The Big La-Tao-Ski

Taoism in The Big Lebowski, religion in The Big Lebowski

The film prophets Ethan and Joel Cole hit a peak when they released The Big Lebowski in 1998. You already know this but it starred Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Julianne Moore and that good old dependable cowboy, Sam Elliot. If you’re not seen Elliot in 1883 you should check it out, especially if you’re into Western…or actually only if you’re into Westerns, because y’know, it’s a Western. 

I saw a wee line of text somewhere recently ‘The dude that can be named is not the eternal dude.’ You’re probably already familiar with the rhythm of that sentence but if you’re not, well, it comes from the the Tao De Ching, the foundational book of Taosim. Indeed, it’s the second line of Verse 1: The Tao that can be named is not the Tao. For full context, Verse 1 says: 

The Tao that can be spoken about
is not the eternal Tao.
The Tao that can be named
is not the eternal Tao.

The unnamable is the eternally real.Taoism Yin Yang
Naming is the origin of the ten thousand things.

Free from desire, you realize the mystery.
Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations.

Yet mystery and manifestations
arise from the same source.
This source is called darkness.

Darkness within darkness.
The gateway to all understanding.

We don’t have to get all bogged down in the mysticism of the above but it’s a fairly self-explanatory passage to open the book; Life’s a mystery and trying to explain it or understand it doesn’t explain it or understand it but everything exists in this mystery and knowing that leads to a limited kind of understanding.

Back to the film; Jeff Bridges plays ‘The Dude’, a slacker 50-something who loves bowling, smoking weed and drinking White Russians. The film opens with him writing a cheque for 0.69 cents for a bit of milk to make his last, or first, White Russian of the day. Classy. His bowling mates are John Goodman (Walter Sobchak) and Steve Buscemi (Donny). They kind of play roles that are what could be argued to be the extreme points of certain religions, with The Dude, threading the middle although does fall into dangerous territory during the film. 

Is Donny Dead?

The film is old so spoilers abound. Donny dies in the film and there’s a hilarious scene where The Dude and Walter spread his ashes. There’s a great theory that posits that Donny was dead all along, he was a dead army colleague of Walter and he died in the Vietnam War. If you’ve seen the film, Walter is obviously suffering from trauma and/or PTSD after his time in Vietnam, or something because he’s clearly unhinged and not in a good mental place and the theory goes that it’s only Walter that interacts with Donny.

It’s a great and fun theory. It got a bit of fame too and around the time of it becoming popular, The Hollywood Reporter interviewed Buscemi,. He said ‘There’s this new theory that Donny is just a figment of Walter’s imagination, like he’s an old army buddy that had died or something. It almost works.’

Yea, y’see, it almost does work but in one of the bowling alley scenes, Donny shouts to The Dude and tells him that his phone is ringing. The Dudes, says ‘thanks Donny’. But y’know too, it could be a whole Tyler Durden moment and it’s Walter that’s telling The Dude that his phone is ringing. At the time, the camera is only focused on The Dude so we don’t know, he may just be playing along with the delusions of his mentally unwell best mate. 

Since The Dude is the kind of guy who just goes with the flow of life, is he a Taoist? And if he is, what do Walter and Donny represent? First though, The Dude’s rug…

The Rug 

On returning from his shopping trip to his sparse apartment, The Dude is accosted by two thugs who are looking for money from a Mr Lebowski. During the assault one of them urinates on his rug. As the scene progresses the idiots realise they have the wrong Lebowski. The Dude’s obsession with the rug is one of the main elements here of the film, he really, really, really takes umbrage to this guy taking a slash on his rug and wants things to be righted, or brought back into balance you could say. But it’s this attachments to his rug that leads him off his usual ‘middle way.’


With his crippling love for rules, Walter would surely be a Confucianist. Albeit a fundamentalist. Early in the film we see him losing the rag and pulling a gun on poor old Smokey for stepping over the line during a bowling league game. He’s obsessed with rules is Walter. A short while earlier he admonishes The Dude for calling Woo (the guy who peed on the rug) a ‘Chinaman’ and that the correct term is ‘Asian-American.’ Later in the film we see his obsession with Jewish rules, he won’t drive a car or answer a phone on the Sabbath or even play his beloved bowling. But here’s the thing, Walter isn’t Jewish. He converted when he got married and he’s since been divorced. 

The obsession with rules in situations that we see displayed by Walter throughout the film can, for sure, be seen as a rip on Confucianism which seems to have rules for pretty much everything. There is something to be said for living by certain rules though. In the fight scene with the nihilists, Walter is cooler than a polar bear’s underpants, he defeats the nihilists and when poor Donny is dying he calming handles the situation. Not all rules are bad of course but Walter’s overall unhinged-ness and paradoxical adherence to rules means he’s a mess and shows what a life lived by too many rules can lead to.


Donny’s certainly alive but he’s not really in touch with reality. He doesn’t properly engage with his friends, he usually joins conversations a tad late and doesn’t start them and when he does engage in conversation he tends to repeat things that have already been said. He’s in this world but he’s not of it. Donny’s a far-out, Buddhist that’s meditated way, way, way too much and has broken his brain.

Donny is so out of touch with what’s going on around him that when The Dude is explaining to Walter that Lebowski gave him $20k to make the drop off to Bunny’s kidnappers (his wife), he, of course, joins in the conversation late and asks about the situation, Walter turns to him and say ‘life doesn’t stop and start at your convenience you miserable piece-of-sh**.’ Imagine Confucius giving the Buddha an earful over his ridiculous notions that nothing exists because you’re not there to experience it. 

And in the same scene when The Dude is referencing Lenin, poor old Donny hears Lennon and while The Dude and Walter are talking about the whole kidnapping thing being a possible ruse, Donny just repeats ‘I am the walrus’ again and again because he thinks the conversation is about John Lennon. He’s away with the fairies. He’s, for sure, a Buddhist that’s spent far too much time on the meditation mat and not enough engaging with the world.

Wu Wei

One important element of Taoim is Wu Wei. It has a few various translations but one that’s probably easiest to go with here is ‘action in non-action’. Now, it’s not that god-awful crap and misunderstood and mis-taught ‘surrender’ you hear of in Western spirituality. You’re not a doormat, you’re just doing what’s most natural to who you really are…man.

If someone’s coming at you with a rusty knife and wants to lob your noggin off, you don’t just stand there like gobdaw, you get the hell out of the way. It’s going with the natural flow of things. Murder is not in the natural flow of things. The Dude has this natural flow in spades, he has so much of it that he even lifts things from what would probably be adversarial types. In the shop when he’s buying milk for his White Russian, he hears George Bush saying on TV ‘we will not stand for this aggression’ something he repeats when confronting Mr Lebowski later on.

Pretty much everything connected with his relationship with Julianne Moore’s character, Lebowski’s daughter has elements of wu wei, he just goes with it with pretty much everything that she’s involved with. With the Taoist idea that the Tao is Mother Creation, the Coens would well be hinting at Divine Feminine elements here too.

Be Like Water

Another aspect of Taoism is the symbolism of water. The Tao is like water in that it fills every space and it takes the easiest route to get where it’s going. We see when Jesus Quintana, their bowling rival, is making shapes at the three amigos, he walks up to the them and says ‘Are you ready to be f*cked, man? I see you rolled your way into the semis. Dios mio, man. Liam and me, we’re gonna f*ck you up.’ and the Dude, in what is the best line of the film says ‘Yeah, well, you know, that’s just like, uh, your opinion, man.’

He’s not ruffled, he’s not annoyed, indeed, he’s smiling during the interchange. The Dude just is, y’know. He’s like water, just accepting and just himself, not adversarial, he’s happy to allow others to be themselves and he’s happy being himself. 

Religious Leader

The Dude makes for a good religious leader too, he’s got the long hair, the sandals, the robe, the relaxed, love-everyone vibe going on, the sunglasses are a nice modern addition and let’s face it, Jesus and Buddha would probably, or maybe did, smoke some weed. Not like it was illegal in their days. Sure there were barely laws back in their days…yea, there were some laws but not ridiculous laws that made plants illegal. Anyway, yea, The Dude looks like the real deal. More on Dudeism below.

Back to the Rug

We see then that The Dude’s obsession with the rug is a good representation that none of us should get attached to material things. The Dude could have or indeed should have just let the incident go when the thugs left. They left when they realised they have the wrong guy but The Dude just couldn’t leave things as they were and he had to go and get involved with finding this other Lebowski. If he’d not gotten involved, Donny wouldn’t have died, they’d not have met the crazy nihilists, he’d not have been drugged, beaten by a Sherrif, had his head repeatedly stuck in a toilet, and many other stressful events would not have occurred. He wouldn’t have gotten to have sex with Julianna Moore’s character though, so there’s at least that. 

The Dude Abides

Is The Dude a Taoist? Yea, sure, why not man. He’s certainly not a fundamentalist Confucianist obsessed with rules and regulations. He’s not some out-there Buddhist who’s in the world but not engaging with it properly. He’s in the middle. We see throughout the film that he goes mostly with the flow of life, sure he gets angry, sad and knocked out, bowled over even but for the most part he abides with life, accepts things are they are and rolls with it.

Since the film was released a ‘religion’ based on Dudeism surfaced and they define ‘the dude abides’ as ‘one should relax, enjoy the simple pleasures of life, be generally tolerant of others, maintain equanimity in the face of adversity, and encourage others to do the same’. That’s Taoism right there. So, I joined them and have been ordained. Sure, why not, man?

Dudeism Ordination

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