Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

I honestly can’t decide which is more fascinating: Robert Pirsig’s personality or his book “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.”

First about Pirsig. He was judged to have an IQ of 170 at age nine. He went to study at the University of Minneapolis at 15, but then dropped out to join the US army in 1946. He served in Korea before returning to the university to study philosophy. In later years, he said that he studied at Benares in India. There are many Pirsigs. The 15 year old who tried to connect with his college mates and failed. The Pirsig who was drawn to Buddhism in Korea and Vedantic thought in Benares. The manic professor who taught college freshmen ‘Metaphysics of Quality’ at University of Montana. The homicidal Pirsig who was confined to a mental institution and subjected to electric shock therapy. And the father who tried to bond with his son on a motorcycle trek and then had his heart broken by the “casual murder” of his son in San Francisco. Pirsig said that he was trying to live in truth when he wrote ZMM.

By the time ZMM came out in 1974, it had been edited down from 800,000 words and rejected by over 100 publishers. At the heart of it is the narration of a father trying to bond with his son Chris. According to Pirsig, it was a tragic book in many ways. In 1979, Chris was stabbed and killed in a mugging incident as he came out of the Zen Center in San Francisco. A later edition of ZMM carried a moving foreword by Pirsig about his son, “‘I think about him, have dreams about him, miss him still,’ he says. ‘He wasn’t a perfect kid, he did a lot of things wrong, but he was my son …”

ZMM is a strange book. And yet it is a wonderful book. One feels deprived of the 800,000 word original version by a worldly and uncomprehending editor. The book keeps you off balance and struggling to regain your poise as much as riding a motorcycle on a treacherous curve on a mountainous road would. It is a legendary search for an identity; of a soul in obsessive search of salvation.

Here are a few of ZMM and Pirsig quotes.

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

You are never dedicated to something you have complete confidence in. No one is fanatically shouting that the sun is going to rise tomorrow. They know it’s going to rise tomorrow. When people are fanatically dedicated to political or religious faiths or any other kinds of dogmas or goals, it’s always because these dogmas or goals are in doubt.”

For every fact there is an infinity of hypotheses.”

The real purpose of the scientific method is to make sure nature hasn’t misled you into thinking you know something you actually don’t know.”

We have artists with no scientific knowledge and scientists with no artistic knowledge and both with no spiritual sense of gravity at all, and the result is not just bad, it is ghastly.”

Traditional scientific method has always been, at the very best, 20-20 hindsight. It’s good for seeing where you’ve been. It’s good for testing the truth of what you think you know, but it can’t tell you where you ought to go.”