Zen and the Art of Motor Cycle Maintenance: The Metaphysics of Quality

Posted on July 10, 2011 by

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I’ve been re-reading Zen and the Art of Motor Cycle Maintenance and have decided to explore some of the themes it contains along with some memorable quotes.

Introduction

Zen and the Art of Motor Cycle Maintenance is the first of Robert M. Pirsig‘s texts in which he explores his Metaphysics of Quality. The 1974 book describes, in first person, a 17-day motorcycle journey across the United States by the author (though he is not identified in the book) and his son Chris, joined for the first nine days by close friends John and Sylvia Sutherland. The trip is punctuated by numerous philosophical discussions, referred to as Chautauquas by the author, on topics including epistemology, ethical emotivism and the philosophy of science.

The book sold over 4 million copies in twenty-seven languages and was described by the press as the most widely read philosophy book, ever. It was originally rejected by 121 publishers, more than any other bestselling book, according to the Guinness Book of Records.

In the book, Pirsig explores the meaning and concepts of “quality” (a term which he deems to be undefinable). In later works Pirsig expands his exploration of quality into a complete metaphysics which he calls The Metaphysics of Quality, which, as the title suggests, has to do with a non-intellectualizing, non-conceptualizing, Zen-like direct viewing of the Universe. Yet Pirsig departs from Eastern thinking by arguing that Western rationality is just as important in seeking understanding. Pirsig’s thesis is that to truly experience quality one must embrace both and apply them as befits the requirements of the situation. According to Pirsig, this would avoid a great deal of frustration and dissatisfaction common to modern life.

I’ll explore the main themes below:

The Necessity of Reconciling the Classic/Romantic Split

This theme is reinforced at frequent intervals throughout the book in various direct and indirect ways. The Narrator directly deals with it often in his Chautauquas and he asserts that unless the split was healed, civilization was bound to continue in a downward spiral into more technological ugliness and increasingly brutal warfare. Objectivity gone wild, especially as represented by value-free scientific perspectives, would continue to move the world to ugliness and discord. Naive rejections of technology would not be viable, either. Blind action and reaction resultant from a lack of receptivity to the guiding urgings of Quality need to be replaced by right living cultivated through caring attentiveness.

The Importance of Spiritualizing Everyday Life

The Narrator develops this theme in several ways. His Chautauquas directly speak of the unpleasant consequences of work done by people who are in thoughtless, uncaring states of mind. He speaks at length about everyday principles of right living in his prolonged explication of gumption traps. He traces the critical connection between peace of mind and beautiful products and relationships. He compares and contrasts people who have and who do not have this peace of mind throughout his observations in the various locales of the physical journey. He compares and contrasts himself to his former self as Phaedrus to illustrate the importance of establishing a vigilance concerning adhering to the principles of right living. This theme quite clearly is reflected in the book’s title. Meditation, or Zen, is clearly intended to address spirituality; and motorcycle maintenance is most definitely representative of daily life. The message intended by the juxtaposition is to devote caring attentiveness, a meditative attitude, to the details of daily living so that Quality can express itself through your actions and relationships.

A Genuine Search for Truth

This theme is developed directly through the exposition regarding Phaedrus’ own early educational career, his teaching experiments at Bozeman, his approach to his studies at the University of Chicago, and his passionate pursuit of the ghost of rationality that lead to his mental breakdown. The clearest exposition of this theme occurs in the prolonged exploration of the evolution of his teaching methods at Bozeman. He abolished grades and did everything that he could to engage and empower his students so that genuine creativity and passion would result. Furthermore, his ten years studying Oriental philosophy and spiritual traditions in India suggest an uncommon devotion to finding out what is what. He is shown to be disturbed by, and very uncomfortable with, playing the game or going through the motions. Finally, the scope of what he considers and attempts to integrate into his worldview–Western and Eastern philosophy, religion, and spirituality; scientific methodology; and theoretical mathematics–indicates a mind intent on a comprehensive integration addre
ssing first and last things.

Quotes

  • What is in mind is a sort of Chautauqua–that’s the only name I can think of for it–like the traveling ten-show Chautauquas that used to move across America, this America, the one that we are now in, an old time series of popular talks intended to edify and entertain, improve the mind and bring culture and enlightenment to the ears and thoughts of the hearer. The Narrator, p. 7
  • Each machine has its own, unique, personality which probably could be defined as the intuitive sum total of everything you know and feel about it. This personality constantly changes, usually for the worse, but sometimes surprisingly for the better, and it is this personality that is the real object of motorcycle maintenance. The Narrator, p. 42
  • I told Chris the other night that Phaedrus spent his entire life pursuing a ghost. That was true. The ghost he pursued was the ghost that underlies all of technology, all of modern science, all of Western thought. It was the ghost of rationality itself. The Narrator, p. 78
  • But there it was, the whole history of science, a clear story of continuously new and changing explanations of old facts. The time spans of permanence seemed completely random, he could see no order in them. Some scientific truths seemed to last for centuries, others for less than a year. Scientific truth was not dogma, good for eternity, but a temporal quantitative entity that could be studied like anything else. The Narrator, p. 108
  • He became aware that the doctrinal differences among Hinduism and Buddhism and Taoism are not anywhere near as important as doctrinal differences among Christianity and Islam and Judaism. Holy wars are not fought over them because verbalized statements about reality are never presumed to be reality itself. The Narrator, p. 136
  • She came trotting by with her watering pot between those two doors, going from the corridor to her office, and she said, “I hope you are teaching Quality to your students.” This in a la-de-da, singsong voice of a lady in her final year before retirement about to water her plants. That was the moment it all started. That was the seed crystal. The Narrator, p. 175
  • 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 thing ahead, each footstep isn’t just a means to and end but a unique event in itself. The Narrator, p. 198
  • “The sun of quality,” he wrote, “does not revolve around the subjects and objects of our existence. It does not just passively illuminate them. It is not subordinate to them in any way. It has created them. They are subordinate to it!” Phaedrus, quoted by the Narrator, p. 234.
  • He read on. Line after line. Page after page. Not a discrepancy. What he had been talking about all the time as Quality was her the Tao, the great central generating force of all religions, Oriental and Occidental, past and present, all knowledge, everything. The Narrator, p. 248
  • The way to solve the conflict between human values and technological needs is not to run away from technology. That’s impossible. The way to resolve the conflict is to break down the barriers of dualistic thought that prevent a real understanding of what technology is–not an exploitation of nature, but a fusion of nature and the human spirit into a new kind of creation that transcends both. The Narrator, p. 284
  • The real cycle you’re working on is a cycle called yourself. The machine that appears to be “out there” and the person that appears to be “in here” are not two separate things. They grow toward Quality of fall away from Quality together. The Narrator, p.319
  • The mythos. The mythos is insane. That’s what he believed. The mythos that says the forms of this world are real but the Quality of this world is unreal, that is insane! The Narrator, p. 346
  • Quality! Virtue! Dharma! That is what the Sophists were teaching! Not ethical relativism. Not pristine “virtue.” But arête. Excellence. Dharma! Before the Church of Reason. Before substance. Before form. Before mind and matter. Before dialectic itself. Quality had been absolute. The Narrator, p. 371
  • In all this Chautauqua talk there’s been more than a touch of hypocrisy. Advice is given again and again to eliminate subject-object duality, when the biggest duality of all, the duality between me and him, remains unfaced. A mind divided against itself. The Narrator, p. 395
  • 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. 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! The Narrator, referring to his son, p. 403-404
  • Trials never end, of course. Unhappiness and misfortune are bound to occur as long as people live, but there is a feeling now, that was not here before, and is not just on the surface of things, but penetrates all the way through: We’ve won it. It’s going to get better now. You can sort of tell these things. The Narrator, p. 406

Themes
The Necessity of Reconciling the Classic/Romantic Split:
This theme is reinforced at frequent intervals throughout the book in various direct and indirect ways. The Narrator directly deals with it often in his Chautauquas. It was the basis for the ghost of rationality that so plagued Phaedrus. The Narrator asserted that unless the split was healed, civilization was bound to continue in a downward spiral into more technological ugliness and increasingly brutal warfare. Objectivity gone wild, especially as represented by value-free scientific perspectives, would continue to move the world to ugliness and discord. Naive rejections of technology would not be viable, either. Blind action and reaction resultant from a lack of receptivity to the guiding urgings of Quality need to be replaced by right living cultivated through caring attentiveness.
The Importance of Spiritualizing Everyday Life:
The Narrator develops this theme in several ways. His Chautauquas directly speak of the unpleasant consequences of work done by people who are in thoughtless, uncaring states of mind. He speaks at length about everyday principles of right living in his prolonged explication of gumption traps. He traces the critical connection between peace of mind and beautiful products and relationships. He compares and contrasts people who have and who do not have this peace of mind throughout his observations in the various locales of the physical journey. He compares and contrasts himself to his former self as Phaedrus to illustrate the importance of establishing a vigilance concerning adhering to the principles of right living. This theme quite clearly is re
flected in the book’s title. Meditation, or Zen, is clearly intended to address spirituality; and motorcycle maintenance is most definitely representative of daily life. The message intended by the juxtaposition is to devote caring attentiveness, a meditative attitude, to the details of daily living so that Quality can express itself through your actions and relationships.
A Genuine Search for Truth:
This theme is developed directly through the exposition regarding Phaedrus’ own early educational career, his teaching experiments at Bozeman, his approach to his studies at the University of Chicago, and his passionate pursuit of the ghost of rationality that lead to his mental breakdown. The clearest exposition of this theme occurs in the prolonged exploration of the evolution of his teaching methods at Bozeman. He abolished grades and did everything that he could to engage and empower his students so that genuine creativity and passion would result. Furthermore, his ten years studying Oriental philosophy and spiritual traditions in India suggest an uncommon devotion to finding out what is what. He is shown to be disturbed by, and very uncomfortable with, playing the game or going through the motions. Finally, the scope of what he considers and attempts to integrate into his worldview–Western and Eastern philosophy, religion, and spirituality; scientific methodology; and theoretical mathematics–indicates a mind intent on a comprehensive integration addressing first and last things.
Style
Point of View
The book is written using first-person narration, but the Narrator has a split personality and speaks of himself in the third person as “Phaedrus” when referencing the period in his life before he underwent a radical psychotherapy called Annihilation ECS. The book is, in part, about him coming to terms with that part of his life and reintegrating his personality to achieve a unified personality capable of dealing with his life roles in a more genuine way. The narration itself fluctuates among descriptions of current events on a cross-country motorcycle trip, descriptions of Phaedrus’ life and ideas, and philosophical Chautauquas abounding in digressions. There are also dreamscapes suggestive of inner turmoil.
Setting
The cross country motorcycle trip begins in Minneapolis, Minnesota and features many stops before ending on the California coast near San Francisco. There are campgrounds, motels, restaurants, various towns, and a wide spectrum of physical landscapes. Particularly important stops include the school in Bozeman, Montana; the DeWeese’s just outside of Bozeman; and the mountains just outside of Bozeman. The Phaedrus episodes include settings in India, Korea, Bozeman, and Chicago. Some of the story involves dreamscapes. Lastly, the world of high ideas is another prominent setting.
Language and Meaning
The language is relatively accessible in terms of its sentence structure and general vocabulary level. However, there is frequent reference to difficult and abstruse philosophical material from both Western and Eastern civilizations. In places, the closet attention is required to follow the gist of the narrative. A passing familiarity with Oriental spiritual traditions is presupposed.
Structure
The book’s four parts are divided into 32 chapters. They are framed by a cross-country motorcycle trip involving, primarily, the Narrator and his son Chris, but which also included a couple, The Sutherlands, for the first half. Within that trip, the Narrator presents a series of philosophical talks called Chautauquas. Within the Chautauquas, he presents detailed information about “Phaedrus,” himself before Annihilation ECS. There are digressions and dreamscapes to keep track of, too. The details of the physical trip in current time often reflect and reinforce the philosophical dimensions of the narrative. All in all, the book’s structure traces the resolution of three important problems. There is the split between Classic and Romantic perspectives, known as the Western dualistic tradition. Next, there is the Narrator’s unrest stemming from having had a mental breakdown and having undergone a consequent radical procedure known as Annihilation ECS. Finally, there is the distant relationship between the Narrator and his troubled son.
Quotes
What is in mind is a sort of Chautauqua–that’s the only name I can think of for it–like the traveling ten-show Chautauquas that used to move across America, this America, the one that we are now in, an old time series of popular talks intended to edify and entertain, improve the mind and bring culture and enlightenment to the ears and thoughts of the hearer. The Narrator, p. 7
Each machine has its own, unique, personality which probably could be defined as the intuitive sum total of everything you know and feel about it. This personality constantly changes, usually for the worse, but sometimes surprisingly for the better, and it is this personality that is the real object of motorcycle maintenance. The Narrator, p. 42
I told Chris the other night that Phaedrus spent his entire life pursuing a ghost. That was true. The ghost he pursued was the ghost that underlies all of technology, all of modern science, all of Western thought. It was the ghost of rationality itself. The Narrator, p. 78
But there it was, the whole history of science, a clear story of continuously new and changing explanations of old facts. The time spans of permanence seemed completely random, he could see no order in them. Some scientific truths seemed to last for centuries, others for less than a year. Scientific truth was not dogma, good for eternity, but a temporal quantitative entity that could be studie
d like anything else. The Narrator, p. 108
He became aware that the doctrinal differences among Hinduism and Buddhism and Taoism are not anywhere near as important as doctrinal differences among Christianity and Islam and Judaism. Holy wars are not fought over them because verbalized statements about reality are never presumed to be reality itself. The Narrator, p. 136
She came trotting by with her watering pot between those two doors, going from the corridor to her office, and she said, “I hope you are teaching Quality to your students.” This in a la-de-da, singsong voice of a lady in her final year before retirement about to water her plants. That was the moment it all started. That was the seed crystal. The Narrator, p. 175
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 thing ahead, each footstep isn’t just a means to and end but a unique event in itself. The Narrator, p. 198
“The sun of quality,” he wrote, “does not revolve around the subjects and objects of our existence. It does not just passively illuminate them. It is not subordinate to them in any way. It has created them. They are subordinate to it!” Phaedrus, quoted by the Narrator, p. 234.
He read on. Line after line. Page after page. Not a discrepancy. What he had been talking about all the time as Quality was her the Tao, the great central generating force of all religions, Oriental and Occidental, past and present, all knowledge, everything. The Narrator, p. 248
The way to solve the conflict between human values and technological needs is not to run away from technology. That’s impossible. The way to resolve the conflict is to break down the barriers of dualistic thought that prevent a real understanding of what technology is–not an exploitation of nature, but a fusion of nature and the human spirit into a new kind of creation that transcends both. The Narrator, p. 284
The real cycle you’re working on is a cycle called yourself. The machine that appears to be “out there” and the person that appears to be “in here” are not two separate things. They grow toward Quality of fall away from Quality together. The Narrator, p.319
The mythos. The mythos is insane. That’s what he believed. The mythos that says the forms of this world are real but the Quality of this world is unreal, that is insane! The Narrator, p. 346
Quality! Virtue! Dharma! That is what the Sophists were teaching! Not ethical relativism. Not pristine “virtue.” But arête. Excellence. Dharma! Before the Church of Reason. Before substance. Before form. Before mind and matter. Before dialectic itself. Quality had been absolute. The Narrator, p. 371
In all this Chautauqua talk there’s been more than a touch of hypocrisy. Advice is given again and again to eliminate subject-object duality, when the biggest duality of all, the duality between me and him, remains unfaced. A mind divided against itself. The Narrator, p. 395
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. 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! The Narrator, referring to his son, p. 403-404
Trials never end, of course. Unhappiness and misfortune are bound to occur as long as people live, but there is a feeling now, that was not here before, and is not just on the surface of things, but penetrates all the way through: We’ve won it. It’s going to get better now. You can sort of tell these things. The Narrator, p. 406

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