What You Might Discover From “Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance”

March 7, 2010 § 5 Comments

photo courtesy of Rob!

“In the days of my youth, I was told what it means to be a man /

Now I’ve reached that age I’ve tried to do all those things the best I can.”

–Led Zeppelin, Good Times Bad Times

I first came across Zen And The Art Of Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values four years ago, mentioned as a “must-read” in a men’s self-improvement forum. The title sure is misleading. I wasn’t interested in motorcycles, much less maintaining them. Zen sounded mystical though. Will it put me in Zen? Will being in Zen make me happier?

I bought the book anyway, on the pretext of high acclaim and excellent reviews. I dug into the book for specific advice, only to find an extended travel narrative and a few mentions of the complexities of maintaining a two-wheeled monster. Up until then, it was one of the biggest books I’ve ever tackled (literally and figuratively). I was trying to climb a mountain. Climbing a mountain should be life changing, so I was expecting Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance to change me.

By the time I got to the end of the second chapter, I couldn’t find what I was looking for. All the literary travel fiction wasn’t keeping me amused either. Travel philosophy didn’t find me until a few years later. So I gave up.

And there the book stayed, on a dusty shelf for three years. Paperbacks don’t age gracefully. If you own a paperback for more than three years, you know what I mean. In a humid country such as Singapore, book pages begin to brown rapidly, the insides of covers have ugly brown splotches on them.

The second attempt at Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance felt much easier. Three years later, I had found meaning and joy in journey and exploration, picked up and discarded modern self-improvement clichés, eventually finding Stoicism a more dependable form of personal philosophy. My patience with reading developed too.

The story is an interweaving of two narratives: The narrator and his son’s motorcycle road trip across America, along with the narrator’s explanation of his previous self’s struggle to find the meaning behind the elusive “Quality”. In some ways it can also be seen as a layman’s introduction to philosophy and its famous ideologists.

Anyone looking for self-help should really not be looking at this text. I am not exactly sure how or why it was recommended so on self-improvement forums. Author Robert Pirsig has clearly shown that his life is far from perfect, and cannot give anyone advice on how to live a happy life. The narrator had suffered from split personality, had shock treatment, and struggled to come to terms with his former self. This struggle is also a strain on the father-son relationship, on full display throughout the narrative. It is sometimes painful to witness the father-son relationship play out.

The biggest take away from the book had been of the work of the narrator’s former-self, whom he calls “Phaedrus”. Phaedrus’ work, and what the narrator recalls of, shed light onto the beauty and ugliness of technology, which eventually leads to the inquiry into the Metaphysics of Quality.

When you see a motorcycle for what it is, you see the beauty of the craft, the beautiful handlebars, thrusters, and what it represents: independence, rebellion. This is what Phaedrus calls the “Romantic” view. Its immediate appearance, the inspiration it creates, and the feelings it generates.

The “Classical” view however, is rather unemotional. Its purpose is not to move you or impress. Beauty in the Classical form is all about putting order into chaos, creating proportion, and the maintenance of control. In motorcycle terms, we are looking at engine mechanics and electronic schematics. The dull lists of complex numbers and lines. Show this to the Romantic and she will be turned off.

The goal of the narrator’s previous personality, whom he named “Phaedrus”, was to bridge the gulf between these two increasingly different views towards the world. You would recognize these divergent views in everyday life of the 21st century still. Computers, web design, cooking, music: it is everywhere.

Only by finding the middle ground that accepts both views can a person deal with the frustration and dissatisfaction of everyday life.

There are many lessons within Zen that can be learned, but it can only be done so if one approaches Zen not as a self-help book. Climb this mountain by not expecting it to change or move you, but pay attention to the smell of the air, color of the leaves as you move up the slopes. That itself is one of the lessons of Zen.

My Five Take Aways From Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance

1.  Let Quality be the objective and one of you keys to work satisfaction.

“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.”

2.  Getting there isn’t as enjoyable as the journey itself

“Sometimes it’s a little better to travel than to arrive”

3.  Watch out for the gumption traps

“…a gumption trap, consequently, can be defined as anything that causes one to lose sight of Quality, and thus lose one’s enthusiasm for what one is doing.”

4.  Staying in the present (an extension of no.2)

“To live only for some future goal is shallow. It is the sides of the mountain which sustain life, not the top.”

5.  Technology as a fusion of nature and the human spirit

“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 barrier 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”


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§ 5 Responses to What You Might Discover From “Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance”

  • Ted Leach says:

    I first encountered this book when I was in high school, when one of my teachers mentioned how he read it every few years to get “re-energized about teaching.” I acquired a copy shortly afterward and, like you, didn’t follow the whole book. The motorcycle trip narrative appealed to the budding romantic in me. That was all. But it was later that I appreciated the book on several different levels, including the teaching aspect. Second time in as many days I’ve run into someone encountering this book for the first time. Glad you enjoyed it.

    • kziqi says:

      Hi Ted!

      Thanks for the comment. Its tough for authors to get just one narrative done well, much less multiple levels. Thats why “Zen” really shines. As a recent college grad, I was intrigued with Robert’s description of teaching and learning. I got to reflect on my own education process and what to make of it. This is one book I know I’ll be going back to again and again.

      Best wishes

  • YogiRavi says:

    I finished “Zen and the Art”…wow – it was a long one! Can’t say I’ll be reading it again 🙂



  • Steven Evens says:

    I’m now reading the book and your thoughts give valuable context as I finish the first quarter of the book.

  • AL Orne says:

    Thank you. I was given this to read and really did not understand tge point. I maintain my own bike. But you have shed some light and to my delight I agree. Thanks again

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