Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
by Robert M. Pirsig


Robert Pirsig

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is a deep and impressive work that has sold millions of copies and stayed in print in many languages for over twenty years. I read it for the first time when I was about forty years old. It was good to wait until I was ready for it. I am not sure I can recommend the book, but I am glad I experienced it.

Mr. Pirsig presents the story of his search for the roots of deep philosophical views and his exploration of the branches of those views, from which branches hang all of the results of Western civilization, not the least of which are the universities, motorcycles, and mental hospitals dissected in this book. The philosophic system he proposes is, to my knowledge, unique and original, as well as marvelously free of endorsements or adherents.

I am very interested in exploring how the models or paradigms in which all of us live lead to action. I did not explore Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance with a purpose of determining whether his system is true or even useful. I just like to know what the world looks like inside other people’s heads. The world from inside his head looks wondrously intricate and interconnected, a world in which a man’s motorcycle maintenance methods are determined by the intellectual in-fighting of ancient Greek philosophers. He is generous in the detail with which he shares pieces of his fertile and facile mind.

I very much appreciate the effect reading the book has had on my experience of household repairs. I installed a dishwasher the day I finished the book. I found myself happily immersed in the project, even though a greater than usual number of “gumption traps.” Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance helped me see many obstacles and “wrong turns” more powerfully. I could be with the problem and still be in action. I enjoyed it more, regretted the time spent less, and feel more satisfied with my life. This shift has endured several weeks, through garage cleaning, shelf mending, and hard disk installation. My life has been greatly enhanced by just this one aspect of Pirsig’s philosophy.

And yet…

The narrator’s life described in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance strikes me as sad and lonely, filled with failure and lacking in purpose. Measuring it against the three tenets of MayoGenuine (be genuine, be learning, be transitive) is illuminating. His great strength is his genuineness. He is also an intense learner in the traditional sense of accumulating knowledge and building systems, yet this information never seems to support him in taking the actions that would give him a satisfying life. His behavior does not alter, so learning in the sense in which I use the word does not occur. Most tragically, he seems highly isolated from human relationships, preferring the role of sage observer to participant or leader. He seems entirely ignorant of the meaning and fulfillment available from implementing Transitive Structures. Without these structures, his increasing insight not only fails to support his expression, it ultimately undermines his very survival.

Luckily, his insight is available for others who may read this book and re-direct their own lives.

[Items enclosed in brackets are Tony Mayo’s comments]

p. 11 I can see by my watch, without taking my hand from the left grip of the cycle, that it is eight-thirty in the morning.

  • [The very first sentence of the book immediately illustrates how time is a creature of and in service of man-created technology, so accepted as real that is is not remarked upon.]
  • [Much of the book displays this sort of total integration of plot with philosophy, symbolism and allegory of such precision and depth that it can not be contrived. The entire book reads as though this is the only possible way it could have been written. He is so genuine, thorough, and open that every sentence he writes is a holographic fragment of his world view.]

p. 27 I argued that physical discomfort is important only when the mood is wrong. Then you fasten on whatever thing is uncomfortable and call that the cause. But if the mood is right, then physical discomfort doesn’t mean much.

p. 82 The application of this knife, the division of the world into parts and the building of this structure, is something everybody does. All the time we aware of millions of things around us … aware of these things but not really conscious of them unless there is something unusual or they reflect something we are predisposed to see.

p. 87 …they must have been thinking about how bad all this is. That’s what’s really wearing them down. The thought.

p. 114 Einstein had said: “Man tries to make for himself in the fashion that suits him best a simplified and intelligible picture of the world. He then tries to some extent to substitute this cosmos of his for the world of experience, and thus to overcome it.” [This seems to contradict Einstein’s well known position, in opposition to Mach, that our experience of the world emerges from and within the constraints of our theories and expectations.]

p. 116

  • [A huge error is made here, as Pirsig argues that the increasing speed of scientific discovery merely undermines our grasp of the Truth, that the more we apply the scientific method, the more rapidly we undermine yesterday’s truths. This is a common misunderstanding of scientific progress.]
  • [Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, for example, did not displace Newton’s laws, it expanded them. Scientific knowledge is being refined and expanded, not torn down and re-built. Seldom is a well-accepted law of science proven wrong, is is merely relegated to the status of special case or limited application as our understanding grows.]
  • [Ironically, Jules Henri Poincare, whom the author admires (see below), was closer to my view when he wrote: “The advance of science is not comparable to the changes of a city, where old edifices are pitilessly torn down to give place to new, but to the continuous evolution of new of zoologic types which develop ceaselessly and end by becoming unrecognizable to the common sight, but where an expert eye finds always traces of the prior work of past centuries. Valeur de la Science 1904]

p. 121 He felt that institutions such as schools, churches, governments, and political organizations of every sort all tended to direct thought for ends other than truth, for the perpetuation of their own functions, and for the control of the individuals in the service of these functions.

p. 170 During periods of root expansion things have always looked as confused and topsy-turvey and purposeless as they do now. the whole renaissance…

p. 204 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.

p. 206 Quality is a characteristic of thought and statement that is recognized by a nonthinking process. Because definitions are a product of rigid, formal thinking, quality cannot be defined..

p. 210 Any effort that has self-glorification as its final endpoint is bound to end in disaster.

p. 239 Quality is not a thing. It is an event.

  • without objects there can be no subject–because the objects create the subject’s awareness of itself.
  • The Quality event is the cause of the subjects and objects, which are then mistakenly presumed to be the cause of Quality!

p. 264 Poincare wrote: “If a phenomenon admits of a complete mechanical explanation it will admit of an infinity of others which will account equally well for all the peculiarities disclosed by the experiment.” [I think he again misused Poincare. This quote merely illustrates the power and necessity of parsimony and elegance. See Occam’s Razor.]

p. 283 The leading edge is where absolutely all the action is. The leading edge contains all the infinite possibilities of the future. It contains all the history of the past. Where else could it be?

p. 285 Consider, for a change, that this is a moment not to be feared but to be cultivated. If your mind is truly, profoundly stuck, then you may be much better off than when it was loaded with ideas.

p. 286 Stuckness shouldn’t be avoided. It’s the psychic predecessor of all real understanding.

    p. 287 There’s no predicting what’s on that Quality track. The solutions are all simple–after you have arrived at them.
    p. 310 Just live with it for a while. … That’s the way the world keeps on happening. Be interested in it.

p. 356 … seem to go through huge portions of their lives without consciousness of what’s immediately around them. The media have convinced them that what’s right around them is unimportant. And that’s why they’re lonely. You see it in their faces. First the little flicker of searching, then when they look at you, you’re just a kind of an object., You don’t count. You’re not what they’re looking for. You’re not on TV. [See also Inattention and Parasite.]

p. 357 Or if he takes whatever dull job he’s stuck with–and they are all, sooner or later, dull–and, just to keep himself amused, starts to look for options of Quality, and secretly pursues these options, just for their own sake, thus making an art out of what he is doing, he’s likely to discover that he becomes a much more interesting person and much less of an object to the people around him because his Quality decisions change him too. And not only the job and him, but others too, because the Quality tends to fan out like waves. The Quality job he didn’t think anyone was going to see is seen, and the person who sees it feels a little better because of it, and is likely to pass that feeling on to others, and in kind that way the Quality tends to keep on going.

p.358 Everyone’s just about out of gumption. And I think its about time to return to the rebuilding of this American resource–individual worth.

p. 358 … among the ancient Greeks, whose mythos had endowed our culture with the tendency underlying all the evil of our technology, the tendency to do what is “reasonable” even when it isn’t any good. That was the root of the whole thing.

p. 371 Plato’s hatred of the rhetoricians was part of a much larger struggle in which the reality of the Good, represented by the Sophists, and the reality of the True, represented by the dialecticians, were engaged in a huge struggle for the future mind of man. Truth won, the Good lost, and that is why today we have so little difficulty accepting the reality of truth and so much difficulty accepting the reality of Quality, even though there is no more agreement in one area than in the other.

p. 374 Man is not the source of all things, as the subjective idealists would say. Nor is he the passive observer of all things as the objective idealists and materialists would say. The Quality which creates the world emerges as a relationship between man and his experience. He is a participant in the creation of all things.

p. 377 Aretê implies a respect for the wholeness or oneness of life, and a consequent dislike of specialization. It implies a contempt for efficiency– or rather a much higher idea of efficiency. An efficiency which exists not in one department of life in in life itself.

p. 378 We will always condemn most in others, he thought, that which we most fear in ourselves.

p. 401 I survive mainly by pleasing others. You do that to get out. To get out you figure out what they want you to say and then you say it with as much skill and originality as possible and then, if they’re convinced, you get out. If I hadn’t turned on him I’d still be there, but he was true to what he believed right to the end. That’s the difference between us, and Chris knew it. And that’s the reason why sometimes I feel he’s the reality and I’m the ghost.
What I am is a heretic who’s recanted, and thereby in everyone’s eyes saved his soul. Everyone’s eyes but one, who knows deep down inside that all he has saved is his skin.

p. 415 This book offers another, more serious alternative to material success. It’s not so much an alternative as an expansion of the meaning of “success” to something larger than just getting a good job and staying out of trouble. And also something larger than mere freedom. It gives a positive goal to work toward that does not confine.

p. 416 What had to be seen was that the Chris I missed so badly was not an object but a pattern, and that although the pattern included the flesh and blood of Chris, that was not all there was to it. The pattern was larger than Chris and myself, and related us in ways the neither of us understood completely and neither of us was in complete control of.

Now Chris’s body, which was a part of that larger pattern, was gone. But the larger pattern remained.


Zen and the
Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

by Robert M. Pirsig