Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

By: Robert M. Pirsig

I was held spellbound grappling along with Pirsig's on this philosophical odyssey. It starts out a bit slow, with more plot, including motorcycle touring and the logic upon which motorcycles are built. As you continue on, though, you spend more and more time inside of the main character's head and a story of inquiry into our society's values, why we think the way we do, and what quality actually means unfolds. It's dense, but Pirsig does a remarkable job carrying us through some of the deepest philosophical inquiry we may ever find ourselves in.

I thought about tattooing the word “Areté” on myself for months after finishing the book.

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And it occurred to me there is no manual that deals with the real business of motorcycle maintenance, the most important aspect of all. Caring about what you are doing is considered either unimportant or taken for granted.
It’s run by ghosts. We see what we see because these ghosts show it to us, ghosts of Moses and Christ and the Buddha, and Plato, and Descartes, and Rousseau and Jefferson and Lincoln, on and on and on. Isaac Newton is a very good ghost. One of the best. Your common sense is nothing more than the voices of thousands and thousands of these ghosts from the past.
We take a handful of sand from the endless landscape of awareness around us and call that handful of sand the world.
To speak of certain government and establishment institutions as “the system” is to speak correctly, since these organizations are founded upon the same structural conceptual relationships as a motorcycle. They are sustained by structural relationships even when they have lost all other meaning and purpose. People arrive at a factory and perform a totally meaningless task from eight to five without question because the structure demands that it be that way. There’s no villain, no “mean guy” who wants them to live meaningless lives, it’s just that the structure, the system demands it and no one is willing to take on the formidable task of changing the structure just because it is meaningless.
He didn’t think of this as a career for his own personal advancement. He was very young and it was a kind of noble idealistic goal.
The state of mind which enables a man to do work of this kind is akin to that of the religious worshipper or lover. The daily effort comes from no deliberate intention or program, but straight from the heart.
What is most astonishing about them is that almost everything he said years later is contained in them. It’s frustrating to see how completely unaware he is at the time of the significance of what he is saying. It’s like seeing someone handling, one by one, all the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle whose solution you know, and you want to tell him, “Look, this fits here, and this fits here,” but you can’t tell him. And so he wanders blindly along one trail after another gathering one piece after another and wondering what to do with them, and you grit your teeth when he goes off on a false trail and are relieved when he comes back again, even though he is discouraged himself. “Don’t worry,” you want to tell him. “Keep going!”
Mountains like these and travelers in the mountains and events that happen to them here are found not only in Zen literature but in the tales of every major religion. This allegory of a physical mountain for the spiritual one that stands between each soul and its goal is an easy and natural one to make. Like those in the valley behind us, most people stand in sight of the spiritual mountains all their lives and never enter them, being content to listen to others who have been there and thus avoid the hardships. Some travel into the mountains accompanied by experienced guides who know the best and least dangerous routes by which they arrive at their destination. Still others, inexperienced and untrusting, attempt to make their own routes. Few of these are successful, but occasionally some, by sheer will and luck and grace, do make it. Once there they become more aware than any of the others that there’s no single or fixed number of routes. There are as many routes as there are individual souls.
To discover a metaphysical relationship of Quality and the Buddha at some mountaintop of personal experience is very spectacular. And very unimportant. If that were all this Chautauqua was about I should be dismissed. What’s important is the relevance of such a discovery to all the valleys of this world, and all the dull, dreary jobs and monotonous years that await all of us in them... The task now is to get back down to that procession with a wider kind of understanding than exists there now.
Now he began to see for the first time the unbelievable magnitude of what man, when he gained power to understand and rule the world in terms of dialectic truths, had lost. He had built empires of scientific capability to manipulate the phenomena of nature into enormous manifestations of his own dreams of power and wealth...but for this he had exchanged an empire of understanding of equal magnitude: an understanding of what it is to be a part of the world, and not an enemy of it.
For him Quality is better seen up at the timberline than here obscured by smoky windows and oceans of words, and he sees that what he is talking about can never really be accepted here because to see it one has to be free from social authority and this is an institution of social authority. Quality for sheep is what the shepherd says. And if you take a sheep and put it up at the timberline at night when the wind is roaring, that sheep will be panicked half to death and will call and call until the shepherd comes, or comes the wolf.

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