Looking for Buddhist Wisdom in ‘The Princess Bride’

Looking for Buddhist Wisdom in ‘The Princess Bride’


Ahead of the book’s publication, Mr. Nichtern agreed to watch the film once more with a reporter, sharing his thoughts on why “The Princess Bride” is such an enduring piece of pop culture, what universal lessons it holds, and why he was moved to meditate on a low-budget comedy that is celebrating its 30th anniversary next month.

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Robin Wright (as Buttercup) and Cary Elwes (as Westley) in a scene from “The Princess Bride.”

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20th Century Fox/Photofest

Mr. Nichtern’s book defies easy categorization. Part memoir, part Buddhist treatise and part cultural criticism, its pitch is that “The Princess Bride” is something more than a lighthearted sendup of the fairy tale genre — if viewed through the right lens, it is also a trove of timeless wisdom.

Some people will buy that no matter what. As a “shastri,” or senior teacher, Mr. Nichtern is well-known in Buddhist circles with a devoted group of students. The son of David Nichtern, an accomplished musician and a Buddhist teacher himself, the younger Mr. Nichtern, like his father, teaches in the Shambhala tradition, and also founded the Interdependence Project, a secular meditation group.

But if the book finds a wider audience, it will be thanks to the lasting appeal of “The Princess Bride.” Despite its modest performance at the box office, the film, directed by Rob Reiner and based on the novel by William Goldman, has emerged a cult classic, spawning memes, board and video games and more.

Among those who count it as their favorite film is Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, who acted out scenes featuring Billy Crystal and Mandy Patinkin on the campaign trail. (That drew a rebuke from Mr. Patinkin, who said Mr. Cruz was missing the point.) Ross Ulbricht, the mastermind behind Silk Road, the shuttered online bazaar for illicit drugs, assumed the nom de guerre Dread Pirate Roberts, a character from the film. The sports and culture website FiveThirtyEight deemed it the sixth “most rewatchable” movie of all time. And on Rotten Tomatoes, the influential review website, it has a remarkable Tomatometer score of 97.

So what makes the film so enduring?

“It’s a deconstruction of a classic genre,” said Mr. Nichtern, watching the opening scenes of the movie, in which a grandfather reads a bedtime story to his grandson. “It’s a fairy tale that makes fun of the genre, but is also completely true to the form.”

Following the quest of Westley, a farmhand turned pirate fighting to win back his true love, Buttercup, from the evil Prince Humperdinck, “The Princess Bride” is a sendup that follows all the rules, a farce that pays loving homage to the object of its derision.

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(It also had an all-star cast. In addition to Mr. Crystal and Mr. Patinkin, it featured Robin Wright, Peter Falk, Fred Savage, Wallace Shawn and André the Giant.)

All that helps explain why “The Princess Bride” has aged so well. But what makes it so special to Mr. Nichtern?

The story begins with his dad’s best friend, Mr. Guest, who plays Count Rugen, the six-fingered man. Seeing his family friend portray a murderous villain on the silver screen left a vivid impression on Mr. Nichtern.

Then, a few months after the film was released, Mr. Nichtern’s grandparents committed suicide. His grandfather, Dr. Sol Nichtern, was suffering from Parkinson’s disease, and he and his wife, Edith, decided to end their lives by overdosing on sleeping pills, rather than suffer a slow decline. Around the same time, the founder of the Shambhala Buddhist tradition, Chögyam Trungpa, died, and Mr. Nichtern’s parents, who were devoted students of Mr. Trungpa, got a divorce.

Amid this trauma, Mr. Nichtern found himself returning to “The Princess Bride” again and again, looking to the story for lessons about family, friendship and love. And in time, he began to find them.

“‘The Princess Bride’ is a story that’s funny, sad, and poignant, a tale in which, after many sarcastic turns, true love wins the day,” Mr. Nichtern writes in the book. “All of us, I believe, have held on to pieces of pop culture as we’ve proceeded on our own spiritual journeys. My most consistent companion has been ‘The Princess Bride.’”

Mr. Nichtern doesn’t assert that film is a Buddhist parable in disguise. Instead, he uses its exaggerated morality, its absurd plot twists and its memorable one-liners as jumping off points for discourses about Buddhist teachings.

Early in the film, as Westley chases three bandits who have abducted Buttercup, Mr. Nichtern reflected on the name of the sheer rock wall they scale, the Cliffs of Insanity.

“That’s sometimes how meditation feels,” he said.

Later, after Westley reveals himself to be the Dread Pirate Roberts, Mr. Nichtern riffed on the Buddhist theory of reincarnation. “Westley reincarnates twice,” he said. “First to become the Dread Pirate Roberts, and then when he comes back from the dead.”

At one point, Westley says to Buttercup, “Life is pain, highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.”

Though the line sounds an awful lot like “Life is suffering,” a popular distillation of the Buddhist outlook, Mr. Nichtern takes umbrage with that interpretation. Buddhism, he argues, doesn’t paint such a bleak picture. Rather, it teaches students to recognize that life includes both pleasure and pain, and that both are fleeting.

“It would have been a more Buddhist line if it said ‘life includes suffering,’” he said.

Mr. Nichtern makes no efforts to be comprehensive in his book. The film doesn’t afford much opportunity to reflect on parenting, and he steers clear of sexuality. “It’s hard for a Buddhist teacher to really go there and write about sex,” he said.

And of course, there are plenty of un-Buddhist moments throughout the film. Fezzik the giant is good-natured but not particularly self-aware and prone to violence. The bad guys show precious little aptitude for personal transformation. And the most famous line of the movie — “Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” — is rooted in a decidedly unhealthy fixation on revenge.

Watching “The Princess Bride” last week, Mr. Nichtern acknowledged that despite being a pop culture gem, it wasn’t a perfect analog for his teachings at the Shambhala Center.

And as he observed the climactic scene, in which Inigo Montoya plunges his saber into the stomach of the six-fingered man, the shastri Ethan Nichtern could only look down and shake his head in disapproval.

“Not very Buddhist,” he said. “Not very Buddhist at all.”



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