I struggled through Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig nearly 40 years ago and recently reread it for a book discussion group. It was like revisiting an old and very influential friend; one that I had found irritating and rambling on first acquaintance, next obscure, then interesting, and ultimately inspiring and stimulating.
This semi-autobiographical book, written in the first person, weaves several journeys into a fabric that challenges western concepts and expands thinking. The surface story recounts the real trip of a father and his 11-year-old son, as they travel by motorcycle from St. Paul Minnesota through Bozeman Montana (and Bend Oregon!) to San Francisco California. This tale is a faithful and fascinating travelogue description of an actual 17-day trip taken by Robert Pirsig and his son Chris in 1968. However, it is also a vehicle―like the motorcycle― which Pirsig uses to describe several other journeys. One of them is his own passage through insanity and back. Another is the development of Western thought from the rhetoricians of Greece, through Aristotle and Newton, to modern science and its analytical techniques (perhaps a form of insanity when pursued without value!). Still others are trips from parts to wholes… in maintaining a motorcycle and within the human spirit. This is where Zen comes in.
Zen clashes with Western science. Zen teaches that everything is one; that apartness is an illusion partly learned in cultures. However, science thrives on apartness. It starts by isolating a scientist (the observer) from the objects he analyzes. Next the observer isolates one of these objects from the rest of the universe using a test tube, a laboratory, or a motorcycle repair shop. Then the observer dissects the object with physical tools and with the knife of analytic thought. He studies its pieces and learns how the pieces interrelate through a series of hypotheses (guesses). He follows this with experiments, which test the hypotheses. He prunes out mistaken ones and affirms others. Zen, on the other hand, focuses on the unity of observer and observed and learns from it. Zen assumes that analytic thought immediately kills something vital; something essential to accurate understandings and to harmonious lives. It kills quality.
For example: When biology students study frogs, they go to a pond, catch some frogs and bring them to the lab. Then they kill and dissect the frogs to study their limbs and organs. They learn vital things about frogs, things we call facts. However, to do so they have to isolate the frog from its natural world and then kill it. With a physical knife, and the knife of analytic thought, they learn facts about a frog’s corpse and how a frog’s body operates, but nothing about the value or motivations of a living frog in the universe or about their own relationship to the frog or to all that is.
According to Pirsig, the scientific approach develops knowledge by sacrificing quality. Its inherent tragedy is not a frog’s demise, but that we don’t care about the absence of quality. If we were to take a Zen-like approach, we would sit by the pond, or sit in it, to observe and contemplate for days on end the living frogs and all their intimate interactions with their environments. We would suspend thoughts and judgments so as to better comprehend how the frog is one with its surroundings and with us. We would open ourselves to a valuable transcendental experience of Quality.
Each cultural system, including one steeped in Science or Zen, exquisitely highlights some aspects of reality, but ignores others. This core teaching of Pirisig’s book has stimulated my own creativity, fostered my enthusiasm, and strongly influenced how I have lived. However, it is also the nature of all systems that they are compromises, which require us to make tradeoffs. There are no perfect or complete systems. It seems to me that Pirsig’s bout of insanity came from his inability to accept imperfect compromises in his conclusions about Quality.
Science is like a radio
I use a metaphor to help me understand Zen in scientific terms. The air around us is filled with electromagnetic signals. However, we need a radio or a TV set to select specific signals and translate them into familiar sights and sounds of the news, Country music or movies
Culture is like a TV or Radio that enables us to exquisitely tune-in to specific ideas and perceptions of reality. Most folks in Western cultures spend their lives listening to one or two programs selected by others. Some of them learn how to willfully tune into many different programs. Students of Zen realize that when they tune into one program they exclude an endless number of other ones. They attempt to tune into all of them at the same time without using a TV or Radio.
A great web site for more about Robert Pirsig and this book is: Research Info: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.