Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974)

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (ZMM) is an interesting read that offers many take-aways for thinking about life. I was expecting an extended meditation on the ways Zen teachings can be understood through the lens of working on a motorcycle. The book, however, offers very little of this. Primarily ZMM offers readers an introduction to Robert Pirsig’s philosophy of Quality through this (non)fiction memoir of a motorcycle trip across the Northwest with his son, Chris.

The chronicle of the trip wonderfully portrays the landscape as it passes by Pirsig and his son on their motorcycle. Initially, the trip seems straightforward—Robert and Chris set off with two of Robert’s friends. The narrative of the journey weaves in and out of the deeper philosophical meanderings in the book; this strategy Pirsig likens to a Chautauqua, a traveling show that “brought entertainment and culture for the whole community, with speakers, teachers, musicians, entertainers, preachers and specialists of the day.” However, by the end of the book, it becomes clear that the journey is a parallel metaphor for the journey Pirsig himself took to reach (a) his understanding of Quality and (b) his understanding of himself.

Integral to the book is the fact that Pirsig had undergone electroshock therapy sometime prior to this trip with the result that his personality was at least changed if not reconfigured altogether. As the narrator in the book, Pirsig names his pre-electrosock-self Phaedrus and tells the story of Phaedrus’ decent/ascent into what “is described in the psychiatric canon as catatonic schizophrenia” and “in the Zen Buddhist canon as hard enlightenment.”

Early on, Phaedrus’s two friends are identified as people who do not appreciate the underlying forms. They prefer the artsy, if superficial, things in life; whereas Phaedrus preferred the inner workings. They prefer what something is (a BMW motorcycle, for example) versus what it is (a BMW motorcycle). He goes on to identify this dichotomy as romantic versus classical points-of-view. And for Phaedrus, the duality itself causes problems, separating what ought not be separated. “The illusion of separation of subject from object is best removed by the elimination of physical activity, mental activity and emotional activity. There are many disciples for this. One of the most important is . . . ‘Zen.'” (141). Having studied in the India, Phaedrus was aware of the nuances of both Daoist and Zen thought.

These nuances, however, as Phaedrus found out, are entirely unknown in most university settings. In one of the most insightful sections of the book, Pirsig develops Phaedrus’ disdain for higher education as it is now. Phaedrus referred to the Montana State University, the school where he taught creative writing, as “the Church of Reason.” He said that the university requires things of its employees—English professors, for example—that are not conducive to real learning. He uses an analogy from the world of Christian ministry.

A good sermon can put the parishioners in a right frame of mind for the coming week. Sunday school will help the children grow up right. The minister who delivers the sermon and directs the Sunday school understands these goals and normally goes along with them, but he also know that his primary goals are not to serve the community. His primary goal is always to serve God. Normally there’s no conflict but occasionally one creeps in when trustees oppose the minister’s sermons and threaten reduction of funds. That happens.

A true minister, in such situations, must act as though he’d never heard the threats. His primary goal isn’t to serve the members of the community, but always God (149).

Likewise, Phaedrus thought that the university should always serve “Socrates’ old goal of truth,” ignoring any threats that come along from so-called trustees. However, MSU (and I think this is problematic at most universities) had given in to the trustees. MSU tasked its professors with passing the students and getting them graduated so that MSU looked good. This truth/trustee divide is another instance of the classic/romantic divide. Phaedrus’ idea was to stop giving grades, allowing the students who wanted to learn to thrive while allowing students who would not thrive to leave of their own accord. He had only marginal success with this strategy and soon abandoned the no-grades strategy.

Moving on, Phaedrus begins to see that questions of Quality undergird the classic/romantic divide. For Phaedrus, Quality is undefinable—and in this way is similar to the Tao. Quality is known prior, according to Phaedrus, to knowledge of a subject or object. So for Phaedrus, Quality becomes the foundation of all that is—a monistic One.

Peace of mind then becomes the goal for one’s life. (This, again, is similar to the notion of Zen in which one lets go, becoming one with what is around.) Peace of mind allows one to see Quality, according Phaedrus, because if something disquiets or pains you, you are likely not seeing Quality.

Pirsig explains how capital-Q Quality helps attain peace of mind. One of the things he observes is that getting “stuck”—whether it’s stuck writing a paper or stuck working on a motorcycle—causes one to have to stop and think deeply, yet freely, about the stuckness one is experiencing, bringing focus in very narrowly on what it is that causes the stuckness and waiting for a spark to allow the natural next step in the process. So being stuck often leads one to slowly realize the best route to Quality, according to Pirsig.

And so it is with motorcycle maintenance, if one tries it for oneself, there are many pitfalls but once the pitfalls are known, they can be avoided. The screw that is stuck, as Pirsig points out, is in fact the whole motorcycle itself in the moment that you are working with that screw. And so it is with humans and their surroundings—this is an interesting insight into the mind of Zen.

Creativity then, is not just about unscrewing a screw, but it is about awareness of the whole motorcycle. “It is this identity that is the basis of craftsmanship in all the technical arts. And it is this identity that modern, dualistically conceived technology lacks. The creator of it feels no particular sense of identity with it. The owner of it feels no particular sense of identity with it” (297–298). Because of this lack of identity with the things around us, Phaedrus would say that they have no Quality. (One need only think of homes built in the last 20 years, where the businessmen have gotten hold of construction processes, to think about how little care and how little quality go into them.) Therefore, “Quality isn’t something you lay on top of subjects and objects like tinsel on a Christmas tree. Real Quality must be the source of the subject and objects, the cone from with the tree must start” (299).

In addition to getting past being stuck, building gumption is identified as a way to pursue Quality. According to Pirsig, “The Greeks called it enthousiasmos, the root of “enthusiasm,” which means literally “filled with theos,” or God, or Quality” (310). Gumption goes back to the idea of working on a motorcycle yourself versus taking it into a shop. The more you are successful, the more gumption you build and the more likely you are to build quality into your machine through care and peace of mind.

Pirsig also identifies “gumption traps,” things which rob us of gumption and of the ability to craft quality products (312–329). The two classes of gumption traps are “setbacks” and “hang-ups” and range from “out-of-sequence-reassembly” (having to start over on something) to “intermittent failure” (or having an issue on the bike that comes and goes and cannot accurately be diagnosed). There are also “value traps” that are internal to the mechanic—things like “premature diagnosis” of problems. The solution is often to sit an ponder for a while, again waiting for that spark mentioned above in the stuckness paragraph. He also uses the analogy of fishing, just sitting and waiting for a “nibble.” The nibble allows for more attention and eventually a solution. Overcoming these traps allows for gumption to grow again and for enthusiasm for Quality.

Pirsig’s and Chris’ trip continues. Somewhere in or around Oregon, Pirsig realizes that Chris misses Phaedrus and that the recurring dream he has about seeing Chris behind a glass door is the final memory he has from before undergoing electroshock. They reach an emotional tipping point in Northern California. Both tired, both aware that the one has been withholding something from the other. Pirsig is also fearing for his own sanity because of the recurring dream. He tells Chris that he thinks Chris should get on a bus for home while he enters a hospital for observation. He also tells Chris that Chris is has similar troubles in his mind that are not real. Chris breaks down and his father consoles him. In consoling his son, Pirsig realizes that he is still Phaedrus and that he need not fear Phaedrus or separate himself from him.

We’re related to each other in ways we never fully understand, maybe hardly understand at all. He was always the real reason for coming out of the hospital [after electroshock therapy]. To have let him grow up alone would have been really wrong. In the dream too he was the one who was always trying to open the door.

I haven’t been carrying him at all. He’s been carrying me!

And so the shift that I did not see coming. A note in the Introduction reveals that Phaedrus will overcome the narrator Pirsig, but I expected it to be a fearsome sort of thing. Instead, it is the uniting of Pirsig’s self and the acceptance of his past, presence, and future. All this initiated through a moment of deep care for his tired and emotional child.

A truly happy ending . . . in a philosophy book, no less.

Whatever one may think of Pirsig’s notion of capital-Q Quality, as I wrote in the beginning, this is an interesting book. It has nuggets about how to live a more unified life throughout and tells a compelling story of a parent and child’s journey into deeper relationship.

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