Book review: The Dude and the Zen Master by Jeff Bridges and Bernie Glassman
The Dude and the Zen Master
by Jeff Bridges and Bernie Glassman
Blue Rider Press
Richard James Havis
This pop Buddhism book, written by actor Jeff Bridges and Zen teacher Bernie Glassman, must have seemed like a winning idea when the two dreamt it up.
Bridges (an aficionado of Buddhism) has achieved cult status among male college students in the US for his portrayal of the thoughtful slacker, "the Dude", in the Coen brothers' 1998 comedy The Big Lebowski. Glassman has devoted much of his life to popularising Zen. So why not write a book that combines the religion and the Dude to interest young guys in Buddhism?
Unfortunately, the occasionally entertaining read that results fails to deliver much insight into the religion. In fact, its attempts to link Buddhist thought with the actions and mindset of the Dude are ridiculous and often banal. The best that can be said of The Dude and the Zen Master is that it allows Bridges, who is seemingly channelling his screen persona, the chance to exercise some well-honed skills as a raconteur.
In the film, the Dude is an amiable slacker who drifts through life. He enjoys bowling and White Russians, and accidentally gets caught up in a Chandler-esque crime.
Although it's not one of the Coens' better films, it has caught on with young men, who find the Dude's cool and unflappable manner appealing.
There are no allusions to religion in the movie - in fact, the Dude is more likely to be thinking about bowling than Buddhism. But it's possible to see how the character's compassion, his desire to do the right thing, and his ability to take things as he finds them inspired the idea for the book. Unfortunately, those qualities are all they have in common. Attempts to link quotes from the film - "The Dude abides", "The Dude is not in" - to Buddhist thought prove risible.
Still, this is not a cynical book. Bridges and Glassman have a genuine love of Zen, and believe its message is worthy of transmission. What's more, they don't just talk about how Buddhism, or at least compassion, can make the world a better place, they are actively engaged in the process.
The book is set out like the transcript of an amiable conversation, and it's a cheerful enough read. But its style and content would have worked better as a comedy sketch.