Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: an Inquiry into Values
Robert M Pirsig
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is the self-told story of a middle-aged man and his son, Chris, who go on a motorcycling trip accompanied by an adult couple. They journey from Minnesota to California, taking the back roads and sleeping overnight in motels or camping. The man describes what it is like to hear the wind moving across the plains, to see birds rise up from marshes next to the road, to ride through a ferocious storm, and to breath the fresh air of a mountain above the tree line. He tells also of the people that they meet, the towns they stop in, and the quarrels and conversations of the journey.
There is nothing particularly remarkable about the narrator (who is never given a name but assumed to be author Robert Pirsig), who is now a writer of technical manuals living a normal existence. However, with the miles come snatches of memory of having traveled the same roads before, fragments which alert the reader to a deeper story.
Along with the record of the trip itself come the narrator's philosophical reflections, which are to slow the reader down to a pace at which important things can be discussed. Fittingly, he has taken Walden with him to read, Thoreau's poetic record of a time spent away from the busyness of normal life.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is a book to read while on a trip of your own, or when you find yourself at a crossroads in life. Easy to read, although not always easy to understand, it is inspirational in a no frills way. What is the meaning of the title? Zen is a form of Buddhism that does not look towards great enlightenments or ecstasies, instead suggesting that the soul grows through actively engaging with life as it is. In this case it is the narrator's maintenance of his motorbike that intriguingly expresses his understanding of how to approach life.
Much of the book focuses on a rather surprising topic: quality. We think of quality as a measure of a product or a person, and we feel the right to make judgments about it because it is clear when something is of quality or is not. The narrator recounts taking his motorcycle to a workshop and reluctantly handing it over to a crew of young men playing loud music. Instead of fixing the machine, they butcher it, and he learns a lesson: it is the attitude towards a technological problem, not simply rational knowledge of how a thing works, that makes all the difference. Merely going by the manual is a clumsy, low-quality approach. Thereafter, he did the work himself.
Quality cannot be defined in a rational way, it can only noticed when it happens. Yet quality is everything: the difference between someone who cares, and one who does not; between a machine that can enrich your life, and one that explodes into a heap of useless mental. Yet instruction manuals, the narrator observes, totally leave out of the picture the person who is putting something together. If you are angry or unmotivated, you will not succeed in tuning the machine or finding the problem, but if you patiently put your mind into the place of the original designer, you come to see that a machine is really just the physical expression of a set of ideas. Paradoxically, it is only when you go beyond the classical idea that we can separate our mind from the world, that 'objects' begin to come alive. Quality is appreciated not as a thing, but as the force that drives the universe. The narrator notes, "Obviously some things are better than others, but what's the 'betterness'?" His epiphany comes in reading the ancient Tao Te Ching, when he realizes that what we call Quality, or 'betterness', is the same as the Eastern concept of 'Tao', the universal power or essence which can never be identified as such, but whose presence or absence makes something good.
As a college professor, the narrator had become obsessed with Aristotle and the damage that his way of thinking caused to people's appreciation of the world. Aristotelian logic had provided the foundation of our civilization, but it had pushed aside the one element, quality, that gave real meaning to life. In our world, quality had become just an idle attribute, when in fact, it was "the parent, the source of all subjects and objects."
Though never explicitly stated in the book, quality is clearly also love. We have created a world which puts the highest store by objects and definitions, yet that which actually makes the world go round - quality or love - is now considered an optional extra. In his earlier career as a college professor, this realization literally drove the narrator mad. It is a world he is no longer able to live in.
Getting back the gumption
Years before, he had traveled with some black Americans, from whom he had learned the idea of 'squareness'. Too much intellectuality, and too little soul, made a person square. It meant they could not recognize quality, that nothing was real for them unless put into boring categories and defined. Quality is simply 'reality', before it is thought about or categorized. Quality is just knowing. Even talking about 'quality' was not quality! The person who can see quality is what Suzuki called 'beginner mind': a blank slate of a mind that is fully open to seeing things as they truly are in the moment, without putting layers of meaning on.
While the book includes many scenes from the road trip of despair, tiredness or boredom, it is uplifting in other ways. As the party ride west towards California, they leave behind a slower America where people wave and have time to chat, and start to see ego-driven people driving along with grim expressions. This America, of big freeways and TV and celebrities, makes people feel the important things are happening somewhere else. The narrator discusses the idea of 'gumption', an old Scottish word meaning a certain zest for life that many in the modern world have lost: "The gumption-filling process occurs when one is quiet long enough to see and hear and feel the real universe, not just one's own stale opinions about it." If we are putting ourselves into every moment, then whatever we are doing has meaning. Instead of being sloppy because we are thinking about something else, we are living in the here and now. This is authentic, quality living.
Years after his obsessive quest for the origins of quality, the narrator has become "Just another middle-class, middle-aged person getting along." Taken to hospital and zapped with electrodes, he had came out a different person, with only fragments of memory of the philosopher he once was. But as the book progresses, and as he explains the ideas that drove him to his breakdown, the reader is led to the understanding that perhaps it was society - its mythos or collective way of thinking - that was mad, not him.
What Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance tells us is that we won't get to the truth about life through pursuing answers through the rational mind only. The narrator hungered for a rational explanation for everything, but in the end found that both science and philosophy are just maps of the truth. But in love of another person, or in the experience of nature or in a feeling of closeness to God, we can access truths that can't be broken down. The book makes you think about the technological culture we live in and where we can find room in it for 'quality' and things of the spirit. It shows how a life drained of gumption is not really a life.
Considered a classic virtually from the day of publication, Zen and the Art is a complex, multileveled work that may require some meditation on to really appreciate. Pirsig has noted that his book was a 'culture-bearer', expressing a latent feeling many people had in the 1960s and 1970s that an exclusively rational way of seeing the world was too small a container. It had been adopted to ensure survival, but as the world had got richer, many people did not want to just survive. The book took on a larger conception of success that was not just about getting a good job, but being able to see differently. The sense of fragmentation and alienation felt by modern people had come from the classical belief that a person was fundamentally separate from the world around him or her. But such a concept is emotionally and spiritually hollow, and in the end makes us less human.
Zen and the Art does not say that reason is bad, only that it needs to expand to accommodate the irrational. If society could accept abstract art, hippies and beat novels, then maybe it could save itself from the dullness of its mental structures, which were after all an inheritance over two thousand years old. Paradoxically, acceptance of the 'unreasonable' provided the lifeblood to a culture based on reason.
"What I would like to do is use the time that is coming now to talk about some things that have come to mind. We're in such a hurry most of the time we never get much chance to talk. The result is a kind of endless day-to-day shallowness, a monotony that leaves a person wondering years later where all the time went and sorry that it's all gone. Now that we do have some time, and know it, I would like to use the time to talk in some depth about things that seem important."
Robert M Pirsig
Born in 1928 in Minnesota, as a teenager Robert Maynard Pirsig registered an extremely high IQ (170). He enrolled to study biochemistry at the University of Minnesota, but after getting expelled travelled around the United States. After three years in the army and a stint in Korea he returned to the same university to read philosophy, and later studied Asian philosophy at Benares Hindu University.
Upon his return to the US, Pirsig got a job as a journalist, married, had two children, and at various times also worked as a science writer, a copywriter and a technical writer.
When writing Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the author sent out 122 letters to publishers. A few showed interest but only one, William Morrow, made an offer and Pirsig received a standard $3000 advance. Though he felt there was a need to publish the book, its editor did not expect it to make money. Upon release, the work received rave reviews and over the last four decades has sold millions of copies. The title was inspired by Eugen Herrigel's Zen in the Art of Archery (1953). Pirsig's other main work is Lila: An Enquiry Into Morals (1991).
Source: 50 Spiritual Classics: Your shortcut to the most important ideas on self-discovery, enlightenment and purpose by Tom Butler-Bowdon (London & Boston: Nicholas Brealey)