There is something about movies from the 1980s that inspires an especially enduring devotion, even some 25 or 30 years after their release. The journalist Hadley Freeman described this phenomenon in her book Life Moves Pretty Fast: The Lessons We Learned from Eighties Movies: “These movies, which were largely seen as junk when they came out, were deeply formative, and everyone I know in my generation feels exactly the same way.”
Whether it’s teen movies like The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink, Dirty Dancing, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, romantic comedies like When Harry Met Sally and Big, straight comedies like Ghostbusters, Trading Places, and 9 to 5, action movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark and Empire Strikes Back, or science fiction movies like Blade Runner and E.T., an inordinate number of these films have become classics, enjoyed as much or more today as when they first appeared.
Yet even among this august and worshipped list, one title stands out as a giant among giants: The Princess Bride. Endlessly quotable and endlessly quoted, as Freeman explains, “The Princess Bride is so adored that it’s probably now a clichéd response on Internet dating websites: walks on the beach, sunsets, and The Princess Bride.” (It may be a safer bet to a tell a would-be partner you don’t like sunsets.)
The author Ethan Nichtern certainly agrees. In his new book, The Dharma of the Princess Bride: What the Coolest Fairy Tale of Our Time Can Teach Us About Buddhism and Relationships, he observes that “an abnormally large percentage of humans between the ages of 2 and 200 now revere, or at the very least respect, this movie.” Although only modestly successful when first released (it was apparently only the 41st most popular film of 1987), it now rests “at the very heart of the American postmodern canon.”
But Nichtern takes his admiration a step further and offers us this confession: “Almost everything I know about relationships I learned over the past 30 years of doing two things that seem to have very little to do with each other: loving The Princess Bride and practicing Buddhism.”
For Nichtern is no ordinary fan—he is also a senior teacher in the Shambhala Buddhist tradition. He grew up with The Princess Bride—the actor Christopher Guest was a family friend—and estimates he’s seen the film about once a year ever since, for a total of at least 30 viewings. He references its dialogue in his lectures. And in his new book, he has now collected for us all the “teachings and experiences that have been useful to me while studying relationships and loving this movie.”
For any who don’t yet know the film, based on the excellent 1973 novel of the same name by screenwriter William Golding, The Princess Bride is told as a fairy tale in which the farmhand Westley attempts to win the love of Princess Buttercup and save her from the evil Prince Humperdinck—although the actual story is much more complicated and defies easy summary. Wikipedia gives up on even any precise categorization, calling The Princess Bride an “American romantic fantasy adventure comedy-drama.” If you are among the few poor souls who hasn’t seen it yet, this might be a good time to remedy that oversight.
Buddhism is not the most obvious place to look for relationship advice. The great Buddha himself was essentially what Nichtern calls “a deadbeat dad,” having abandoned his wife and newborn son to pursue the spiritual path. Buddhism soon developed a strong tradition of monasticism, and even today many ordained teachers remain strictly celibate. Worse, for those who don’t, it seems every year brings another revelation of a revered Buddhist teacher engaged in sexual misconduct. “Like the rest of the spiritual world,” Nichtern writes, “the history of Buddhism, both ancient and modern, is full of deeply wise people who suck at romantic relationships.”
And yet Nichtern finds many lessons in the Buddhist teachings that he applies back to the central conundrum of finding and nurturing romantic love. For one thing, many of us oscillate between the extremes positions of “belief in salvation” through the perfect partner and “cynicism about the whole damn thing.” Either we obsess over finding our prince or princess or we give up on love altogether. But Buddhism has clear lessons for finding balance between extremes:
The “Middle Way” is an ancient Buddhist philosophical system that calls awareness to a general tendency of the confused mind. We tend to careen back and forth between extreme approaches, neither of which leads us to satisfaction. Walking the middle path doesn’t mean you never stumble or get lost. All it requires is that you become a curious student of your own extreme beliefs, and slowly learn not to get stuck in either pole.
Although Nichtern uses The Princess Bride as a frequent touchstone, much of his book is pure dharma, exploring all types of human relationships from friendships to family to romantic partners. Along the way, the book is filled with the pithy aphorisms of an accomplished teacher: “freedom and loneliness come from the same place,” “the purpose of meditation is to learn to be truly yourself,” and “a good friendship is one that helps you recall your awakened qualities.”
“Buddhism is, and always has been, about storytelling,” Nichtern reminds us, and The Princess Bride is certainly a good story. With his The Dharma of the Princess Bride, Nichtern helps us see that it is also more than that. The Princess Bride is a modern parable of the essential human condition, of good and evil, of the value of friendship, and of the real possibility of love. Like all great stories, it is not simply an escape from reality, but “leads you back to now with a renewed sense of compassion,” helping you “fall deeper in love with the world as it is.”
Nichtern offers his meditations on life, love, and The Princess Bride with this humble benediction: “May it be of benefit to those nostalgic romantics, glued to our screens, still trying desperately to wake up.” You won’t often hear a Buddhist teacher telling you to go watch a movie. This time, you should listen.
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