Buddhist teacher Ethan Nichtern sat down with Lion’s Roar’s Lindsay Kyte to discuss one of his favorite classic films, and the subject of his latest book, The Princess Bride.
In this video, Nichtern shares what the film can teach us about Buddhism and the important lessons it offers on friendship, family, and romance. Read an excerpt from The Dharma of The Princess Bride in the November 2017 issue of Lion’s Roar.
Lindsay Kyte: Hi everyone, my name is Lindsay Kyte, and I’m the associate editor of Lion’s Roar magazine and today we are talking to Ethan Nichtern. Ethan is a senior teacher in the Shambhala tradition, and he’s talking to us from New York, and his new book has just been published, called The Dharma of the Princess Bride, and he’s here to tell us a little bit about it. Hi Ethan.
Ethan Nichtern: Hi Lindsay. Great to be here with you and and great to be with Lion’s Roar.
LK: This is a story — a movie — you’ve come back to in many different seasons of your life whether your heart was full and joyful or whether your heart was broken, and you say this is because — it offers many things — but it offers the dharma of friendship, the dharma of family, and the dharma of romance. So can you tell us a little bit about that?
EN: My wanting to write this book as a Buddhist teacher was actually wanting to find a way to talk about relationships. You know, I didn’t want to get dogmatic in this arena that many of us interested in meditation practice for Buddhism really struggle with — which is personal relationships. So, bringing in this pop-culture narrative, this sort of deconstructed, playful-but-poignant fairy tale, and bringing in moments from my own life, it really seemed like I could connect with friendship, romance, and family, and each of those themes is very strong in in The Princess Bride.
So, The Princess Bride is not exactly a Buddhist movie – although I think in a lot of ways it really fits as a beautiful soundtrack, or beautiful kind of pop-culture background for a modern Buddhist practitioner trying to lovingly figure out relationships.
LK: Can you talk about the friendships within The Princess Bride and how they play out?
EN: You have this really interesting dynamic in the fairy tale aspect of The Princess Bride of these kind of friends thrown together sort-of, oddly, this odd couple that turns into an odd trio. You have Mandy Patinkin’s Inigo Montoya, who is on a quest for revenge. And you have his best friend/protector Fezzik, Andre the Giant’s goofy poet-brute-squad guy. And then they’re joined by Westley, and they’re all on kind of a different quest and they’re all coming from a different place. And the thing that I think is so interesting about The Princess Bride is it could be a superhero narrative, in terms of the Dread Pirate Roberts going to save his his beloved Buttercup, but he has to rely on these two new friends who are incredibly wacky and incredibly awkward. I love the heroic awkwardness of all the characters. And he actually has to save her while he’s completely paralyzed. So that’s the other thing I think is beautiful is: it actually is a hero narrative that kind of undercuts the solitary — or the libertarian — hero narratives that dominate a lot of a lot of Western society. It’s about friends relying on each other in their own heroic awkwardness. A lot of our — in Western society — superhero myths or cowboy stories have to do with that quality of aloneness, and, obviously, you know, for a meditator, learning to be alone with yourself is a huge practice, and it’s really a difficult practice, but one of the things that I think is so — that I explore in that first section in the book on friendship — is that it’s so important to note that Buddhist teachings are at every bit as much about a supportive environment in supportive relationships
LK: How do the bad guys in The Princess Bride represent the three principal poisons?
EN: Vizzini, Wallace Shawn’s Sicilian — which is interesting, that Wally Shawn plays a Sicilian — who is just this person who fancies himself a genius, and anything that happens that’s outside of the realm of his knowledge he famously says is “inconceivable,” and he gets caught in a very beautiful dualistic game that the Dread Pirate Roberts Westley catches him him in; so, I think he really well represents and really hilariously represents ignorance.
Christopher Guests’ Count Rugen, he’s just a torturer — he takes pleasure in in harming others, so I think he represents the poison of hatred.
And then Prince Humperdinck, who friends have referred to as Prince Trumperdinck, he represents greed. He’s vain. He’s just trying to take over more territories, trying to start a war to take over another country. His ego is hugely inflamed. It’s actually his vanity that causes his downfall. And so I think he represents greed, or desire’s attachment pretty beautifully.
So, you know, the thing that I talk about: obviously, this is all playful, but it’s actually really helpful, I think, in our narratives, in our way of looking at the the bad guys in the world out there as well as our own inner afflictions, to have comedic examples of those afflictions, that we can actually look at Vizzini and say, you know, look at this person who pretends to know everything and really knows nothing. And that can be a kind of humorous way to label our own moments of assumed knowledge or misperception.