Thursday, February 16, 2012

INTERVIEW: Oliver Benjamin, Founder of Dudeism & Author of "The Abide Guide: Living Like Lebowski"

I lived most of my life as a practicing Christian. In recent years I've run into crises and conflicts with my faith. Also in recent years, I've noticed that the world we live in has completely lost its collective mind. Just look at the political landscape. I look around and see people killing each other over faiths and religions they don't even practice. I know someone who continually tortures herself needlessly over her faith. Everyone knows the world is all messed up, but no one knows what to do about it. For a time, I tried to do something about it - I even started a non-profit organization to "do something".

But, despite my best efforts and the best efforts of people everywhere, everything is still crazy. The world still can't get along. People still treat each other badly. Religions still argue and none of them will ever be able to prove anything, which is just part of it, I guess.

As I've come to these realizations, I've often found solace in my all-time favorite movie, "The Big Lebowski". The flick has become a cult classic in recent years with much fanfare about the philosophy of The Dude; just take it easy, man. An annual festival to celebrate all things "Dude" and a legitimate religion have been created based on the character and film.

When you watch "The Big Lebowski", at first you just think The Dude (played by the great Jeff Bridges) is just a funny slacker pothead. But the more you watch him, the more you realize something else is really going on here.

The Dude treats his friends right. The Dude has what we all know is the proper attitude towards money; just get enough to live and get by, doing what makes you happy. The Dude doesn't stress. The Dude doesn't worry about things he can't do anything about.

He just...abides. He is.

When my realizations about the world around me - about politics, religion, etc...you know, the things that DIVIDE AND STRESS us - reached the breaking point for me, I started to think more deeply about The Dude and his approach to life. And I began to see not only the beauty, but also the profound wisdom in it.

I became an officially ordained Dudeist priest through the Church of the Latter Day Dude.

And then came "The Abide Guide: Living Like Lebowski", by Oliver Benjamin and Dwayne Eutsey - the founders of Dudeism. I figured it would be a fun book to read. It was, of course. But there was more to it than that. More depth. A great deal of wisdom. And I realized that this was the only way to approach life. This was the only way to approach faith.

Let me provide a disclaimer that while I am working through issues with my personal faith, I am not asserting that you need to adjust or abandon your faith as you learn about, investigate, and perhaps ultimately subscribe to Dudeism. Dudeism doesn't exclude Christianity, Buddhism, Mormonism, Islam, or anything else. You can be a Dudeist and any - or none - of those things.

Dudeism is an approach to those things. An approach to life itself. It's how you look at it. How you handle it. How you be. How you...ABIDE.

It was my great pleasure to interview Oliver Benjamin in July, just before the publication of "The Abide Guide: Living Like Lebowski". He was a guest on my Dirty Roots Radio Show to promote the release of the book.

I intended immediately to transcribe the interview and share it here, but life happened. So, here, seven months later, is the interview. I figure better late than never. Seems like a Dudely approach, no?

Enjoy.

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I don’t know that I’ve ever had the opportunity to talk to someone who actually established a religion.

Yeah, there aren’t too many of us around these days

Do you actually call it a “religion”?

Yes, it’s absolutely a religion. We’re accustomed to defining religion narrowly in the west, but all over the world, there are several different approaches to religion. Some are theistic; that is they have a god, or don’t have a god. Some are philosophical. For instance, a lot of people call Buddhism a philosophy rather than a religion, but if you asked a Buddhist that they’d probably disagree.

Yeah, Dudeism is a real religion. We’re non-theistic. We don’t make any claims about who’s in control in the great beyond; we don’t talk about afterlife-type things. We’re concerned with the here and now and making life a more easy thing to lead.

We use the example of Jeff Lebowski, a character from “The Big Lebowski”…”The Dude”…as the icon that we follow; our main teacher.

For anyone that’s not familiar with all of this, let’s take it back to square one and fill them in on “The Big Lebowski” and why it’s such a beloved, important thing.

“The Big Lebowski” came out in 1998 and it was completely ignored by audiences and slaughtered, more or less, by critics. Everyone was amazed that the Coen Brothers, who before that had made Fargo and won an Academy Award and been the darlings of indie cinema, had made such a mess of a film.

But, as with all really complex and fascinating and far-out things, it took a while for people to figure out what it was all about. They’re still figuring it out. The thing about “The Big Lebowski” is it’s such a deep film, it covers so many aspects of the human condition, that even people who have seen it a hundred times are still sort of ferreting – or marmot-ing, as it were – the details and things of the film.

It’s an endless source of enjoyment and inspiration in the same way that the Bible is for many people, or the Torah, or the Koran, or the Upanishads if you’re Hindu. I mean, it’s basically an incredibly deep and broad piece of art and philosophy. Most people just think it’s a stoner comedy, but it’s so much more than that.

There’s been a lot happening around “The Big Lebowski” in the last few years. We have the Lebowski Fest and there have been a few books written about the philosophy/theology of “The Big Lebowski”. But now you, and Dwayne Eutsey, your co-founder of The Church of the Latter Day Dude, have this new book, “The Abide Guide: Living Like Lebowski”.

You’ve probably noticed in the last ten to twenty years that the self-help aisles of bookstores have gotten swollen with answers to the life, the universe, and everything. As an indication of how effective they are, people keep buying more and more of them. So, obviously, none of them really has the answers, because people read them and toss them away and get a new one. A lot of people contend that the whole self-help industry is just one big carrot on a stick to keep making you buy new inspirational books and tapes and videos and DVDs.

But what we contend is that basically you can get all of your spiritual self-help from watching “The Big Lebowski” and we show through our book how “The Big Lebowski” talks about ethics, politics, interpersonal relationships, meditation, and the proper attitudes towards money, towards anxiety, towards how we should look at life every day.

And we break it down: Dudeist Yoga, Dudeist Martial Arts, Great Dudes in History, the Dude Testament – which basically takes apart the movie, scene by scene, and explains all the different lessons of each scene and what you can learn from every scenario that The Dude is in. It’s an all-encompassing book. It’s like a religious book, in a way, that you can look at and get all of your spiritual needs from, we believe.

“The Big Lebowski “ is more than a comedy, but it definitely is a hilarious movie. And when people see these books and hear that a guy like me is an ordained priest as part of it, I wonder if people who aren’t really into it, at first glance think it’s a tongue-in-cheek funny thing.

Oh, of course they do. How many religions or things of this depth have been created around a movie? You have the “Rocky Horror Picture Show” fans. But people say, “Hey, that’s crazy man. Why do you make a religion about a movie?” But other religions are based on stories or based on books. They didn’t have movies in the time of Jesus Christ, so they made a book about it. If Jesus Christ came out today, they’d probably make a movie about him and have merchandise and develop books and self-help kind of stuff around that.

So, while there is an element of fun to all this, it is definitely more than that.

Well, the thing is, it’s both. Obviously a lot of people who get ordained at the Church of the Latter Day Dude just do it for laughs. They see it online, they think it’s really cool, they like the movie, and it’s a neat thing to be able to consider yourself a reverend. Maybe 80-90% of the people are like that.

But a good solid 10-15% is really, for lack of a better word, religious about it. They take it really seriously. We get a lot of people contributing to our website and writing articles for The Dudespaper, our official publication. Our book features contributions from some other Dudeist priests that we admire and that have really taken the lessons from the movie to heart.


Let’s get a little more specific into the book. Who are some examples of what you call “Great Dudes of History”?

We contend that Dudeism has existed since the dawn of civilization. Probably one of the first Great Dudes in History was Lao Tzu, who is the founder of Taoism, which is practiced mostly in China. The [Taoist] book, “The Tao Te Ching”, is basically very Dudeist. It basically tells you how to live life naturally, to go with the flow, and not take things to seriously and live in a natural, harmonious way with your surroundings and with others.

We also think that before the church got hold of it and turned it into a big business, the message of Jesus Christ was a very Dudeist, very pure, very easy going thing. The whole Sermon on the Mount speech; don’t worry about things, the lilies of the field don’t worry so much, why should we?

Aside from that, there are also lots of contemporary people like Bill Hicks and Jerry Garcia. There’s a whole bunch you can see on our website, as well. AS a joke we even include some fictitious characters like Snoopy.

A lot of religions have laws or practices, like the Ten Commandments in Christianity. Tell me some of the tenets of Dudeism.

Well, the thing is, Dudeism is not fascist, man. We’re not all about having a long list of rules and things you have to do to be a Dude. Dudeism is an attitude. It’s an attitude that we try to inculcate in our daily lives. It’s basically all about being as “Dude” as possible. What that means is, in the same way as Buddhism, Taoism, a lot of these Eastern philosophies, it’s all about mindfulness and not being egotistical and not being grasping and materialistic; all of these things that we know to be “un-Dude”, but that we do anyway because society sort of taunts us, that we don’t have enough or don’t buy enough or aren’t cool enough or good looking enough or our hair isn’t cut the right way.

There’s so much pressure to be “un-Dude” and what we’re trying to do is invert the hierarchy and say, “Hey, it’s really better for everybody if we all just take it easy, man, and don’t try so much. Don’t worry so much.” We consider it kind of a communicable ease, instead of disease.

We’re trying to bring back being kind and cool. But cool in the sense of being calm, not in the sense of being hip or better than somebody else. We want to encourage a lot of the aggression in society to be seen as anathema, to be seen as something bad, instead of what the media would have us believe; that it’s really great and that cool guys or tough guys finish first.

Tell me about the formation of all this, the religion and the book. How did you get from seeing the movie for the first time to the point of starting a religion and talking to people about this new book you’ve written?

Very soon after graduating university in 1990, I worked for a few years as a graphic designer and I fairly quickly realized that there’s much more to life than just sitting behind a computer all day and just making logos. So I saved up some cash and discovered the beauty and fascination of backpacking travel; really low-end, cheap travel. It’s something that Americans hadn’t done much until more recently, but it was much more popular among the British.

There are all the expat communities and people studying fascinating philosophical things all over the world. I spent many, many years reading as many books as I could, trying to make sense of what life was all about. I studied yoga, meditation, the Himalayas, martial arts, different kinds of mysticism. Finally I came to the point where none of it was really all that right. The lessons were from thousands of years ago. And they were all couched in lots of hocus pocus and mumbo jumbo and stuff that I didn’t really think was very applicable.

I sort of gave up for a while and maybe a few years after giving up, I was watching the film in Thailand. I was in a small town, sitting with a lot of other people, and there was a sense of community and laughter that was washing over the crowd, maybe facilitated by the beers we were drinking in the middle of the day. But, never the less, it was really an amazing feeling to watch this movie with all of these people from all over the world and to have this sense that everybody in the world has these same issues, these same worries, these same anxieties. These things that bedevil us.

The Dude didn’t have that. That’s what was so remarkable. Here’s a heroic character who is the opposite of what we think of as a hero. He doesn’t even try to do anything. And I saw that it was really heroic and spiritual to be like that. To basically get off of the rat race and not try so much; just enjoy the pleasures of just existing and living from day to day. As I investigated more, I found that more people felt that way. Not only that, but there’s been a long history of that. It’s been the solid core of every religious movement, until it gets co-opted by the businesses and stuff.

How can folks find out more about Dudeism, the book, etc.?

The website is www.Dudeism.com. You can get ordained as a Dudeist priest and learn more about Dudeism and the history and philosophy of it. If you want to get more into the philosophy, we have an official publication, The Dudespaper ( www.Dudespaper.com). Anyone is welcome to contribute material, they’re deepest thoughts to share with the world and make the world a better place.

We’re going to be opening up Abide University soon. It’s going to really be an institution of higher learning. We’re also working on a documentary called “The Way of the Dude”, which is being done by an Italian documentary company.

We’re looking to expand Dudeism. Lots of Dudely things in the works.

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Ryan Mifflin is the host of Dirty Roots Radio, a "Quentin Tarantino-ization of a spaghetti western style old-school record show" featuring renegade country, vintage gospel, raw blues, greasy soul, punk, and funk. Tune in to Dirty Roots Radio every Thursday night from 8 to 10 p.m. (central) on WGRN 89.5 FM. Listen online from anywhere in the world at www.wgrn.net.

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