• The Dharma of “The Princess Bride”: What the Coolest Fairy Tale of our Time Can Teach Us About Buddhism and Relationships

    In 2015, the statistical website FiveThirtyEight conducted a survey of the 25 most rewatchable movies of all time. The Princess Bride was number six — tied with The Godfather. It’s one of my very favorite films, and since it came out in 1987 I’ve watched it many, many times. But perhaps not as many as Ethan Nichtern.  A teacher in the Shambhala Buddhist tradition, Nichtern loves the movie so much he not only regularly quotes it in his Dharma talks, he wrote a book about the connections between the film and Buddhism, aptly titled The Dharma of “The Princess Bride.”

    Calling himself “a Buddhist kid,” Nichtern grew up in the Tibetan Tantric heritage under the teachers Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche and Pema Chödrön, and he started meditating in his teens. He is the author of The Road Home: A Contemporary Exploration of the Buddhist Path and One City: A Declaration of Independence, and has been teaching dharma since his early 20s. While not yet 40, he’s clearly as experienced as he is witty — he refers to Buddhism as “Awake-ism,” as the word the Buddha simply means Awakened One. But like so many teachers of Buddhism today, Nichtern doesn’t seem very concerned with the finer and most crucial points of what Gotama the Buddha actually taught, thereby spreading much foolishness under the guise of wisdom. (Forget the finer points, some of the most basic stuff is ignored: Nichtern relates a night in 2011, after he’s been named a senior Dharma teacher with “a fancy Sanskrit title,” when he goes out with friends in Williamsburg and gets drunk; the fifth Buddhist precept, to be observed by monastics and lay Buddhists alike, is to “abstain from drinking liquor, wine, and other intoxicating beverages.” So, technically speaking, a Buddhist who drinks alcohol is either unaware of the rule or a hypocrite. Just saying.)

    But this isn’t an essay on what the Buddha taught, it’s a book review, and Nichtern is indisputably a good writer. His prose often flows with the aphoristic ease of Alain de Botton or Adam Phillips, with decidedly Taoist sentences like, “The only way to realize what you want to say is to start by knowing that you have no idea what you’re talking about,” and, “Ignorance does not come from any lack of knowledge. It comes from the blind assumption of knowledge.” Nichtern is undeniably wise, and many will find his book helpful, as he’s evidently an effective guide for what most people want, which seems to be relationship advice.

    Buddhism, according to Nichtern, is actually all about relationships. This may sound counter-intuitive, since people often come to Buddhist retreats to get away from people. But as Nichtern writes, “relationships, and our struggles with them, are the crux of any spiritual path.” No one, after all, comes to meditation looking to find their breath; they’re looking for a more harmonious life. And life, Nichtern reminds us, is about interdependence. With this in mind, he uses the relationships of Princess Buttercup and Westley, of Fezzik and Inigo Montoya, and the other wonderful characters of The Princess Bride to illustrate Buddhist qualities and concepts.

    Nichtern starts by saying the mind is like “a movie theatre with a seating capacity of one,” a deft set up for a book using a film to explore the science of mind, which is what Buddhism is. Fully embracing popular culture, he frequently uses terms like “frenemy” and writes statements like: “To ghost or not to ghost, that is the question.” His easy-going, informal style will certainly appeal to a greater number of contemporary readers. Yet perhaps it’s too intimate, especially when he indulges in his personal experiences of dating, which sometimes feels like reading someone’s diary.

    Steeped in the lingo of popular Dharma teachers, Nichtern regularly drops phrases like: “felt experience,” “teachable moment,” and “show up” — the overuse of this last phrase might provoke cringing. For better or worse, The Dharma of “The Princess Bride” is essentially a self-help book, but it’s at its most brilliant and enjoyable when Nichtern leaves the relationship guru behind and looks through the lens of The Princess Bride to point out parallels with Buddhist concepts.

    For instance, when he explores how the movie’s three bad guys, Vizzini, Count Rugen, and Prince Humperdink, represent the “three poisons” of Buddhism: delusion, hatred, and greed, respectively. The way to overcome these defilements is to “find your inner Fezzik,” to be the friend who is always generous enough to carry you up the Cliffs of Insanity, nurse you back to health after a bender, or find four white horses at just right time. The Buddha might not approve of Nichtern’s focus on romance, but he would certainly approve of his emphasis on the importance of friendship.

    Once the Buddha’s attendant Ananda approached the Buddha and stated, “Good friendship is half of the spiritual life.” And the Buddha replied, “Not so, Ananda. Friendship is the entire spiritual life.” Through dissecting the friendship between the film’s characters, Nichtern presents the Buddha’s message that friendship is indeed the entire spiritual life. He relates that once a week, after his morning meditation and yoga, he meets with his friends over coffee. He doesn’t consider their time together to be after his spiritual practices, however, but an intrinsic part of his spiritual practice.

    Nichtern also uses wonderfully mixed metaphors from the film, such as when referring to desire as the “potential Fire Swamp of disappointment and addictive behaviors.” Or his use of “Trumperdink,” which is just so perfect. Then of course there’s Westley’s admonition to Buttercup that “Life is pain,” which is almost the Buddha’s First Noble Truth verbatim. But the best correlation is perhaps when Nichtern writes that Westley’s advice to Inigo just before their magnificent sword fight — “Get used to disappointment” — could “be the mantra offered at the start of any meditation retreat.” Well said.

    If Nichtern stuck to this kind of commingling, the book would have been much more impressive. When he delves into dating advice, or worse yet, rises into righteousness, saying we need to do this or people should do that, it’s tough to bear. That said, and despite my resistance to Nichtern’s sugarcoated interpretation of the Buddha’s teaching, The Dharma of “The Princess Bride” is still a delightful book. It’s a need-to-read for fans of The Princess Bride, and, sure, anyone who’s into Buddhism will dig it, too.