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Jeff Bridges On Zen Buddhism And ‘The Big Lebowski’

We talk with actor Jeff Bridges about Zen Buddhism and “The Big Lebowski.”

Actor Jeff Bridges at a cast reunion celebrating "The Big Lebowski" Limited Edition Blu-ray release (AP)

Actor Jeff Bridges at a cast reunion celebrating “The Big Lebowski” Limited Edition Blu-ray release (AP)

Academy award-winning actor Jeff Bridges has seventy films under his belt – Crazy Heart, True Grit, The Fabulous Baker Boys, and many more.

But his 1998 cult classic The Big Lebowski keeps coming back to him, and a lot of others.  Bridges played the Dude – a laid-back soul in the midst of utter mayhem.  Fans saw a cool hipster.

American Zen master Bernie Glassman saw a kind of natural Buddhist, finding the flow in crazy times.  Now they’re pals.  And ready to share.

This hour On Point:  Jeff  Bridges and the Zen Buddhist join us.  The Dude and the Zen master.

- Tom Ashbrook


Jeff Bridges, Oscar-winning actor, songwriter and cofounder of the End Hunger Network. He is co-author of “The Dude and the Zen Master.”

Bernie Glassman, social activist and longtime Zen teacher. He is co-author of “The Dude and the Zen Master.”

From Tom’s Reading List

The New York Times: “The Dude and the Zen Master” is an incomplete and spotty guide to Zen philosophy. And there’s actually not much Lebowski here. But sometimes the Lebowski and the Buddhism mix in a helpful way.

Los Angeles Times: The Dude abides: Jeff Bridges to co-write book of Zen teachings.

Book Excerpt

by Jeff Bridges and Bernie Glassman
Bernie: People get stuck a lot because they’re afraid to act; in the worst case, like the master bowler, we get so attached to some end result that we can’t function. We need help just to move on, only life doesn’t wait.

Jeff: And it doesn’t help to say, I’ve got to have a mind- set with no expectations, because that’s also an expectation. So you can get into a spinning conundrum.

Bernie: There’s a little ditty that sort of sums this up.

Jeff: Hit me with it.

Bernie: Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream.
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily. Life is but a dream.
Imagine that you’re rowing down a stream and you’re trying to figure out how to do it. Do I first row with the right oar and then with the left, or is it the other way around? What does my shoulder do, what does my arm do? It’s like Joe, the centipede with a hundred legs, trying to figure out which leg to move first.

Jeff: Art Carney of the centipedes.

Bernie: He can’t get anywhere, just like the person in the rowboat. And while he’s hung up with all those questions, the stream is pulling him on and on. So you want to row, row, row your boat—gently. Don’t make a whole to-do about it. Don’t get down on yourself be- cause you’re not an expert rower; don’t start reading too many books in order to do it right. Just row, row, row your boat gently down the stream.

Jeff: Merrily, merrily.

Bernie: That’s important. An English philosopher said that whatever is cosmic is also comic. Do the best you can and don’t take it so seriously.

Jeff: When I was really young, my mom enrolled me in dance classes. “Mom, I’m too young to dance,” I told her. She kind of forced me, but I ended up loving it, and after the first lesson I came back and said, “Come on, Mom, I’ll show you the box step.” That introduced me not just to dancing but also to working with someone without having a goal; after all, you’re not going any- where, you’re just dancing. Years later, whenever she sent me off to work, she’d always say, “Remember, have fun, and don’t take it too seriously.” So I have this word for much of what I do in life: plorking. I’m not playing and I’m not working, I’m plorking. You know, play doesn’t have to be a frivolous thing. You may think of a Beethoven symphony as something serious, but it’s still being played. I think Oscar Wilde said that life is too important to be taken seriously.

Bernie: I always have this red nose in my pocket, and if it looks like I’m taking things too seriously, or the person I’m talking to is taking them too seriously, I put the nose on. It doesn’t matter what we’re doing or talking about, it doesn’t matter if we agree or disagree, the nose changes everything.

Jeff: Clownsville, man. Tightness gets in the way of everything, except tightness.

Bernie: You can’t get arrogant or pompous with a nose. I always tell people that if you get upset over what someone says, imagine him or her with a clown’s nose on and you won’t get so angry. Merrily, merrily. Our work may be important, but we don’t take it too seriously. Otherwise, we get attached to one relatively small thing and ignore the rest of life. We’re creating a little niche for ourselves instead of working the whole canvas.
Another thing about Row, row, row your boat gently down the stream. There are different streams. Some- times you come to a fall and sometimes you come to white water. Your rowing has to adapt to the situation. You can’t do the same stroke coming down a small stream as you would coming down Niagara Falls. Even if you’re only rowing down a stream, different things happen: maybe the wind changes, maybe the current, and suddenly everything’s different. So gently is really important. Don’t power yourself or blast through; rock with the way things are. Ask yourself: What’s the deal here? I want to get over there but there are things in the way. How do I flow with the situation? Do I wait or go on? If I wait, do I wait one day, one year, five years? If I go on, do I tack? Bear witness to the situation and have faith that the right thing to do will naturally arise. Other- wise I get stuck and think, I can’t do anything, every- thing’s all wrong.

Jeff: And we take it so seriously! Thoughts will change and shift just like the wind and the water when you’re on the boat, thoughts are no different than any- thing else.
Kevin Bacon and I recently worked on a move together, R.I.P.D. Just before we’d begin a scene, when all of us would feel the normal anxiety that actors feel be- fore they start to perform, Kevin would look at me and the other actors with a very serious expression on his face and say: “Remember, everything depends on this!” It would make us all laugh. On the one hand, it’s not true of course, but on the other, everything does depend on this, on just this moment and our attitude toward this moment. Speaking of boats, there are all kinds. Take a sail- boat, for example. Say I want to sail toward you, only the wind is blowing away from you. If I know how to dance with the wind, I can use its power by sailing this way, then that way, and again this way, till finally I get to you. With rowing, you’re working primarily with your arms and shoulders. But with sailing, you’re making bigger use of the wind and the waves. You’re working with more elements, including with your mind and how it perceives things, instead of relying mostly on your own muscles and—Uh-oh, I’m getting too serious, man. Give me your nose for a second. I need a nose hit. Nostrils go on the bottom, right?

Bernie: If you want to breathe.

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  • Shag_Wevera

    I enjoyed “Lebowski”, and get something different from it every time I watch.  I also enjoy the acting of Jeff Bridges.

    The excerpt from the book however, seems like navel-gazing while drifting down the stream.

  • MadMarkTheCodeWarrior

    “Your future is whatever you make it. So make it a good one…” Doc Brown – Back to the Future

  • Loring Palmer

    The Dude lives! Isn’t Zen Buddhism concerned with the access and discovery of higher consciousness and awakening to, and transcending, our psychological and social conditioning that has produced the robot that I call “me,” ie, ego? Thus the question is “who AM I? What’s really going on? What does it mean to be a human being?” This is a serious endeavor that requires a strong intention to be Free (from ego). Yet the Dude appears blasé about this. Life is all about him and his ego:  me, rowing down the stream; the “whatever,” California state of mind. With all respects to Glassman Roshi, I perceive the Dude as narcissistic rather than Buddhist. Jeff, your comment please.

  • http://www.facebook.com/agni.ashwin Agni Ashwin

    See the Zen in Tron: Legacy

  • http://www.facebook.com/garret.woodward Garret K. Woodward

    Doesn’t Jeff own a ranch/property in Montana? I’ve always looked at true inner peace when I wander through that incredible state. How does that place reflect his zen values?

  • MarkVII88

    I am a big Jeff Bridges fan and I have always enjoyed watching his work.  One of my all-time favorite Jeff Bridges roles is that of Lightfoot in 1974′s Thunderbolt and Lightfoot.  In this film, the Big Sky Country of Montana plays a major role and adds a contrasting zen-like element of tranquility to the action of the storyline.  Loved it!

  • MordecaiCarroll

    “Lotta strands in old Duder’s head”

    Does Jeff use meditation to sort through these “strands”?

  • http://www.facebook.com/our.lady.valley O.l. Valley

    Ask Roshi Bernie about his Zen in the Field: Bearing Witness in Auschwitz

  • NatHanMat

    I like Jeff Bridges.

    We can all keep searching for Truth in our lives, but there
    is only One who is that.

    “I am The Way, The Truth and The Life, and no one comes
    to the Father but by Me”
    (John 14:16)

    • Expanded_Consciousness

      “That’s your opinion, man.”

    • http://www.facebook.com/linda.rust.148 Linda Rust

      “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
      Matthew 25:20

      Jeff and Bernie, your acts of service towards those that are struggling speak volumes about what is at the heart of your faiths.  Bernie’s work with Zen food banks and Jeff’s role as the National Spokesperson for No Kid Hungry are Christ-like acts of compassion for those less fortunate than themsleves that all of us should applaud no matter whether we are followers of Zen, the Dude, Jesus Christ, etc.  I, too, am a huge fan of Jeff’s, however it is his humanitarian efforts, the help he gives all of those who work with him in the business, and his committment to his friends and family that are the main reasons for my admiration.  Good luck with this book and future projects for you both. 

  • sheryltr

    I’m a huge Jeff Bridges fan as well as “Big Lebowski” fan. Thank you Jeff for your wonderful body of work over the years. I always look forward to your next role.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/7LE6ZUJSCR2XK7JMYB4STBTR24 Dark Horse

    I like the part in the Big Lebowski, where the Dude responds to De Jesus with the quote, “That’s your opinion, man” when the De Jesus bullies the Dude, Walter and Donny. I’ve told my son to use this line when he encounters people who say hurtful or stupid things to him.

  • DrewInGeorgia

    I’m a big fan of all your work Mr. Bridges, though The Big Lebowski and TRON Legacy are two of my favorites. Every time I see the scene where Walter commits Donnie’s ashes to the sea it makes me laugh so hard I cry. You said at the beginning of the interview that you’re the dude not the zen master. I know you’re already aware but that’s a pretty darn zen thing to say. Thanks so much for your many years of inspirational work, I hope there are many more to come.

    The Dude Abides.

  • msalans

    Hi Jeff Hi Bernie,
    Jeff. you are amazing, I have LOVED every one of your films..and being Jewish AND a therapist I have studied the Kabbalah AND Buddhism, and I have to say that not only has meditation brought out the hope and creativity within me,( including publsihing my first book in 2004 and more recently, completing a novel that’s taken me 7 years to write) it has also completely healed the major depressions I experienced all through my teens and twenties. Thank you!

    M.S. from Westford MA. 

  • J__o__h__n

    What does Walter think about Chuck Hagel?

  • nsoh

    I was just curious about putting all this talk about the Dude and Zen in the context of the Coen brothers’ body of work.  I think it’s safe to say that they are one of the most cynical (sarcastic) filmmakers working (and I mean that in a positive way).  Is it possible that as loving as the Dude became, the Coen brothers were in some ways sending up precisely the kind of figures and sentiments that this conversation is taking seriously?  

  • http://twitter.com/MarkusMcLaughln Markus McLaughlin

    “The Dude” is here! :D

  • http://twitter.com/MarkusMcLaughln Markus McLaughlin

    My name is Markus McLaughlin, an unemployed Writer, a fan of Mr. Bridges and “The Dude.”  When life gets tough, I like to think of myself as Dude.  I love White Russian drinks and play WII bowling since I don’t live near a bowling alley.  I need to breathe for that is what life is all about.  I will abide, and may peace be with you…

  • johnsloth

    How about the influences of surf culture? If the Dude is Zen surely some props must go to Dave Spicolli (Sean Penn) as his predecessor. Mr. Bridges does seem to have connections with “the way” of surf, does he not? Dude? Please elaborate…

  • ToyYoda

    I studied the advaita vedantas and buddhism.  And the phrase ‘abiding nowhere’ is a very common phrase.  Another way to say that is to face all phenomena with equanamity.  So one of the most interesting consequences of this is that buddhist, zen master, advaita vedantics, and eastern mystics in general can partake in activities which to outsider would seem antithetical to their practice.  

    So, once enlightened, there are many buddhists who partake in alot of sex and have multiple sex partners.  One of famous example is Chogyam Trungpa.  Another is Adi Da.  Adi Da had his own pleasure island.  Chogyam would encourage his wife to have multiple sex partners.  In in our case here, The Dude drinks alot of alochol.

    Yet, the pedestrian practice of many eastern mystics shun physical pleasure.  So no sex, no alcohol, etc.  So how do you reconcile this incongruity?  Well, shunning physical pleasure is just one methodology of de-attaching oneself from what most people think they need, and noticing the things that you are attached to.  But once free of that illusion, that ‘need’ just can be just a preference and hence the re-uptake of physical pleasure.  but now, without the guilt, or rapacity.  In many ways, that makes enlightened people akin to psychopaths, but that’s another ball of yarn.

    • http://www.facebook.com/agni.ashwin Agni Ashwin

      How are you defining “enlightened”?

  • http://www.facebook.com/JoeyCorrao Joe Corrao

    Zen doesn’t exist, that’s why I follow it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/JoeyCorrao Joe Corrao
  • http://www.facebook.com/our.lady.valley O.l. Valley

    Jeff lives out his service to the world in conquering hunger;
    Berrnie Abides practising Zen on the Streets with homleess folks and Abides with the Dead on the killing fields of Auschwitc. Can we move the discussion to direct service to our troubled world?

  • Y. B. Shiraz

    What do either of you think about how what is gained and lost through migration of Buddhism through cultures and lands?  This is an Indian religion that has traveled to China, Korea, Japan, California, among other routes.  Even “roshi”–asserted to be a Japanese term–is an import from China from the 3-5th centuries AD.  

  • Coastghost

    Do we hear spontaneity or studied spontaneity speak?

  • victoriamm

    I always sort of saw the opposite of buddhism since the Dude was attached to the rug and got into all sort of consequences from that attachement…Also The Dude, Walter and Donny represented the Id, Ego and Super Ego. 

  • Prinya Pinyochon

    A perfect gift to watch for our zen dude, Jeff.  One of a core of buddhism teaching, http://www.gravityglue.com/?page_id=898

  • duderambler

    I understand attachment to not be of the physical sense but as attachment being synonymous with suffering; suffering caused by desires of what we don’t have and want to have, either because someone said we should have it or a commercial said we should have it, etc.  Also because we may have had something at one point and lost it and now want it back, as in The Dude’s rug, that really tied the room together.  Do you think that the rug tied more together than just the room? Does it have a higher symbolism in the movie than what we think?

  • jblz

    I heard “the Dude” read a series of affirmations during the broadcast.  I was surprised not to see them on the site.  i wanted to send them to a loved one turning 60 next month!

    • http://twitter.com/tomonline Tom Nadolski

      I’ve been looking for them too! went back to the tape, here ya go: 
      Buddhist 5 Remembrances

      I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape
      old age.

      I am of the nature to have ill health. There is no way to
      escape ill health.

      I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death.

      All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature
      to change. There is no way to escaped being separated from them.

      My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences
      of my actions; my actions are the ground upon which I stand. 

  • watchingandannoyed

    Dude, I love you.  And white russians too.  And I aspire towards Zen as much as possible.  So that means I must be doing ok, right?

  • http://www.facebook.com/gail.barbera Gail Barbera

    What was the music bit that was just played during the break in the conversation?  There was one chanting type by something cslled “Oregon Community”  and then there was another as a soft duet…. how do I see a listing of those music bits?  I’d like to hear more…  (Love this show BTW)

  • Richard Pickett

    A lot of double-talk.
    Glassman: “if a guy pees on your rug, you should be mad at him”Later he says: “you should be detached from everything”OK… which is it? If you’re detached from this rug then you wouldn’t be angry, would you?

    The Buddha taught to accept that you are a certain way so that you can deal with it, but Glassman talks as if as long as you’re not acting like something other than what you want, you’re not “zen”.

    Seems like Glassman doesn’t have the core sense of zen, which makes this book just a “let’s hit pop culture and tell them to be whatever they already are so we can make money” effort instead of one to have people seriously contemplate their lives for improvement.

    • http://www.facebook.com/agni.ashwin Agni Ashwin

      Detached anger is the key.

    • Regular_Listener

       You do hit on a serious problem here, not just for Buddhists but for all spiritual/religious people – to what extent do you practice forgiveness and acceptance?  Jesus told us to turn the other cheek when someone strikes us in the face.  I have had to deal with this too, particularly from certain individuals who will accuse you of not being a truly practicing Buddhist if you object to someone pissing on your rug (metaphorically speaking).  Being a practicing Buddhist (or anything else) does not require one to passively consent to the bad behavior of others – but it does require you to not become too attached to either that behavior or your reactions to it.  And Buddhism also calls on practitioners to try and maintain a mind of compassion and wisdom, even when wrongs are committed.  In short, Agni Ashwin is right.

  • narayanilaura

    Why Krishna Das in the background of a Zen Buddhist discussion?  Loved hearing him but slight disconnect there, as unless we are just lumping anything ‘eastern’ together. . . 

  • lynwoodruff

    The nose test that seeks nosing about and  “knowing”…

    in our dreams, and on the brink of consciousness as we awake each day ..

    .it’s an ultimate hit of inhaling and exhaling the reality of the upper story and lower story of our lives-
    and how we choose to integrate them.

    Seek the truth, and you will find integration (john 14:6)

  • trent

    I’ve always imagined politicians with a red clown nose on.Then what they’re saying makes more sense to me.

  • Regular_Listener

    Another great show, and this one totally unexpected.  I had no idea Bridges was a Buddhist, but I like his positive, accepting approach to The Dude, a performance which could be a bit of a typecasting threat to a lesser actor – but of course Bridges has a had a long and very successful career playing a range of roles.

     On to The Dude – sorry folks, I don’t think this guy is enlightened.  He drinks quite a bit (and probably ingests other substances), is deeply attached to foolish, time-wasting behaviors, does not display much wisdom, and seems to care little for Buddhism or any other religious activity.  However, he is mellow, funny, non-aggressive, and accepts other people the way they are – those are qualities one can reasonably associate with Zen or other forms of Buddhism.  And The Big Lebowski is hilarious – one of my favorites for sure!

  • 987456123

    Count how many times Jeff says “you know”

  • http://www.facebook.com/greg.null.79 Greg Null

    How long is our life? not, how long do you live ? but how long is your life?or How long is our preception,or realization. From the time  you first started reading this you began to follow the words like a stream or a river they are flowing,you leave the old and precieve the new, how long is that instant of preception one second ?1/2 second?or how long is that instant of time that is the now, last? In Buddhism we are taught to live in the present , not to dwell on the past ( felling guilt over past mistakes) but to make ourselves the best we can in the now,not to let our planes for the future keep us from living in the now.This what The Dude does he looses all his material possessions but he is still happy, because he focuses on what he has in the now. This is a good lesson for us.

  • http://www.facebook.com/greg.null.79 Greg Null

    the Big Lebowski is one of my favorite movies, here’s one reason why

  • http://www.facebook.com/greg.null.79 Greg Null

    How long is your life? not ,how long do you live? but, how long is your life? or, how long is your precepition or,realization. from the time you first started reading this you began to follow the words like a stream or a river they are flowing,you leave the old and preceive the new, how long is that instant of time?or precepition?one second or,1/2 second?or how long does the instant of time that is the now last? In Buddhism we are taught to live in the present, not to dwell in the past(feeling guilt over past mistakes)but to make ourselves the best we can in the now,and not to let our plans for the future keep us from living in  the now.this is what the Dude does in The Big Lebowski. He looses all  his worldly possessions, but he is still happy Why?  Because he focuses on what he has in the now,not on what he lost in the past,or,will not have in the future,he is happy living in the now,it is a good lesson for all of us 

  • http://www.facebook.com/sftex Tex Allen

    Well, it seems Jeff Bridges and I are on the same path.
    I’ve been wearing a clown nose every day, everywhere for 2 years:


    WHOA man…
    Tex Allen

  • Lina Thomas

    i like jeff bridges,he is a very good actor,but i have found that while your row,row,rowing your boat gently down the stream and you happen to fall out of the boat and the strong current is pulling you down,and you are about to drown,calling on budda wont save you,even being a good zen buddist wont save you only by calling O LORD JESUS,O LORD JESUS CHRIST SAVE ME!  WHEN A MAN IS ABOUT TO DIE HE WONT CALL ON budda.

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