Wednesday, March 20, 2013
Why Zen and Motorcycles Still Matter
One of the joys of having a library is the old, reassuring presence of important books, especially as one faces new challenges in life. Books can be like old friends, or the Christian “cloud of witnesses,” which is how the communion of saints is often described. As a presence, they can be durable and dependable, even as long dormant muses. Yet there can also be trepidation in reopening these remembered treasures, the dust-covered mentors of past years. Will the old truths wind deeper in their wisdom, upon revisiting? Or will the scenes and characters and subjects seem outmoded by a reader, or a world, that has simply moved on?
The sportswriter Roger Kahn expressed this kind of misgiving in his introduction to the small book A Day in the Bleachers, by Roger Hano, who documented the World Series game between the Giants and Indians in 1954: “More than a quarter century later, I re-approached A Day in the Bleachers apprehensively. Certain books, certain poems better with age. Others do not. Particularly in non-fiction, styles and attitudes alter with the seasons ; and perspective, a sense of history, clears our vision. Yesterday’s vivid and successful non-fiction book can age as gracelessly as a New York City taxi. It is dangerous business returning to old favorites; too often they are not your favorites anymore.”
I felt just such misgiving in returning to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert Pirsig. There are an extraordinary number of authors who invoke this text as influential, especially writers from the world of sports who have begun to apply the meditation techniques of Zen Buddhism to their respective disciplines; from gymnastics in Dan Millman’s classic spiritual journey The Way of the Peaceful Warrior to Phil Jackson’s Sacred Hoops, and recently The Way of Baseball, by Shawn Green. All of these writers found the initial conventional athletic journey in their sports to be full of egotism and empty of spiritual values—or not full enough. Our culture worships sports and athletes, but these participants and thinkers retreated to the strange concepts of no-ego and no-mind to find stillness, awareness, and presence. They all let go of the nauseating cycles of the ego, the unobserved mind, to find peace and serenity in the heat of competition (“Finding stillness at 95 MPH,” as Shawn Green puts it). They are able to be in the moment, without attachment to results, and they all credit Pirsig as their spiritual father to some degree.
So what was Pirsig up to? What is he still up to for the reader today?
I wondered as I returned to his faithful presence in my own library. Let me first say that I was reluctant to read Zen and the Art from the very beginning. This may seem odd coming from a spiritual seeker who happens to ride a motorcycle. But I knew I would be convicted for my lack of interest in how a motorcycle actually works. And I was. I still am. To Pirsig, I am the romantic motorcyclist, who eschews technology but embraces the spiritual product of the engineers, mechanics, and tinkerers who have given me the open road in, perhaps, the purest form there is: on a motor bike. Robert’s motorcycle companion John is just this kind of rider in the book. But once convicted as charged, I found, and still find, Pirsig’s journey to be truly unexpected, and also capable of revealing new secrets for those that ride the road of life.
The spiritual quality of being in the moment is still found on the open road with Pirsig making his way across the western United States in the early 1970s. Every rider who doesn’t kill himself in the first six months (when most fatalities occur) knows this particular quality of attentiveness, mindfulness, and serious serenity while riding. I don’t have to try not to daydream, or to stop my mind from wandering--to contain myself in the present, and not the past and future. It just is. Bur for Pirsig, the same attentiveness is in the mechanics of the bike--the open, aware, and creative mind necessary to diagnose and solve a mechanical problem. Yet this, for me, is still the most boring part of the book, especially when Pirsig, tediously, goes through endless inventories of parts and tools, in an Aristotelian hierarchy of knowledge.
On a personal note, I just reread Zen and the Art during the most maddening experience a romantic rider can have. During the recent move of my family into our new house, I lost the key to my beloved Honda Shadow. My most un-Zen condition was intensified by also being unable to find my key code so that a Honda dealer could make me a new one. On the first day of spring, with snow still on the ground, this romantic had a big problem on his hands. I was going batshit over the lost key.
So where are the surprises in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance? Where are the lost keys of secret knowledge to be found?
The first big surprise is Pirsig’s complete embrace of technology. He hugs the mechanical world with both arms and an active, present Zen mind. For Pirsig, the Buddha is in the machine, just as much as in nature or any manifestation of the physical universe. This embrace is realistic in assessing nuclear weapons, Hiroshima, the Cold War, and the military industrial complex. But he unapologetically explores how technology has improved our lives, especially in the medical world, and even made all out warfare less likely. Pirsig is as fascinated with computers as he is with motorcycles. As a romantic, I am less convinced, especially watching my students’ attention spans, mindfulness, and ability to be in the moment continually eroded by the technology they use, and the multitasking of the present day. But Pirsig’s mechanical Buddha is much like the epiphany of Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) in Midnight in Paris. Pender’s nostalgia for Paris in the 1920s is obliterated by a dream where he has to go to the dentist during his beloved epoch. Gil is converted to the present, with its novacaine, and he is ready to live, finally, in his own time.
The bigger surprise of Zen and the Art, even upon rereading, is how much the book is about mental illness. If you are looking for serenity and peace in Pirsig’s pages, you will be disappointed. Pirsig never meditates in the text; and he never does yoga . The book is edgy and dark, on the brink of madness at times. It is not calm and Zen. As Pirsig travels west with his son Chris, and his friends John and Sylvia, it becomes clear that Chris is mentally unbalanced. This is obvious to John and Sylvia, but the deeper imbalance is with the writer himself. His past problems have actually been the cause of his son’s disturbance. Like many writers, Pirsig’s manuscript was rejected by nearly all of the publishing houses: because it didn’t have a genre, and was so spiritually esoteric (and so tedious about motorcycles). Now it would be received happily as the memoir of a paranoid schizophrenic. Pirsig suffered a nervous breakdown and received electroconvulsive shock therapy. The purpose: to give him a new identity. After being institutionalized for periods from 1961-63, Pirsig has no memory of his previous life, though he still has the same wife and child. His son, however, remembers everything, especially the breakdown and the mental institution. The father reconnects with his past identity in pieces on the motorcycle trip.
The cause of Pirsig’s madness, which reads much like the movie A Beautiful Mind, is the intellectual journey of his previous identity. The intellectual problem begins with Pirsig, before his breakdown, as a biochemist coming to the eerie realization that more than one hypothesis can explain the same scientific phenomena. This strange idea continues with the dawning understanding that not just two hypotheses may be accurate, but that unlimited hypotheses are actually possible. This sends him to philosophy, where be burns down that house too, very slowly and very surely in his mental pyrotechnics, which results in him being kicked out of the University of Chicago’s Philosophy Department.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is not an encounter, really, of East and West. It is rather a study of West meets West, the collision producing a nervous breakdown in the author. In the book, Pirsig calls his previous self Phaedrus, the antagonist sophist of Socrates in Plato’s dialogues. You remember the sophists? They were the supposed masters of rhetoric defeated by Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. The pre-madness Pirsig carefully, rigorously, step by step, mounts a defense of the sophists, who knew what quality in rhetoric was, and knew that it could not be defined objectively. And yet it could be experienced by both the intellectual and the common man. In the process, Pirsig deconstructs objectivity and subjectivity, effectively removing boundaries between art and science, religion and engineering. This is why he is so confident that the Buddha is in the machine, as well as in the trees and mountains. Unfortunately, the careful intellectual scaffolding, for Phaedrus his first self, leads him to the pinnacle of madness. It is a Tower of Babel. But the later journey on the motorcycle carefully re-climbs the philosophical edifice, like the Montana mountains, searching for past mistakes. He finds none. The sophists, lost to history, and Pirsig have come to the same prize, the same Holy Grail: the spiritual presence of Quality. The most Eastern moment of the book is when Pirsig cross-references his Quality with what others before him in Asia have called the Tao. He finds no difference between the two. He is reassured that others have made this climb, and taken this long ride westward.
Quality is outside of subject-object western epistemology. It cannot be defined objectively, yet it cannot be reduced to a merely subjective reality. It is not “either…or” thinking, nor is it “both…and.” Quality is not a matter of taste; taste comes into play when one or more objects of consideration are of comparable quality. Quality can be encountered in food, automobiles, computers and their codes, the clothes we wear, a Disney movie, and our expressions of love. It can be noticed the moment you walk into a hotel room and consider how it was made. It is outside of the subject and is not contained in the object exclusively. You can call this third life the Buddha. Or you can call it God. But you cannot make it into doctrine, as Plato and the Christians tried to do. If you do this, you will make something without quality called hogwash. The sophists knew this. Pirsig knew it too. It initially made him crazy. Encountering it again on his motorcycle, it made him whole.
This mysterious third life still lives in Pirsig’s pages. You too can seek it on the open road, once you find the lost key. Or you can find it for yourself at home, safe and content, in anything well made, in the quality that lasts.