Advice After (re)Reading “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” by Robert Pirsig

First off, don’t.

This is not a book I suggest you buy, or borrow, or download. It’s a book about a cross-country trip taken by a father and his son. It’s a book about the concept of quality. It’s a book about the use of control and lack of creativity in education. It’s a book that brings ancient Greek philosophy into the modern mind. It’s a book about cultivating the mindset of a mechanic, and in saying that, it is a book about Zen Buddhism. But mostly it is a book about a crazy man who is now sane, tracing the path he took once (and then again) towards the ridge line between reason and madness. And it is very good at walking the main character, and the reader up to, and across that line.

“From all this awareness we must select, and what we select and call consciousness is never the same as the awareness because the process of selection mutates it. We take a handful of sand from the endless landscape of awareness around us and call that handful of sand the world.”

I first read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in grad school, and honestly, I had forgotten both how much this book informed my teaching style, my questioning style, my use of inquiry, and also how much damage the book can cause to my mind while reading it. Insanity, between these covers, is defined as existing, or thinking outside of the mythos of culture in which you live. For most of us the concept of getting anywhere near the edge of our culture’s mythos is impossible. We are so mired and marinaded in it that it might be easier to imagine getting permanently outside of the sun’s light, or living in a world without oxygen.

“The range of human knowledge today is so great that we’re all specialists and the distance between specializations has become so great that anyone who seeks to wander freely among them almost has to forego closeness with the people around him.”

But, I don’t know that I have ever felt fully at home in this world, not in the house of my upbringing, nor schools, nor places of employment. And so, it is books like this, books that explore the known edges of the known universe that I am both drawn to, and probably should shy away from. Some of those books are mentioned here, The Tao Te Ching, The Vedic Scriptures, The Upanishads, and various Buddhist literature. All of this, and other books, are brought up to suggest that there might be a unifying feature between reason and passion, between the classical and the romantic.

“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. The time for real reunification of art and technology is really long overdue.”

The Tao, the Dharma, and what Robert Pirsig calls Quality; the suggestion here is that they may all be the same thing, that which gives birth to all other things. And much like the Tao and Upanishads Pirsig suggest that these things can be talked around and near, but not defined, that any definition would diminish that which creates the idea of definition. And so he talks around it, and hints, and suggests, and defines everything below it hierarchically. And somehow this is enough. It is enough to fill a book, to ruin a mind, and to compel a reader to the edge of sanity.

“You’ve got to live right too. It’s the way you live that predisposes you to avoid the traps and see the right facts. You want to know how to paint a perfect painting? It’s easy. Make yourself perfect and then just paint naturally.”

If you have a good life, a simple life, if you walk around generally happy, and unconcerned with the underpinnings of your culture, reality, religion, politics, and society don’t read this book. If you enjoy the fruit and beauties of trees, but care little about their roots, or what roots around in the dark soil below them, don’t read this book.

“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.”

And me, am I ready to give up stuffing my head with dangerous literature that might cause it to explode? No. I am onto The Elegant Universe by Brian Green. Quantum Physics, a lighter, less mind-bending read.

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