the one hand, I do want to support whatever people do to become more self-aware. So if books like this help do that, great! On the other hand, the "commodification" of Zen really bugs me. It's not this gooey romantic happy-happy thing, this mantra-a-day calendar bullshit, you know? My experience of it (and I've been doing it for years, not that that makes me any sort of expert whatsoever) is that it's pretty much like chewing through an iceberg. Generally painful and difficult, also tedious.
And I think Glassman wrote "Instructions to the Cook" which didn't impress me much. On the other other hand, I haven't watched "The Big Lebowski" so I could be missing out on a big part of the appeal of the thing.

Nicole Cliffe

HA, YES. So, as someone who is obviously more familiar with Zen than most of us, is the gooey romantic happy-happy thing Western Zen, or made-up Zen, or what? (You should watch Lebowski, btw.)


@Nicole Cliffe --Well, I'm no expert, but my reaction as someone who's read about it/practiced it is that, first of all, Zen is Buddhism. That sounds stupid, but I think people forget (not you--I mean this as a response to the idea of "Zen" in America) that it's not a philosophy or a cure for bad moods or stuff like that. It's a practice, and it's definitely not outcome-based. So when people talk about "being Zen" as if it's this long hippy-chill-out . . . that's not it at all. :)

I've read Jeff Bridges in a Buddhist publication (maybe Tricycle), and I like his peaceful attitude and humor. I think his years of practice really show. I think he seems like a great guy.

I gotta say, though, about this: "The snake itself heads off doing more snake stuff---getting it on with lady snakes," etc. BOY am I bothered by this kind of thing. By which I mean the assumption that the generic snake is male, and a snakeskin left behind is from a male, and that the other snake he gets it on with is a "lady snake." Sorry, I'm a little raw from being glossed over linguistically in the Inauguration address the other day as someone's wife, daughter, or sister, not an actual American citizen herself. :) Again, I agree with the message, just not the language, and I wish people/men would be more enlightened about inclusive language and inclusive thought.

Yours in sadly quite dualistic thinking ;-)


@Lu2 - I'm in a boat probably similar to yours - I don't self-identify as a buddhist or anything, but the practice of zen buddhism is one of the most important (though generally private - I almost never speak of this with anyone) aspects of my life.

I had all of this stuff I wanted to say, but I think you said it all when saying it's not a philosophy, it's not outcome-based. That "hippy-chill-out" thing is why I don't like to talk about it - for me, it has led to something like peace in many ways, but it is also, for lack of a better word, violent peace.

I got into it because I was a weird hybrid of punkrock and hippy when I was a kid. I had notions I did not yet know I needed to be disabused of, and thought "zen buddhism" seemed like the road to some kind of enlightenment, where I'd be able to operate on a higher plane than those around me.

The degree to which that assumption was wrong cannot be overstated, nor can the impact I felt when I came to internalize it as a truth. I mean, you read on Day 1 of reading that the point is to not have goals.

But at some point, after countless hours of meditation and reading and working to kill your thoughts...I dunno. There is a feeling like getting punched in the brain so fucking hard. It is shocking/jarring, it has this thing of like - when you feel pain, which is why it's the (admittedly faulty) metaphor I use, it feels somehow so external / not of you, but at the same time it is purely WITHIN you - there is no place in the world in which the pain you experience ever resides other than yourself.

Ugh I'm rambling and none of this makes sense, and if there was sense to be made I'm not the one to make it. But thanks Lu2 so much for sharing your experience, it is so nice to hear someone out there with something I can relate to on this front.


@leon s --Thank you, leon. Yes, I think we're in a similar place. It's a little hard to talk about with people in real life because of all this woo-woo stuff that people think they know about it, and I tend to take the casual jokes referencing that point of view as a little hurtful and disrespectful. So there is the sense of having something in your life that is pretty deep and yet quite vulnerable to being bandied about. P.S. Are you trying to kill your thoughts? Have you tried being a mountain and let your thoughts drift over you like clouds? ;-) omg did I just say that


@Nicole Cliffe My zen practice has always been in the context of my martial arts practice, so I can't really say much about "Western zen." I suspect it's not made-up zen, but rather someone else's zen, which is fine. I have never been a member of a sangha or anything. Like @Leon's my practice is very personal.
As Lu2 notes, zen is Buddhism; there are also different zen traditions like Rinzai, Soto, etc. which take very different approaches to the practice. As far as I can tell they are all paths up the same mountain.
I have never experienced the kind of shocking realization that Leon speaks of. The effect of the practice on me has been more like the change wrought by water on rock. Wish I could be more articulate rather than tossing all these cheap similes around, sorry.


@Nicole Cliffe And re: Lebowski, it is on my list, but I get anxious because I also love whiskey and am more or less blonde. But I will never be leggy, so it's OK, right? I think it's OK.


@Lu2 That's because this is his book, not yours, and it's not a generic snake, it's his male generic snake.


My precious.....@t


They were on the Bullseye podcast and it was great. Lovely men, both of them.

Lisa Frank

Yes, but is this book more enlightening than The Tao of Pooh?


@Lisa Frank I'm betting the pictures aren't anywhere near as cute.

H.E. Ladypants

@Lisa Frank Very few things are as enlightening as The Tao of Pooh. And I mean that without an ounce of sarcasm!

Nicole Cliffe

@Lu2 The tiny clay heads are reasonably cute, but you are generally correct.


@H.E. Ladypants I still use the Tao of Pooh method for opening jars.


@frigwiggin Apply hunny?


@Lu2 That would probably work too, in terms of adding friction! The method is something like, twist as hard as you can, breathe in, and then twist some more. It sounds dumb when I put it like that, but works more often than not, and I get to think about Busy Backsons while I'm doing it, so whatevs.


@frigwiggin I'll try that next time! (Wearing rubber gloves also helps.)


@Lu2 My friend's ER-nurse mother keeps a rubber tourniquet in her kitchen for just such occasions.

Theda Baranowski

When I started exploring Zen Buddhism, every single person recommended reading Brad Warner, and so I dutifully read two of his books and his blog for two years.

Brad Warner is an ass and I could go on probably for days about how reading his blog became an exercise in wanting to stab a zen master, but Hardcore Zen was useful when I was exploring. The Dude and the Zen Master would, I think, be equally useful when you are starting to explore, but only as a starting point. Yes, one of the end products of regular zazen is an increased acceptance of where you are, "inner peace" if you will. And that's awesome. But that's not all it is, just like Christmas isn't all there is to Christianity.


@Theda Baranowski Thank you <3 for your comments about Hardcore Zen. For my part, learning about Zen (actually, in my case, Seon [Korean]) is very much recognizing how much I don't know, and wishing to cultivate "don't know." Oh, jeez, that sounds precious. I didn't mean it as a cutesy turn of phrase. All I'm saying is that I don't feel completely right talking about it in public, because I'm aware that the impulse to say something borders on "not-right speech" and ego-based motives and such (and that goes for what I said above in response to Nicole's question), as well as possibly betraying myself as a befuddled ignoramus--and recognizing that I don't need those concerns and should let them go.

I think your last three sentences are just right! :)

Theda Baranowski

@Lu2 I feel weird about talking about it in public, and frankly, I am still a neophyte when it comes to Zen. I read a lot, I try (and often fail) to practice regularly, and I don't self-identify as Buddhist - for a lot of the reasons you state up there, and also because I don't feel like I'm there yet.


@Theda Baranowski After I went on a couple of days' retreat one time, and not having really talked at all about my investigations and temple attendance, etc., a friend caught on that I had been doing something new (you can't hide a multi-day disappearance) and asked me, "So, are you a Buddhist?" and I was like, "well, I don't know, but I practice Buddhism." And that's about the size of it. :) (--although my practice has really fallen off this past year because of various personal challenges.)

Theda Baranowski

@Lu2 Yeah, I've had a disaster of a year, and despite the fact that regular practice would have probably helped me handle the challenges better (though I also credit it with my ability to deal with job loss and moving across the country with minimal crying jags) it just...hasn't happened. I did just reorder my favorite book, though and I looked up the local temple last week, so here's hoping I can get back to it.


@Theda Baranowski I'm sorry, Theda. Best of luck to you, and I'm glad you're feeling a bit re-inspired. May I ask what your favorite book is, or maybe who your favorite author is? Aside from the bigger names, I have really liked Mark Epstein and the way he makes it OK to do (provides intellectual foundation for doing) both Buddhism and psychoanalysis.

Theda Baranowski

@Lu2 Steven Hagen is my favorite author, and I really like Buddhism Plain and Simple. It was the first book I read that made me feel like this was something I could do.

Nicole Cliffe

I love the care and delicacy of the actual Zen Buddhists who are talking about this, by the way.


@Nicole Cliffe - The most important thing about it all is really this video of a monkey who is actually a cowboy.



I just want to rewatch The Big Lebowski.

Related: last summer I served Tara Reid in a restaurant. When she went to pay, her credit card was declined; she shrugged, giggled, and said in an exasperated tone of voice "Typical Tara Reid!". This kind of made me love Tara Reid.

Nicole Cliffe

@Decca That is the best celebrity encounter I have ever heard.


@Nicole Cliffe An extra fact that makes it even better: she was with Jedward at the time.


"Look, man, I've got certain information, all right? Certain things have come to light. And, you know, has it ever occurred to you, that, instead of, uh, you know, running around, uh, uh, blaming me, you know, given the nature of all this new shit, you know, I-I-I-I... this could be a-a-a-a lot more, uh, uh, uh, uh, uh, uh, complex, I mean, it's not just, it might not be just such a simple... uh, you know?"

-What I imagine a summary of this book would be.

Black crow

Long time reader, first time commentator. I am intrigued by this book as a practitioner, and having heard Bernie Glassman speaking. He has a line about 'Lebowski koans', which follows nicely on from Cosmia above: new shit is always coming to light. Practice is about how we deal with that, and I appreciate how Lu2, Ru-Ri and Leon are trying to articulate this without sounding precious. I think it is hard to squeeze 'zen' into an online comment format, but then it is hard to squeeze 'zen' into anything.


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clay heads to give to his loved ones, or turning a ridiculous fight with his hair and makeup guy into an opportunity mountain house

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