"The Big Lebowski" earned a dedicated cult following its 1998 release -- no other film better captured the parlance of our times than Ethan and Joel Coen's stoner-friendly comedy. The film was so transportive for one Oliver Benjamin -- aka The Dudely Lama -- that he organized a religion to officially practice the way of the Dude.
Dudeism, an ancient philosophy that preaches non-preachiness, was inspired as much by ancient Eastern philosophies as it was Jeff Lebowski -- its followers subscribe to a simple worldview that exalts the practice of kicking back and rejects materialism (save rugs that tie the room together). The tenets of Dudeism are loose and limber, much like its adherents. But it is decidedly a way of life where aggression will not stand, man.
Self-identifying as the slowest growing religion in the world, the Church of the Latter-day Dude currently boasts 150,000 ordained Dudeist Priests and an official news periodical, the Dudespaper.
The Dudely Lama took some time out from takin 'er easy to talk to the International Business Times about the search for Dudelightenment.
IBT: Can you tell me a bit about yourself and your background? You grew up in Sherman Oaks, Calif., correct? Where do you live now?
The Dudely Lama: I grew up in a typically 1980s teen movie type environment. Most of my free time was spent hanging out at the Sherman Oaks Galleria, the shopping mall where nearly every movie of that decade was filmed. In my heart I always knew there had to be more to life than shopping and playing video games. But I was happy to discover after graduating from UCLA with a useless degree that the world was infinite. I spent most of the 90s traveling the world, searching for the meaning of life. I didn't find it, of course, but I did find many good meanings. Dudeism is one of the best meanings of life I've found. I currently live in Chiang Mai because it's the friendliest and most relaxed place I've come across in my travels.
What is the job of the Dudely Lama?
I'm not so much the leader of the religion as much as an editor, like a newspaper or magazine editor. I rely on the contributions of others to keep the fire going (or roach burning, as it were) and I gently steer the dialogue to abide by the spirit of Dudeism, as much as it seems to me, and others, to be self-evident.
What did you do before you became the Dudely Lama? Do you have a family, and/or a special lady friend?
I started off as a graphic designer, but then realized it felt lousy to use my creativity to get people to buy stuff I wouldn't buy personally. After this I entered an idealistic phase in which I studied a lot of Eastern mysticism and wrote three novels, none of which have been officially published. One is available via Amazon.com. It has an unpublishable title. Then I was a travel writer for several years, which was the greatest job anyone could ever have.
Now Dudeism is my full time job, although I don't work all that hard at it. I don't have a family but I have had a longtime special lady and a family of friends. At the risk of angering the ancient Greek gods, I'd have to say that my life has been pretty great so far, if only because I avoided ever having a real job. But that's just, like my opinion man. Still, I'd like to let people know that there are many escape routes in the rat race of life.
How many times do you think you have watched "The Big Lebowski"?
About fifty. I try not to watch it too much because I'm afraid one day I'll be sick of it. But it still delights me every time.
Is Jeff Lebowski the prophet of The Church of the Latter-day Dude?
No, Jeff Lebowski is not a prophet -- he's an idealized type of character, and of course, a fictitious one. But then again, one could argue that all religious prophets are fictitious, or rather, they're based upon actual historical persons. But more to the point, Dudeism is a non-prophet religion because we have no prophecy. Our concern is with the here and now, not an afterlife or a paradise or an original sin or a golden age or a garden or anything else that diverts our attention from how to live while being alive.
In the clip from "The Way of the Dude," (a documentary in the making) you mention that you did not have an overwhelming response to seeing the movie for the first time. Through informal research over the years, I have found this is very common among the most enthusiastic fans and Lebowski aficionados (myself included). Assuming you agree that this is something of a pattern, what do you think it means that it seems to take repeated viewings of The Big Lebowski in order for it to really sink in?
Well, one could argue that any truly great work of art or fiction or philosophy must encompass more than just the instantly obvious. David Mamet said about movies that there are those that you watch and come out of the theater saying that was great! or that was terrible! and then there are those you sit through and when you come out of the theater you don't really know what to make of what just happened. It's only the latter that have any chance of having any effect on your life because there's something wholly new or unprecedented about it -- your brain doesn't know how to pick it apart or categorize the scenes and then pack it away in the attic of the mind.
"The Big Lebowski" is one of the greatest movies in history because although it takes at least three times to get it one can then watch it a hundred times and still get more out of it, never get bored. In fact, people continually write in to our online publication (The Dudespaper) and point out amazing facets that no one else ever thought about before. It seems that somehow the Coen Brothers managed to squeeze the entire human condition into a mere two hours. It's like a holy hologram.
What made you choose to include Latter-day, which is associated with Mormonism, in the title of your church?
Because the way the Mormons see it, Latter-day saints are more recent saints, as opposed to the biblical-era saints. In the same way, we see the character of the Dude as the most recent incarnation of a lineage stretching back to the dawn of civilization. And not just the Dude, per se: We try to concentrate on other modern day examples of Great Dudes in History like George Carlin, Bob Marley, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and so on. To paraphrase the Dude: We've got to stop living in the past! Saints and saviors walk among us, only they're not usually as celebrated as our so-called celebrities.
The statements on dudeism.com relate Dudeism to Eastern religions like Taoism. But at least one Lebowski scholar believes there is a stronger connection to Jewish mysticism. In her book "The Dude Abides: The Gospel According to the Coen Brothers", Cathleen Falsani argues that the Dude fits the criteria for a lamed-vovnik -- one of 36 righteous people on whom the fate of the world rests. According to the Talamud: It is said that at all times there are 36 special people in the world, and that were it not for them, all of them, if even one of them was missing, the world would come to an end. A lamed-vovnik is usually humble, and doesn't know he's a savior. Does that sound like The Dude to you?
Cathleen Falsani is a good friend of ours and actually has been bestowed the title Dudey-Sattvah. But aside from being a Dudeist, Cathleen is also a devout Catholic, and her audience is primarily Christian. So it makes sense that she'd employ more Judeo-Christian cognates when trying to dissect the Dude. And that's cool, that's cool.
We think that every religion has Dudeism in it, as well as Dude-like characters and elements. We think Jesus was one of the Greatest Dudes in History, and we think a lot of people with agendas have overlooked that fact. Jewish traditions are full of holy fools. Even Islam shows its Dudeist side in the Sufi tradition. But if you really want to find the pure roots of Dudeism, one would do best to look to the Taoist and Zen Buddhist traditions, but purged of the superstitious aspects -- like reincarnation and feng shui and stuff that New Age people like.
Do you feel that you live up to the Dudeist tenet of taking it easy? How so? What suggestions might you have for those who have difficulty taking it easy?
Although I'm the so-called leader of this religion, I'm a long way from Dudelightenment. I founded Dudeism specifically because I'd like to be more Dude and I think the world would be a better place if more people acted more like the Dude. I have a particularly hard time taking it easy.
There are several things I do to prevent my Walter side from ruining my life: the main things are meditation and relaxation techniques, which are found in every religious tradition in the world. And it's important to have certain things in your life that remind you that your thoughts need not control you. I find that just taking the time to take a breath several times a day really keeps me from going off the rails. But sometimes just a nice long walk can be the best and most accessible mediation of all.
You can find more suggestions in the book I wrote with the Arch Dudeship Dwayne Eutsey, "The Abide Guide."
Have you ever met Jeff Dowd? (or Jeff Bridges, or either of the Coen Brothers?)
I've hung out with Jeff Dowd at Lebowskifests and also at an event at Universal Studios (TBL is the property of Universal/NBC) where I interviewed several of the actors for the audience. I've never met Bridges or the Coens but I would certainly love to. I'm sure I could learn a lot from Bridges -- he seems to be one of the most Dude people on the earth. I don't think the Coens should have paid him for his role because he wasn't really acting!
When asked if he's a Dudeist, Bridges replied that he's more Buddhistly bent. He's into the Zen tradition. And while the Coens are my favorite filmmakers in the world I don't think they think very much of Dudeism. They went on record as saying "we're as surprised as you are" when a reporter asked them how they feel about a religion being based on one of their movies. Which is totally cool. As it says in the Tao Te Ching, "If it were not sufficient to be laughed at, it would not be the Tao." That's how all Dudeists should feel about Dudeism.
Have you ever encountered anyone, in person or on the Internet, who had a strong negative response to the Church of the Latter-day Dude? If so, what was their grievance?
Amazingly, no. Like the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, I really expected to get a lot of hate mail. But so far, none. I guess most religious radicals and fundamentalists realize that we're respectful of other religions and we're not out to tell anyone that they're wrong or that we're better or more righteous than they are. We just want to help people take 'er easier. However they do that is cool, so long as they don't hurt anyone else in the process.
Does dudeism.com make money? If so, how -- advertising?
No, we will probably never allow advertising on our sites. That would totally ruin the point of Dudeism. I did once participate in a VW ad but that was to help Independent movie theaters so I guess that's ok. We might consider promoting certain Dudeist things, even products, but not general advertising.
We make a modest income from the sale of some stuff in our store. Lots of other things are in the works but I'm reluctant to seem like this is a money-making endeavor. Nevertheless, we do need to feed the monkey. But we're not greedy. Just want our rug back, so to speak. It really tied the room together.
At some point though, we'd like to find a way to help our Dudeists make a living by working for Dudeism, only we don't exactly know what that would be yet. Perhaps there will be a time when Dudeist Yoga studios will be in every strip mall across the country!
How will you be celebrating 4/20? Is this a day that you think The Dude would recognize?
Of course. 4/20 is certainly a high holiday of Dudeism. And this year it falls on shabbos as well. So in the Lebowskiverse, Walter and the Dude can hang out. Unfortunately, they can't go bowling because Walter doesn't roll on shabbos. Shomer shabbos! However, though I'm a big fan of drug legalization I don't smoke pot myself. It makes me paranoid and sad. I prefer White Russians. I guess in many ways I'm only half-Dude. But I'm working on it.
Click on any of the below links for further Dudelightenment:
All photo credits Oliver Benjamin.