Five pearls of Buddhist wisdom from The Princess Bride

Ethan Nichtern has loved The Princess Bride since he was a kid. Now, as a senior teacher in the Shambhala tradition, he sees Buddhist wisdom throughout the movie. From the Cliffs of Insanity to Wesley's mantra to Princess Buttercup ("as you wish"), Nichtern decodes the beloved fairy tale through a Buddhist lens.

(Originally published on October 15, 2017)

The Princess Bride has been called many things in the 30 years since it was made, but had you ever considered it as a trove of spiritual wisdom?

You may say 'inconceivable!' but Ethan Nichtern would argue otherwise.

(Marissa Dutton)

He's a senior teacher in the Shambhala Buddhist tradition, and author of 'The Dharma of the Princess Bride: What the Coolest Fairy Tale of Our Time Can Teach Us About Buddhism and Relationships.'  

The Princess Bride movie has been his pop culture companion through good times and bad ever since the first time he saw it when he was in grade four. Now, looking back on that pivotal movie, he can see the wisdom of Buddhist teachings reflected in some of the movie's most famous quotes:



"The single most Buddhist moment I would say... is the last scene of the movie where's there's a flip from 'as you wish' being this sign of romantic devotion, to being this sign of kind of lineage devotion - where the grandfather says to the grandson [that] he'll come read the story again tomorrow - 'As you wish'," Nichtern explains.

"So there's something about that connection, about how it brings true love into the family dynamic, that feels very Buddhist."



Nichtern says one definition of ignorance is when you can't include any new information in your way of being - which is perfectly depicted by Vizzini's repeated use of the word 'inconceivable.'

"He doesn't listen to anybody, he doesn't trust anyone. He's just so sure that he knows the answer to everything," says Nichtern.  "So that hilarious 'inconceivable' really playfully represents a kind of trap we all get into, thinking we're supposed to know everything, that that's what intelligence is: knowing the answer to everything and never being curious about other perspectives.'"


"What I argue is that the three bad guys in the movie map perfectly onto a Buddhist conception of our three root emotional or psychological afflictions, which are sometimes called greed, hatred and delusion; or passion, aggression and ignorance, depending on the translation."


"There are a lot of one-liners that you could talk about as being Buddhist. I really like 'get used to disappointment.  Wesley, the man in black, says it to Inigo Montoya when they're about to battle on the top of the Cliffs of Insanity. So that's a fairly Buddhist line in the sense of how what we want to happen is never what actually happens."


"My favourite character - just because I think he's this total bodhisattva or total compassionate being - is Andre the Giant's Fezzik. My favourite Buddhist line is when he says to Inigo Montoya, who is about to do battle with the man in black, "You be careful, people in masks cannot be trusted."

"The Shambhalic tradition is based on the idea that human beings are basically good... that there's not a fundamental flaw in being human, and that we can actually become more tender, more open-hearted, and more authentic, rather than just trying to perform, or learn how to perform a variety of false selves," Nichtern explains.

"A lot of times I think people look at meditation practice as a way to put on a better mask - a mask of calmness to become really impenetrable from the stresses of the world. I think that's a very stereotypical approach to what people think meditation is…. [But] meditation is really act of making friends with yourself."

Click LISTEN above to hear more about the Buddhist undertones in The Princess Bride.

Win a copy of Ethan Nichtern's book!

Have you had cultural companions along the path in life?  Certain songs, books, movies? Who and what are you pop culture touchstones - and why?

We have a couple of copies of Ethan Nichtern's book to give away. Send us your story and you could win a copy​ of The Dharma of the Princess Bride: What the Coolest Fairy Tale of Our Time Can Teach Us About Buddhism and Relationships.

Email us your story at tapestry@cbc.ca.

If you need some inspiration, listen to this short audio montage from Tapestry producer Rosie Fernandez. She spoke to some people in Toronto about the pop culture companions that sooth them along the way. 

Rosie Fernandez spoke to people in Toronto about the pop culture companions that sooth them along the way. 7:23


Read the CBC's contest rules here.