The man who founded a religion based on 'The Big Lebowski'
People who intuitively perceive 2,500-year-old Chinese and Greek concepts, while nodding to California's detached hippie philosophy and quoting droll lines from “The Big Lebowski,” which turns 15 this year, are joining a revelatory religion that has illuminated its U.S. founder in northern Thailand.
Dubbed "Church of the Latter-Day Dude," the group also invites "mellow, unflashy chicks who hang around in their bathrobes and take baths with candles and whale sounds," says the religion's Dudely Lama, Oliver Benjamin.
"Everyone feels oppressed by society's pressures," Benjamin says.
"Everyone wishes they had more freedom. Everyone wishes they could be more carefree, to worry less about money and status."
Benjamin's church is heavily influenced by the Tao of Lao Tzu (6th century B.C.), Epicurus (341-270 B.C.) and the “The Big Lebowski,” a 1998 film written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen.
The film stars Jeff Bridges as a surreal, hilarious, ironic, marijuana-smoking, satirical, 40-something character nicknamed "the Dude.”
Asked by a woman in the movie what he likes to do for fun, the Dude replies: "Oh, you know, the usual. Bowl. Drive around. The occasional acid flashback."
The Chiang Mai-based Benjamin says he thinks everyone potentially identifies with aspects of the movie, even if they may not wholly approve of the Dude's lazy lifestyle.
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"The Dude is an extreme case, but he provides an ideal which can help you to bring a little more 'Dude' into your life, without giving up on the rat race entirely," he says.
"I grew up in the 1980s, which was a very ambitious and materialistic time -- the era of the Yuppies. Even as a youth, I found it frightening and false.
"The reason I embarked on a 10-year backpacking journey was so I could avoid being brainwashed by the machine of industry, and find the space and freedom to indulge my imagination."
Or, as the Dude exclaims in the 1998 film, set in 1990: "It's all a goddamn fake. Like Lenin said, look for the person who will benefit. And you will, uh, you know, you'll, uh, you know what I'm trying to say."
Eastern philosophy and Dudeism
The Church of the Latter-Day Dude's website is ridiculous, absurd and lots of fun.
But it also wrestles with questions and answers that have gripped humans throughout the ages.
"We contend that The Big Lebowski is actually a modern form of Taoism," Benjamin says. "Taoism is probably the most philosophical religion in the world.
"Though there are variants that are heavily superstitious, the original tradition has virtually no dogma or rules of conduct. It suggests that there is a natural way of living that people can return to, if they just learn to sense it intuitively.
"Though 'The Big Lebowski' is a story about an aging ex-hippie in Los Angeles who is trying to solve a kidnapping case, at its heart it's really a story about how to live your life, how to deal with conflict and how to maintain peace of mind in a world that's gone crazy. So there's really no distinction between the movie and Eastern philosophy -- the movie is infused with it," he says.
People who aren't cool, ultimately go crazy, Benjamin warns.
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"Following Dudeism helps you to keep in mind what's important in life, what actually makes people happy instead of what makes them insane. Dudeism has a great deal in common with Epicureanism -- the original, uncompromised first draft -- which states that simple pleasures are best and that less is actually more."
Born in 1968, Benjamin grew up in Sherman Oaks, California, and got a psychology degree from UCLA before working in graphic design for a few years and then traveling while writing three "bizarre" unpublished novels.
He's currently a freelance journalist and photographer, based mostly in Chiang Mai. In 2011, Benjamin co-authored "The Abide Guide: Living Like Lebowski" with the "Arch Dudeship" Dwayne Eutsey.
"There are now over 150,000 ordained Dudeist Priests worldwide," Benjamin says. "Most are in the U.S., but it's surprisingly popular in the UK as well."
'We're never going to compete with Christianity'
The Church of the Latter-Day Dude was actually born near Chiang Mai, in the hip resort town of Pai, where Benjamin says he became transfixed by visions.
"In 2005, I was up in Pai at a small cafe, watching 'The Big Lebowski' with a crowd of people from all over the world. I had seen the film once before and enjoyed it, but this time the experience was totally transformative.
"I felt as if I'd seen a story that put all the difficulties of modern life into a manageable perspective. And it was probably the most touchingly funny film I'd ever seen.
"Oddly enough, I'd long wanted to start a religion. During my travels I'd become an earnest student of religion and philosophy."
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Wedging his church into a world crowded by older, cash-rich religions isn't impossible, but it may remain a niche belief system.
"Money is power. Dudeists don't tend to be the upper crust of society. So we're never going to compete with the really wealthy religions like Christianity.
"Ideally, we'd like to help people find ways to earn money with less work, but of course that's always a challenge. Fifty years ago, everyone thought that robots would be doing all the work for us and people would be living lives of leisure. That this has not come to pass is surely mankind's biggest tragedy," Benjamin laments.
"One problem also is that too many people just think the Dude is a burned out hedonistic stoner. Nothing could be further from the truth. He's an intellectual with strong moral character and a lively, creative mind.
"He's also a stoner, but that's not a bad thing. Too many people confuse Dudeism with anarchism or selfish laziness. Dudeism recognizes the need for organization and rules, and the laziness it touts is disciplined and determined."
Asked if he financially benefits from having the church, Benjamin replies: "I earn a modest income from the sales of some products on the site. We have plans to expand, and when we do, those increased profits will be used primarily to help spread the word of Dudeism via events and advertising, and maybe to provide jobs to Dudes who hate the ones they currently have."
The church is evolving, and hopes more members will know each other in the biblical sense.
"Perhaps it's not surprising that the Church is about 75 percent male. But we are trying to actively bring in more women. We think that women suffer even more than men do from the dictates of modern society," he says.
Hardcore fans of the "Big Lebowski" might want to check out the multi-city Lebowski Fest, a celebration of all things related to the 1998 Coen brothers cult comedy. It's on this weekend in Los Angeles and in New York from April 19-20.
Originally published in August 2011, updated March 2013.