The Dude, the Tao and the Dharma

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The DudeI suppose it all began with Benjamin Hoff. Hoff was one of the first contemporary writers to attempt to distill Taoism in a lighthearted form for Westerners when he wrote The Tao of Pooh in 1981, a very successful book still in print. It was on the New York Times bestseller list for 49 weeks. A decade later, he followed with The Te of Piglet, less successful (its message somewhat diluted by Hoff’s extraneous political and social commentary) but also still in print.

Not that Hoff was the first Westerner to attempt to explain Asian philosophy and religion. That goes back to Marco Polo. However, it really got a head of steam in the late 19th century when there was a flurry of translations of almost all of the Asian classics, from the Vedas to Zen stories. A lot of these translations are still in print, although newer, better ones are available. And in the 1950s and 60s came a second wave, first as the beatniks, then the hippies adopted some of these beliefs. Sometimes even seriously and sincerely.

But not everyone was Jack Kerouac. Most of these books were serious stuff: the work of scholars and translators determined to open the intellectual doors for Western minds. Similar efforts were undertaken to Anglicize Greek, Roman, Hebrew, Sumerian and other classics. It was an intellectual exercise, which often only confounded the average worker.

In 1971, Be Here Now, a seminal work by Baba Ram Dass (aka Richard Alpert) presented the ideas of Asian philosophy in a graphically entertaining manner (it’s still in print). It did a remarkably good job of clarifying and distilling a lot of ideas and practices. However, it was still stuffier than Hoff in its presentation of those ideas.

Hoff made it fun, made it easy to read. He disarmed readers by explaining everything in comments and discussions by the lovable A. A. Milne characters, and who can’t love a cuddly teddy bear discussing the meaning of life with a stuffed toy pig? The dialogues went like this:

Rabbit’s clever,” said Pooh thoughtfully.
“Yes,” said Piglet, “Rabbit’s clever.”
“And he has Brain.”
“Yes,” said Piglet, “Rabbit has Brain.”
There was a long silence.
“I suppose,” said Pooh, “That that’s why he never understands anything.”

We were collectively charmed. It didn’t dumb down the ideas, but rather cast them in a friendly, non-threatening form. And within it, Hoff made some solid, serious points. Like these:

“A clever mind is not a heart. Knowledge doesn’t really care, wisdom does.”
The wise know their limitations; the foolish do not.”
“If people were superior to animals, they’d take good care of them,” said Pooh.”
“The honey doesn’t taste so good once it is being eaten; the goal doesn’t mean so much once it is reached; the reward is no so rewarding once it has been given. If we add up all the rewards in our lives, we won’t have very much. But if we add up the spaces *between* the rewards, we’ll come up with quite a bit. And if we add up the rewards *and* the spaces, then we’ll have everything – every minute of the time that we spent.”

Any work that brings new ideas and concepts, that makes us examine our lives and questions our standards is, generally speaking, good. His book was not without its flaws. He also meandered into the depths and seemed to get lost, and then stumbled into the saccharine shallows. He was negative about other religions and philosophies. That doesn’t detract from its strengths, but it did polarize some readers.

Since Hoff, explaining Asian religion and philosophy to an inquiring but generally undiscerning Western audience with a short attention span conditioned by watching TV became a growing business that continues today. It quickly became a profitable exercise in selling, not simply teaching, by canny entrepreneurs who knew we were gullible for magic and woohoo. We eagerly accepted at face value all sorts of claptrap such as reiki, feng shui, ayurveda, and acupuncture as if these were the ancient philosophies incarnate rather than just woohoo. Quackery always has a market and the lines between actual teaching and its detritus was blurred.

What about those confusing schools? It seems like every Asian philosophy or religion has a dozen attendant schools that go off in different directions. One teacher says something another contradicts, one demands practices another eschews. And those robes – can’t we all just wear yoga pants? Doesn’t putting a Home Sense plastic status of the Buddha in your garden make one a Buddhist faster than all that bothersome meditation? Doesn’t getting a tattoo of an Om symbol make me, like, religious, man, without all that boring reading?

Taoism without the shiny pseudoscience and pseudohealth bangles and baubles is a tough sell. The book at the centre of it all – the Tao Te Ching – is confusing, obscure, difficult and mysterious. Not to mention the surprising number of translations available (it’s said to be the second-most translated book in the world) – which one is the best, the clearest, the most accurate? While a good version should produce an “aha!” moment, that sudden burst of insight and light, many Westerners who read it get a WTF? moment instead.

Look at this, the first two lines, translated in 1891 by James Legge:

The Tao that can be trodden is not the enduring and
unchanging Tao. The name that can be named is not the enduring and
unchanging name.
(Conceived of as) having no name, it is the Originator of heaven
and earth; (conceived of as) having a name, it is the Mother of all
things.

Clunk, clunk. Here’s a 1905 translation:

The Tao which can be expressed is not the unchanging Tao; the name which can be named is not the unchanging name.
The nameless is the beginning of the Heaven Earth; the mother of all things is the nameable.

And this from 1919:

The Tao that can be understood cannot be the primal, or cosmic, Tao, just as an idea that can be expressed in words cannot be the infinite idea.
And yet this ineffable Tao was the source of all spirit and matter, and being expressed was the mother of all created things.

Fast forward to Stephen Mitchell’s more comprehensible 1995 version:

The tao that can be told
is not the eternal Tao
The name that can be named
is not the eternal Name.
The unnamable is the eternally real.
Naming is the origin
of all particular things.

And A. S.Kline’s 2003 translation:

The Way – cannot be told.
The Name – cannot be named.
The nameless is the Way of Heaven and Earth.
The named is Matrix of the Myriad Creatures.
Eliminate desire to find the Way.

And the more casual, streetwise 2004 version of Ron Hogan:

If you can talk about it,
it ain’t Tao.
If it has a name,
it’s just another thing.
Tao doesn’t have a name.
Names are for ordinary things.

And this from a 2010 translation by William Wilson (which I recently bought at Chapters, in Ottawa bringing to six or seven the versions I own):

The Way that can be articulately described
is not the Unchanging Way.
The name that can be said out loud
is not the Unchanging Name.
With your mouth opened, and things left undefined,
you stand at the beginning of the universe.
Make definitions and you are the measure of all creation.

Each version is similar, yet each expresses a complex idea using different words – which means that each is a slightly different interpretation. So who’s right? or the most accurate? And that’s just a short snippet out of 81 chapters from which you can extrapolate the difficulty of trying to pick the right edition for your own use. Now, keep the following version from the Dude Te Ching in mind, because we’ll come back to it:

Dudeness that can be blathered about is very undude.
Names we self-apply to things are only handles for what abides.
A tumbling of tumbleweeds is all that’s really out there.
A rug is a fabrication which ties our ruminations together.

Which may not be translation-accurate, but it certainly is comprehensible. As long as you get the reference to the rug. Some pre-viewing of the film is required.

No matter how much we need it, philosophy is, in general, a tough sell to Westerners these days. Asian philosophy is doubly so because Westerners lack the cultural and educational reference points to fit it comfortably into their worldview. Taoism, like Zen and Buddhism, requires thought, study, contemplation and discernment- our lifestyle isn’t geared to that. It takes work,and we’re all about getting out of the office ASAP and partying. Looking at things seriously just detracts from binge-watching Survivor or whatever was the latest, highly-scripted “reality” TV show. Or Facebook time. Or shopping at the mall. It’s hard enough to keep track of the brand names of sneakers, let alone all those confusing Chinese masters.

Westerners want quick, easy answers, instant gratification and a sprinkle of New Age magic in their tissue-thin appreciation of Asian or philosophic anything. And almost daily fewer people are attracted by reading or studying as the road to knowledge and enlightenment. Enlightenment should be as easy as taking a pill, right?

Enter Dudeism.

Dudeism popped up in 2005, the brainchild of journalist Benjamin Oliver. He uses characters and dialogue from the 1998 Coen Brothers’ movie, The Big Lebowski, as the vehicle to promote a mixed-bag philosophy that has Taoism as its fulcrum, but really is a slurry of ideas and notions from a wide range of sources including classical Latin and Greek authors.

Surprisingly, the film wasn’t very successful when it was first released, but it has evolved into a cult favourite since, spawning books, websites, festivals and, yes, a religion. Thus Dudeism was born from pop culture.

The main protagonist of the film is the anti-hero, Jeffrey Lebowski, whose laid-back lifestyle and penchant for bowling (although we never see him actually bowl in the film) and bubble baths inspired Oliver (and some other writers) to cobble together a Western “religion” that offers free ordination and advice on its website. It’s a bit of tongue-in-cheek fun and seriousness in equal doses.

It is self-described as:

Probably the earliest form of Dudeism was the original form of Chinese Taoism, before it went all weird with magic tricks and body fluids. The originator of Taoism, Lao Tzu, basically said “smoke ’em if you got ’em” and “mellow out, man” although he said this in ancient Chinese so something may have been lost in the translation.
Down through the ages, this “rebel shrug” has fortified many successful creeds – Buddhism, Christianity, Sufism, John Lennonism and Fo’-Shizzle-my-Nizzlism. The idea is this: Life is short and complicated and nobody knows what to do about it. So don’t do anything about it. Just take it easy, man. Stop worrying so much whether you’ll make it into the finals. Kick back with some friends and some oat soda and whether you roll strikes or gutters, do your best to be true to yourself and others – that is to say, abide.

Abiding might be called the centrepiece of the philosophy (not so the rug, which plays a more prosaic role in the film). It’s from a line in the film, “The Dude abides.” It might be also written as “take it easy,” “que sera, sera” or just “whatever.” It comes, we are told on another site, from Ecclesiastes 1:4: “One generation passes away, and another generation comes: but the earth abides forever.”

Meaning that the Dude, just like Earth, can alter weather and chaos around him while remaining the same.

It’s like the Taoist wu wei or “actionless action” – non-striving to achieve. Abide as a verb, is usually transitive taking an object (as in “I can’t abide his intransigence…” when talking about local politicians), but in this use it is intransitive, suggesting a sort of universality. Sojourning in the time-space continuum. As Stephen Mitchell translated it from chapter 2 of the Tao Te Ching:

Therefore the Master
acts without doing anything
and teaches without saying anything.
Things arise and she lets them come;
things disappear and she lets them go.
She has but doesn’t possess,
acts but doesn’t expect.
When her work is done, she forgets it.
That is why it lasts forever.

So the Master abides, we’re told. And so should we all.

As religions go, Dudeism isn’t. That is, if you define a religion as having a superhuman, supernatural or divine entity as its focus and guide, then Dudeism fails to fit the definition because it’s not about deities. It is a philosophy. Or maybe a lifestyle. Or both. But so was Buddhism when it began, but several schools accumulated all sorts of supernatural balderdash in the intervening two-and-a-half millennia, so who knows where Dudeism will go, gods-wise.

Is Dudeism really Taoism in a new coat? A Western reinterpretation of the classic Chinese philosophy? Maybe. Maybe not. That question is actually the subject of a lengthy – but fascinating – essay by Jimmy Brandt, who concludes:

Dudeism represents an exciting new form of religion that marries popular culture, in the form of a cult film, with ancient religious and philosophical concepts. I have no doubt in my mind that this religion has an interesting future both behind and ahead of it.

I, too, so hope. As one of the more recent of the 450,000-plus ordained priests of Dudeism, I have to hope it has a future, otherwise I’m out the costs of printing the certificate in colour on my inkjet printer and the books I just ordered. Yes, I know: joining a religion is not what you might expect from a skeptic such as myself, but I too was inspired by a recent viewing of the film. And the eerily coincidence of finding a vinyl Dude toy at a yard sale the next day. A toy that looks remarkably like me, albeit without the grey and the paunch. I mean, doesn’t that just shout “meaningful” at you?

I’m not sure the books – I already have the Dude Te Ching and the Tao of the Dude by Oliver Benjamin, with more on the way – will have the same general attraction and readership that Hoff’s books had. Benjamin has no cute stuffed animals like Pooh to make his Dudeist talking points, and as companions go, the Dude’s are far from friendly. Walter is the anti-Pooh. Donny is maybe the meta-Eeyore. None of whom are cuddly sidekicks. In fact, they appear more like ideological opponents in many scenes.

But then Hoff didn’t have the internet to help spread his word. Or me, and here I am, spreading the gospel of Dudeism already. And buying books (okay, I do that anyway, and lots of it…).

I hope that, in time, and with diligent study, I too will be able to abide with the grace and style of the masters. Want to join my parish?

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