“Hello. My name is Ethan Nichtern. The six-fingered man was my father’s best friend. Prepare to read.”
This week, a lot of friends have asked me if I am really writing a book called the Dharma of the Princess Bride. Really, Ethan? Really? No, but, really?
Yes. Yes I am. And FSG is going to be kind enough to publish it in 2017 via their North Point imprint and my editor Jeff Seroy, who thankfully acquired it, seems almost as excited about it as I am. I feel like I accomplished what I set out to do with The Road Home, to write an experiential overview of the Buddhist path in the 21st century. I don’t want to be the kind of writer who writes the same book again and again.
I also want to return to writing fiction and poetry soon. But what I really wanted to do here is write a book about practicing Buddhism and relationships: The Dharma of Friendship, The Dharma of Romance, and The Dharma of Family. But I knew I couldn’t do this kind of book in the voice of a “relationships expert” because honestly, I don’t think “relationship experts” exist. That’s right, nobody is a relationship expert. Let me be clear: of course, certain people have extensive psychological training to help others with their relationships. I am not claiming that their training is in any way invalid or unhelpful. In fact, seeking relationship guidance from someone with the training to help can be one of the smartest, and most humbling, things we do. But the only way to get “good” at relationships is to connect with our longing to know ourselves more deeply, and to appreciate our longing to know others, as well. But no single person can be a “expert” on relationships, by definition. A relationship is a collaboration between (at least) two people, and an expert is one person. So “relationship expert” is a self-contradicting oxymoron, and I am not going to ever pretend to be an oxymoron.
Buddhism, however, does offer expertise, tried and true expertise, on how to practice with all of the states of mind that arise in relationship. And it’s what 98% of questions asked to a Buddhist teacher are really all about. Relationships are the entire reason I’m a Buddhist. For me, it’s what the whole path is about. So let’s talk about them.
I also wanted to write a book that acknowledges that personal stories make much better spiritual lessons than just quoting abstract philosophy. When the most famous author in my tradition, Pema Chodron, starts discussing the anger and disappointment she felt that that discovering that her husband was cheating on her (she threw big heavy objects at him and even planned to burn down his house!), I feel much closer to her than when she is talking about abstract notions of mindfulness and compassion. I want to know this Pema: I want to know the woman who threw a plate at her husband! Because it’s only in knowing someone’s process that we truly learn how to be human. And man, have I had my own process with relationships!
And finally, there is no way to be spiritual in the 21st century without acknowledging the role of pop culture in our lives. As many of you know, I often use pop culture, art, music, and writing reference in my lectures. It has occurred to me more than a few times that maybe it’s irresponsible to reference popular culture in a Buddhist lecture. Maybe there isn’t much spiritual insight to be found in a popular movie, a song, a work of art. Perhaps quoting a line from The Princess Bride when I’m talking about Karma, while affecting the accent of the Spaniard (“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means…”) is a kitsch trick, a way to endear myself to a modern audience, a wink of accepted coolness, like a password at a hidden nightclub that earns my entrance into students’ trust before we get down to the real business, which is ancient teachings about the nature of mind.
I think there’s much more, however, in our pop culture generally, and in this movie especially, that is spiritually useful. There’s just something about this postmodern fairy tale, something about Princess Bride’s rare ability, like a perfect balance of acidic and savory flavors, to both utterly mock and fully celebrate the genre in which it partakes, to deconstruct our assumptions of storytelling but finally return us to optimism and love. It’s the perfect work of postmodern optimism, which is exactly what I think of when I think of Buddhism, a desperately needed practice of deconstructed optimism and love. Every time I have watched it over the last almost 30 years, or read the book, I end up feeling like the love that exists between friends and family are indeed real things, and that while romantic love, true love, and marriage (“mehwage”) have been commodified, deified, degraded, and misunderstood countless times, that doesn’t mean that true love is not worth pursuing desperately.
So yes, I am writing a book on relationships the only way I feel comfortable doing it: one part dharma book, one part memoir, and one part homage to the spiritual companionship we all must keep while we try to figure out our spiritual lives. Here are the first few paragraphs:
Hello. My name is Ethan Nichtern. The six-fingered man was my father’s best friend. Prepare to read.
David Nichtern and Christopher Guest were born two weeks apart and grew up together in New York City’s Stuyvesant Town. Christopher was not yet a diabolical villain with an extraneous digit, nor one of the greatest comedic actors of his time. David was not a Buddhist yet, either. What they shared was an urban childhood with a love of creating music (bluegrass, mostly, which was more or less the hip-hop of Lower East Side kids in the early 1960’s). In their formative friendship, Chris was never the sadistic Count Rugen: instead he played a part like Andre the Giant’s Fezzik, defending my father against playground bullies. I have heard stories of them together, swashbuckling like Inigo Montoya and the Dread Pirate Roberts, unsheathing guitars instead of swords, moving through Manhattan adventures, having fun, storming castles, being kids.
Christopher’s role in the The Princess Bride was the reason I was excited to see the movie when it was first released in the Fall of 1987. I was nine years old….
….I remember enjoying the movie that first time around; It displaced my troubled mind into humor and fantasy during a particularly rough stretch of childhood, a yearlong span which saw my parents’ difficult divorce, my grandparents’ double suicide, and a year that saw, like a candle torched at both ends, the premature death of my parents’ Buddhist teacher, the man who occupied a central gravitational pull in the galaxy of their lives (and later mine), the brilliant and enigmatic Chogyam Trungpa.