the Dude of The Big Lebowski (Jeff Bridges) looks like a slobbish, lazy, hippie hold-over, decades past his prime. The story even begins with a narration by The Stranger (Sam Elliot), a cowboy, the ultimate icon of a Westerner, noting:
Away out West there was a fella, fella I want to tell you about, fella by the name of Jeff Lebowski. At least, that was the handle 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.
The Stranger is unable to grasp why someone would call himself a dude—fightin’ words to a real cowboy. But appearances are, not infrequently, deceiving. Read that again and replace “Dude” with “Buddha.”
The Stranger continues:
Now this story I’m about to unfold took place back in the early nineties—just about the time of our conflict with Sad’m and the Eye-rackies. I only mention it ’cause sometimes there’s a man—I won’t say a hero, ’cause what’s a hero? But sometimes there’s a man. And I’m talkin’ about the Dude here—sometimes there’s a man who, wal, he’s the man for his time and place, he fits right in there—and that’s the Dude, in Los Angeles.
. . . and even if he’s a lazy man, and the Dude was certainly that—quite possibly the laziest in Los Angeles County, which would place him high in the runnin’ for laziest worldwide.
Read that again and try replacing “hero” with “god.”
In a Buddhist understanding, the Dude is not lazy: he just doesn’t concern himself with unimportant things, or at least important things in the Western sense. Money seems of little value to the Dude. He isn’t employed and he doesn’t care to be. He even ultimately resists the temptation of the ransom money.
On the Dude’s first meeting with Brandt (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), the Dude reveals something about himself:
Brandt: . . . You never went to college?
Dude: Well, yeah, I did, but I spent most of my time occupying various, um, administration buildings—
Dude: —smoking Thai-stick, breaking into the ROTC.
This passing comment on attending what Westerners would consider an institution of higher learning may seem mundane, but it shows us that the Dude gained his true education by participating in various sit-ins and through other nontraditional means.
Siddhartha Gautama sat under a tree 2600 years ago starving himself into an altered state of mind until he reached enlightenment, thus becoming the Buddha. Enlightenment likewise came upon Jeffrey Lebowski during one of his college sit-ins, thus transforming him into the Dude. What altered his state of mind? The Dude explains that he smoked Thai stick during the sit-ins; this was the catalyst that freed his mind and allowed enlightenment to sneak in. (That’s how it always happens to me—damned sneaky enlightenment.)
The Dude makes a similar comment to Maude (Julianne Moore):
. . . Fortunately I’ve been adhering to a pretty strict, uh, drug regimen to keep my mind, you know, limber.
We are also privy to other instances of the Dude’s visions of enlightenment, brought on by either drugs or punches to the face (enlightenment hurts) and appearing as the transitional vignettes where the Dude experiences dreams or hallucinations. It's clear through all of this that the Dude has become a Buddha.
Gautama the Buddha never claimed to be a god, only a man working toward an ideal existence, and we can only imagine that he had good days and bad. Likewise, Dude the Buddha has obstacles on his path to perfection. As Buddhism teaches, “All suffering derives from desire.” And to quote Ed Burns from the movie Confidence,
Wasn’t it Jack Kerouac that said, “Even if I have a rug I have too much”?
(Ed Burns does play a con-man, so this may need to be taken with a grain of salt.)
The Dude’s suffering begins when Woo the Chinaman (no coincidence. Free Tibet!) pees on the Dude’s rug, after which the Dude seeks out the other Jeffrey Lebowski to get his rug replaced. This other Jeffrey Lebowski, this Big Lebowski, is the intended target of the rug-peeing. The Dude’s troubles continue and his suffering increases as his desire for his rug leads to the temptation for a cut of the million dollar ransom everyone dangles in front of him.
The Big Lebowski is himself a symbol of what the Dude might have become had he followed the road more traveled, finished college and fell into the Western idea of success. In other words, the Big Lebowski is the Bizarro-world Dude and stands diametrically opposed to everything the Dude holds dear (with the exception of the use of his legs; I bet he wishes he still had that).
Consider all the stereotypical, symbolic figures in this movie: The Big Lebowski the Capitalist; Maude the Feminist; Smokey the Pacifist; Treehorn the Pornographer; Walter the Bellicose Vietnam Vet; Malibu Chief of Police the Fascist Cop; Karl Hungus the porn star/“Nazi” nihilist—all desire something from the Dude. Originally, the Dude just wanted his rug.
Gautama the Buddha was highly sought after for his wisdom during his life. Had the Dude not placed so much value on his rug and—as an extension of this first misplaced value judgment—not sought to gain a cut of the ransom for helping retrieve the million dollars, Dude the Buddha would have had no reason to meet and be tasked by all of these individuals. They would have had no chance to witness his example and teachings.
The only two who encounter the Dude without benefiting from his Dudeness are Donny, who dies, and Jesus Quintana, the pederast. Neither desires anything from the Dude. Buddhism offers enlightenment to those that seek it. Donny and the Jesus have no use for such things. Donny is a dullard and the Jesus (not Hay-soos, mind you) is the rather blatant symbol and poster boy for the perversions that have befallen other major religions, scandals that—while not unknown—have not so far become prevalent in Buddhism.
Quintana: You said it, man. Nobody fucks with the Jesus.
Buddha’s life was a constant struggle for perfection. Bowling, a seemingly simple game where a big ball is hurled at ten wooden pins—just knock them down twelve times in a row—is a symbol for this same goal. Coen brother films often use circular symbols or themes, so using a perfectly round ball to achieve a perfect 300 game, in rented shoes no less, is actually representative of Buddhist principles. It’s more a competition with one’s self than with an opponent.
(It’s worth noting that many of your better bowlers have the same dimensions as the Buddha. This would have been tough to pull off with a group of bodybuilders; they’re too self-involved and superficial. Very un-Dude. But I digress.)
This also explains why the Dude has a picture of Richard Nixon on his wall. Nixon, who had a bowling alley installed in the White House, is pictured in the back swing of his approach. The Dude thus shares a quest with the archetype of his youthful grievances. It is no stretch to speculate that if it weren’t for Nixon there would have been no sit-ins by the young Lebowski and consequently no Dude. His placement of this iconic photo on the wall of his home is another example of an enlightened, forgiving mind. Plus, it’s damned ironic.
In the end, the Dude is left with no rug, a wrecked car (Creedence tapes intact, thank Buddha!), and a dead friend. As Buddhism explains, the pursuit of material possessions is always an empty venture (there never was any ransom money, in fact).
Appropriately, most of the plot elements are left unresolved—a pretty clear reference to the famous Zen style of questioning (like the sound of one hand clapping) intended to empty your mind. In the final scene the Stranger leaves the viewer to ponder the comment,
The Dude abides. I don’t know about you, but I take comfort in that. It’s good knowin’ he’s out there. The Dude. Takin’ ’er easy for all us sinners. . . .
Consider in this context the way the Dude gets his “lady friend” pregnant but doesn’t have to be involved with the rearing of the child—akin to the circumstances in the life of Gautama, who left his wife and child to become the Buddha. Apparently, once you get your priorities right and achieve enlightenment, you too can get laid without having to worry about responsibility. Not bad for a chubby unemployed guy in jellies.