Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

| Ton Haarmans

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance This book by Robert Pirsig was discussed in a workgroup on epistomology, of which I was a part. I've been working on it for weeks. An absolutely wonderful book! The story consists of several layers, including:

  • a travelogue;
  • an autobiography of Pirsig's alter ego, the Phaedrus character;
  • the relationship between a father and a son;
  • the passion for motorcycling and working with such a machine;
  • modes of being and knowing such as 'hip' and 'square' and 'classical' versus 'romantic', moving through life fluently or being stuck in limiting thinking patterns and practices;
  • and a treatise on a special, monistic philosophy, in which it is not consciousness, matter, nor a mixture that is the primary substance, but "Quality," the "parent" of subject and object, the measure of all things.

The whole book is a kind of manual for a quality life. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance forces every alert adult reader to think a lot about themselves: about values, about life and about the relationship between the two.

The travelogue, the father-son relationship and tinkering with motorcycles are well worth reading in themselves, but not much has stayed with me. Others will probably appreciate these story layers more.

LotusSpanner But of course it was philosophy that was the central topic in the discussions of the workgroup. I don't remember what exactly we discussed. What has stayed with me is the passion with which this Quality philosophy ('Metaphysics of Quality' or 'MOQ') is disclosed in the book. It had little to do with 'Zen' (other than the aspect of living in the moment), but there are similarities with Tao Te Ching's Taoism as well as Native American views.

"Quality", or "value," as described by Pirsig, cannot be defined because it empirically precedes any intellectual construction of it, namely due to the fact that quality (as Pirsig explicitly defines it) exists always as a perceptual experience before it is ever thought of descriptively or academically. Quality is the "knife-edge" of experience, found only in the present, known or at least potentially accessible to all of "us". Equating it with the Tao, Pirsig postulates that Quality is the fundamental force in the universe stimulating everything from atoms to animals to evolve and incorporate ever greater levels of Quality. According to the MOQ, everything (including ideas, and matter) is a product and a result of Quality." (from Wikipedia)

“You don’t have to go fishing, of course, to fix your motorcycle. A cup of coffee, a walk around the block, sometimes just putting off the job for five minutes of silence is enough. When you do you can almost feel yourself grow toward that inner peace of mind that reveals it all. That which turns its back on this inner calm and the Quality it reveals is bad maintenance. That which turns toward it is good. The forms of turning away and toward are infinite but the goal is always the same.


“I think that when this concept of peace of mind is introduced and made central to the act of technical work, a fusion of classic and romantic quality can take place at a basic level within a practical working context. I’ve said you can actually see this fusion in skilled mechanics and machinists of a certain sort, and you can see it in the work they do. To say that they are not artists is to misunderstand the nature of art. They have patience, care and attentiveness to what they’re doing, but more than this—there’s a kind of inner peace of mind that isn’t contrived but results from a kind of harmony with the work in which there’s no leader and no follower. The material and the craftsman’s thoughts change together in a progression of smooth, even changes until his mind is at rest at the exact instant the material is right.”…
“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. That was what it was about that wall in Korea. It was a material reflection of a spiritual reality.”…
"You should remember that it’s peace of mind you’re after and not just a fixed machine…"