Books & Comics

Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: Robert M. Pirsig

Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance : Robert M. Pirsig

Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance

I do not remember when I first got my hands on this book, it must be in early 1990’s just after completing my school when I got the opportunity t0 read it first for the first time.  All I remember is getting a old, dog eared copy of the book at the Sunday Book Bazaar at Darya Gunj in Delhi at at throw-away price. Once I had finished reading, a friend borrowed, never to return it back. He moved back to his home-town in southern part of India and we lost contact. I do remember him though whenever I think of Zen And the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, not that I want to get the book back, but because it is a link with an friend.

Then I bought another copy of the book, this time a new one from the Book Fair at Delhi’s Pragati Maidan. Again I couldn’t keep it for long, gifted it to another motorcycle enthusiast friend.

Another copy was bought few years back and gifted to a Korean colleague when he was visiting India for the first time and was dreaming of settling down in America one day.

I do have it in e-book forms, a PDF version which a friend shared a long time back and one bought from Amazon for the Kindle.

I ordered one more copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values  today along Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals, which I haven’t read so far.  Hoping to read soon  or it may reach someone else, as far as the history of this book with me goes, it never stays with me for long, I will be happy with that too.

There are times in our life when we feel impatient, not sure about whats happening to us or people around us, the society, the country, the world. But then are also those moments when we feel totally at ease with our personal life and the overall environment. Whatever be the scenario we may find ourselves in, it helps to read a book like this which just calms the mind, brings some clarify in life. Explains and even tries to teach the highly complicated philosophical theories in a very practical and layman’s term. That’s what I love about this book and the writer whom I consider as my Guru ‘Pirsig’. It is undoubtedly one of my most favorite books.

What is this Book About?

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is, in a nutshell, an intellectual and very well measured rantings of a person who have seen huge swings of ups & downs in life. A heart filled with pain & sorrow as well as love and compassion, a mind which is logical yet open to question even the logic and willing to see things beyond plain black and white.

Yin Yang

Yin Yang



Its a beautifully written, first person narrative account  of a motorcycle trip undertaken by father and his young son. The book becomes a personal and philosophical odyssey into fundamental questions of how to live. The writer’s relationship with his son leads to a powerful self-reckoning; the craft of motorcycle maintenance leads to an austerely beautiful process for reconciling science, religion, and humanism.

About Pirsig

Rare Pirsig photograph taken by David Buchanan in Wales (July, 2005)

Rare Pirsig photograph taken by David Buchanan in Wales (July, 2005)

His Wikipedia page says Pirsig was born and raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota to Maynard Pirsig and Harriet Marie Sjobeck, and is of German and Swedish descent. Robert M. Pirsig was born in 1928 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  His father was a University of Minnesota Law School (UMLS) graduate, and started teaching at the school in 1934. The elder Pirsig served as the law school dean from 1948 to 1955, and retired from teaching at UMLS in 1970. He resumed his career as a professor at the William Mitchell College of Law, where he remained until his final retirement in 1993. Because he was a precocious child, with an I.Q. of 170 at age 9, Robert Pirsig skipped several grades and was enrolled at the Blake School in Minneapolis. Pirsig was granted a high school diploma in May 1943, and entered the University of Minnesota to study biochemistry that autumn.  He studied chemistry and philosophy (B.A., 1950) and journalism (M.A., 1958) at the University of Minnesota, pursued graduate work in philosophy at the University of Chicago, and attended Benares Hindu University in India, where he studied Oriental philosophy.

In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, he described the central character, thought to represent himself, as being far from a typical student; he was interested in science as a goal in itself, rather than as a way to establish a career.

While doing laboratory work in biochemistry, Pirsig became greatly troubled by the existence of more than one workable hypothesis to explain a given phenomenon, and, indeed, that the number of hypotheses appeared unlimited. He could not find any way to reduce the number of hypotheses–he became perplexed by the role and source of hypothesis generation within scientific practice. This led him to an awareness of a (to him) previously unarticulated limitation of science, which was something of a revelation to him. The question distracted him to the extent that he lost interest in his studies and failed to maintain good grades; he was finally expelled from the university.

Pirsig enlisted in the United States Army in 1946 and was stationed in South Korea until 1948. Upon his discharge from the Army, he returned to the U.S. and lived in Seattle, Washington for less than a year, at which point he decided to finish the education he had abandoned. He earned a Bachelor of Arts in Eastern Philosophy in May 1950. He then attended Banaras Hindu University in India, to study Eastern Philosophy and culture. Although he did not obtain a degree, he performed graduate-level work in philosophy and journalism at the University of Chicago. His difficult experiences as a student in a course taught by Richard McKeon were later described, thinly disguised, in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. In 1958, he became a professor at Montana State University in Bozeman, and taught creative writing courses for two years.

Pirsig suffered a nervous breakdown and spent time in and out of psychiatric hospitals between 1961 to 1963. He was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and clinical depression as a result of an evaluation conducted by psychoanalysts. In the years following the publication of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance he has been solitary and reclusive. Pirsig has traveled around the Atlantic by boat, and has resided in Norway, Sweden, Belgium, Ireland, England and in various places around the United States since 1980. In 1979, Pirsig’s son Chris, who figured prominently in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, was stabbed to death during a mugging outside the San Francisco Zen Center. Pirsig discusses this incident in an afterword to subsequent editions of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, writing that he and his second wife, Kimball, decided not to abort the child she conceived in 1980, because he had come to believe that this unborn child was a continuation of the life pattern that Chris had occupied. This child’s name is Nell.

The Plot

A first person narrative of a a road trip across the Dakotas, Montana, Idaho, Oregon and California. It’s a philosophical inquiry into the nature of Quality. It’s also the story of a man running from a ghost of his former self after a mental illness.

Lewis & Clark expedition (1804-1806)

Lewis & Clark expedition (1804-1806)

The book begins on the central plains of Minnesota. A road trip is in progress with four riders: the narrator and his eleven-year-old son Chris share a motorcycle; their companions are a married couple, John and Sylvia Sutherland. Philosophical musings arise early in the narrative, comparing the way John understands mechanical problems with the narrator’s approach. Philosophical questions routinely include a motorcycle analogy. The ruminations range from ghosts to technology, Eastern philosophy to empiricism, rationalism to rhetoric. Each of these discourses takes place on the back of a motorcycle, in the form of a lecture which Pirsig likens to the Chautauqua assemblies of the 19th and early 20th Centuries.

Zen and the art of Motorcycle Maintenance - The Movie

Zen and the art of Motorcycle Maintenance – The Movie

Bull Moose

Bull Moose

Red winged blackbird

Red winged blackbird

As the book proceeds, a different narrative emerges, that of Pirsig’s own life before the onset of mental illness. He uses the name Phaedrus when referring to his former self, a self he cannot remember except in fragments due to the effects of electric shock therapy. This line of the narrative becomes gradually more consuming as Phaedrus begins to reveal himself to Pirsig in dreams, and to the reader through Pirsig’s descriptions of Phaedrus’ own philosophical inquiries into the metaphysics of quality which usurp the Chautauqua lectures. By the final chapter, Phaedrus has taken over Pirsig’s stream of consciousness. But it is for his son Chris, rather than Pirsig himself, that Phaedrus has come.

Some words to read, re-read and ponder upon…

“The laws of science contain no matter and have no energy either and therefore do not exist except in people’s mind”

“If someone’s ungrateful and you tell him he’s ungrateful, okay, you’ve called him a name. You haven’t solved anything”

“Some things you miss because they’re so tiny you overlook them. But some things you don’t see because they’re so huge”

“Mark Twain’s experience comes to mind, in which, after he had mastered the analytic knowledge needed to pilot the Mississippi River, he discovered the river had lost its beauty”

“If a revolution destroys a systematic government, but the systematic patterns of thought that produced that government are left intact, then those patterns will repeat themselves in the succeeding government. (There’s so much talk about the system. And so little understanding.)”

“The real purpose of scientific method is to make sure Nature hasn’t misled you into thinking you know something you don’t actually know”

“Einstein had said: Man tries to make for himself in the fashion that suits in 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 overcome it… He makes this cosmos and its construction the pivot of his emotional life in order to find in this way the peace and serenity which he cannot find in the narrow whirlpool of personal experience. … The supreme task … is to arrive at those universal elementary laws from which the cosmos can be built up by pure deduction. There is no logical path to these laws; only intuition, resting on sympathetic understanding of experience, can reach them….”

“You are never dedicated to something you have complete confidence in. (No one is fanatically shouting that the sun is going to rise tomorrow. They *know* it’s going to rise tomorrow.) When people are fanatically dedicated to political or religious faiths or any other kinds of dogmas or goals, it’s always because these dogmas or goals are in doubt.”

“Peace of mind isn’t at all superficial “

“To doubt the literal meaning of the words of Jesus or Moses incurs hostility from most people, but it’s just a fact that if Jesus or Moses were to appear today, unidentified, with the same message he spoke many years ago, his mental stability would be challenged. This isn’t because what Jesus or Moses said was untrue or because modern society is in error but simply because the route they chose to reveal to others has lost relevance and comprehensibility”

“For every fact there is an infinity of hypotheses”

“The more you look, the more you see”

“The past exists only in our memories, the future only in our plans. The present is our only reality.”

“Look and notice well; but as there isn’t time to see everything and as it’s better not to see than to see wrongly, it’s necessary for him to make a choice.”

“The difference between a good mechanic and a bad one, like the difference between a good mathematician and a bad one, is precisely this ability to select the good facts from the bad ones on the basis of quality.” (He has to care!)

“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”

“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” (Time for real reunification of art and technology is really long overdue)

“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”

“Well, he should somehow try to slow down deliberately and go over ground that he has been over before and see if things he thought were important really were important […]”

“We just have to keep going until we find out what’s wrong or find out why we don’t know what’s wrong”

“The real evil isn’t the objects of technology but the tendency of technology to isolate people into lonely attitudes of objectivity”

“The One in India has got to be the same as the One in Greece.  The only disagreements among the monists concern the attributes of the One, not the One itself. Since the One is the source of all things and includes all things in it, it cannot be defined in terms of those things, since no matter what thing you use to define it, the thing will always describe something less than the One itself.”

“- Will you show me all of them?

– Sure

– Is it hard?

– Not if you have the right attitudes. It’s having the right attitudes that’s hard”


3 thoughts on “Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: Robert M. Pirsig

    • Thanks a lot for the link sorry for the delay I just missed your comment. So few genuine people actually comment on this blog and most of the time the comments are just spam. Apologize for the delay. I have also edited the blog and given the correct credit of the photograph to you. I found it on the net and there it was not mentioned who clicked the picture.

      I have downloaded the podcast (episode 50) today and will listen to it soon.

      Thanks a lot for taking the time out to write and share the podcast.

  1. Pingback: Nell pirsig | Keikeigallery

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