Category Archives: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Thank You, Robert M. Pirsig!

I was filled with a certain sadness when I first read news of Robert Pirsig’s death, the kind of sadness you experience when someone you don’t know, someone who touched your life without knowing it, passes away.

Maybe you are unfamiliar with the name in the title, which would be ok. Maybe you are familiar with what he wrote. Robert Pirsig is the author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which he wrote in the 60s, and was first published in 1974. A friend gave me a copy, convinced that the book would resonate with me; and resonate, it did! I don’t know if I ever thanked that friend… (Note to self: say “Thanks!” to Terry).

Robert Pirsig, and his son Chris, on his 1964 Honda SuperHawk – a CB77 (from the book’s jacket)

The book uses “motorcycle maintenance” only as a metaphor for an in-depth look at life and people, a backdrop for the real story. The bike trip Pirsig took with his son, Chris, takes us from Minnesota to the west coast. I read the book twice and dog-eared many of its pages; it’s something I do. Then I re-read all the dog-eared pages and capture the key messages in a document. Every once in a while, I scan through the document, reminding myself of the author’s ideas that resonated with me. With Zen, I realized that I was a bit of a philosopher, although I’d never venture to write a book about my philosophy. The fact that I was also a motorcycle enthusiast, not a very mechanically-inclined one, I could see myself making that trip. I will read the whole book again…

“…A motorcycle functions in accordance with the laws of reason, and a study of the art of motorcycle maintenance is really a miniature study of the art of rationality itself… the real cycle you are working on is the cycle called yourself.” Pg. 98

Here are some of the messages you would find if you read the pages with bent corners, just to give you an idea:

The truth knocks on the door and you say, “Go away, I’m looking for the truth,” and so it goes away. Puzzling. Pg. 12

You see things vacationing on a motorcycle in a way that is completely different from any other. In a car you’re always in a compartment, and because you’re used to it you don’t realize that through that car window everything you see is just more TV. You’re a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame. On a cycle the frame is gone. You’re completely in contact with it all. You’re in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming. That concrete whizzing by five inches below your foot is the real thing, the same stuff you walk on, it’s right there, so blurred you can’t focus on it, yet you can put your foot down and touch it anytime, and the whole thing, the whole experience, is never removed from immediate consciousness. Pg. 13

Mountains should be climbed with as little effort as possible and without desire. The reality of your own nature should determine the speed. If you become restless, speed up. If you become winded, slow down. You climb the mountain in an equilibrium between restlessness and exhaustion. Then, when you’re no longer thinking ahead, each footstep isn’t just a means to an end but a unique event in itself. This leaf has jagged edges. This rock looks loose. From this place the snow is less visible, even though closer. There are things you should notice right away. To live only for some future goal is shallow. It’s the sides of the mountain which sustain life, not the top. Here’s where things grow. Pg. 204

Quality, or its absence, doesn’t reside in either the subject or the object. The real ugliness lies in the relationship between the people who produce the technology and the things they produce, which results in a similar relationship between the people who use the technology and the things they use. […] at the moment of pure Quality perception, at the moment of pure Quality, there is no subject and there is no object. There is only a sense of Quality […] Pg. 290

So the thing to do when working on a motorcycle, as in any other task, is to cultivate the peace of mind which does not separate one’s self from one’s surroundings. When that is done successfully then everything else follows naturally. Peace of mind produces right values, right values produce right thoughts. Right thoughts produce right actions and right actions produce work which will be a material reflection for others to see of the serenity at the center of it all. Pg. 297

If you get a sense that Pirsig’s views were complex, deep, and sometimes confused (or is that confusing?), you’re right. The book takes you along, if you stick with it, and forces you to think about concepts fundamental to life, and to enjoy the journey, which is why I enjoyed it so much. Thank you, Robert Pirsig!

My ’97 Honda VF-750C Magna