Ethan Nichtern was nine when The Princess Bride hit the big screen 30 years ago. He saw the film back then because of a family connection — Nichtern's father was best friends with actor Christopher Guest, aka Count Rugen, aka the Six-Fingered Man.
Though it did poorly at the box office, the Rob Reiner film has gone on to quotable cult classic status. And for Nichtern, a teacher in the Shambhala Buddhist tradition, it became a lifelong passion, and the basis for his new book, The Dharma of The Princess Bride: What the Coolest Fairy Tale of Our Time Can Teach Us About Buddhism and Relationships.
Nichtern says he's had a lot of people tell him they have no idea how to be in relationships, and look to him as though his Buddhist studies mean he knows how to do them well. (His last book, The Road Home, published in 2015, focused on a contemporary overview of the Buddhist path.)
What he hoped to do with this book is not only be transparent about his life, memoir-style and give it a recognisable cultural narrative through the film, but also "un-code this notion that there's a kind of expertise or mastery, when, really, I think the people who are great at this just are willing to practice."
"I don't argue that it's a Buddhist movie," adds Nichtern, "but one of the things that I think is very Buddhist about it is it's a deconstruction of a kind of clichéd genre, the fairytale fantasy. And so it's undercutting, it's poking fun at that in pretty much every way it can, but it also totally works as a fairytale ... Most deconstructions have a much more cynical air to them, much more apathetic or negative, like that everything we believed is kind of myth, there is no good guy, et cetera. But this is a deconstruction that really makes you think of true love."
At a park I often go to, a gaggle of other mothers and their kids set up camp near some trees, as I do with my kids. Recently I've gotten to know a few of them slightly — well enough to say hello, swap info about babysitters, chat about our jobs and so on.
"I would argue that The Princess Bride is an example of an optimistic deconstruction and that that's what Buddhism is," he adds. "It's a deconstruction of a sort of set narrative but that leads you towards greater open-mindedness or compassion and, in this case, it's a deconstructive that says true love is the point of everything."
In light of this, Nichtern offers ways to improve all of the important relationships in our lives through his book.
As You Wish — Start with Yourself
"The founder of my tradition [...] said the purpose of meditation is to make friends with yourself," says Nichtern. "I updated that for the Facebook era in The Road Home and said meditation is about accepting your own friend request. It means you're actually spending time with yourself."
Nichtern explains that if we don't have a process of making friends with our own mind with some aloneness (such as meditation or other mindfulness practices), we are always going to be entering relationships defining our self-image based on what we think other people think about us.
Finding Your Inner Fezzik — Focus on Friendship
Nichtern is partial to the character of Fezzik (played by André the Giant), because he describes him as "an ideal bodhisattva, which is an incredibly compassionate person in the Buddhist tradition." Fezzik throughout the film is just there to help, as a loving friend. But the other friendship component that Nichtern says is notable in The Princess Bride comes along with the Dread Pirate Roberts. Viewers think when he gets paralysed that this will play out as a "kind of libertarian Batman narrative where the lone hero has to rouse himself and win on his own, but he's actually completely incapacitated and has to rely on his wacky friends."
Self-reliance and self-awareness are great, Nichtern says, but one tip he gives regarding building the types of friendships seen in The Princess Bride is to view time with friends as a practice. "I think a lot of times, we view time with friends as the unimportant time," he says. Instead, we should view it as the same importance of any kind of spiritual or yogic practice that's helping you build a sense of trust and inspiration.
Love and "Mahwage" — Don't Forget Romance
When desire gets into the relationship, pushing it into romance status, Nichtern says one tip is to recognise that while desire can lead to all kinds of fixations (control, grasping, addictive behaviours), it is an element that allows us to see beyond our own perspective.
"If we're going to enter the arena of romance or sexuality or partnership, [we need] to really make friends with desire and not vilify it, to treat desire like a high-maintenance plant," Nichtern explains. "So, it is a friend, but it's a friend we need to be careful with and aware of."
As he writes in his book, "Anyone who has ever gotten their Buttercup […] knows that the Buttercup you pursue is never the Buttercup you end up with, because your point of reference continually shifts as you dance with desire."
'Fred Savage Is a Jerk and I Am Fred Savage' — Focus on Family
Nichtern tells us, "I really love this quote by Chögyam Trungpa: 'It's possible you could be enlightened everywhere, except around your family.'"
Nichten thinks that The Princess Bride's story transmission (in other words, the grandfather reading this story to his grandson) shows how we can develop gratitude for our life story as we receive it and develop gratitude for our lineage before we try to get into the more painful places, "'cause chances are there's gonna be a fair amount of painful places."
"The realisation that family is the most important, and often the hardest, could really, to use a maybe overused term these days, trigger reactions that are shockingly strong."