Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Once, I had some doubts about my sanity. After all, if you find yourself questioning the realness of reality, you have to wonder — is it reality that is unreal, or your sanity?

When I shared my concerns with this philosophically inclined friend of mine, she reassured me, “Sanity is overrated.” After reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, I think she was right. Perhaps she didn’t go far enough — may be insanity is way underrated.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance defines insanity as the process of stepping outside mythos; mythos being the sum total of our combined knowledge passed down over the generations, the “commonsense” that precedes logic. If reality is not commonsense, what is? And doubting the realness of reality, almost by definition, is stepping outside the bounds of mythos. So it fits; my concerns were indeed well-founded.

But a good fit is no guarantee of the “rightness” of a hypothesis, as Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance teaches us. Given enough time, we can always come up with a hypothesis that fits our observations. The process of hypothesizing from observations and experiences is like trying to guess the nature of an object from the shadow it projects. And a projection is precisely what our reality is — a projection of unknown forms and processes into our sensory and cognitive space, into our mythos and logos. But here, I may be pushing my own agenda rather than the theme of the book. But it does fit, doesn’t it? That is why I found myself muttering “Exactly!” over and over during my three reads of the book, and why I will read it many more times in the future. Let’s remind ourselves again, a good fit says nothing about the rightness of a hypothesis.

One such reasonable hypothesis of ours is about continuity We all assume the continuity of our personality or selfhood, which is a bit strange. I know that I am the same person I was twenty years ago — older certainly, wiser perhaps, but still the same person. But from science, I also know for a fact that every cell, every atom and every little fundamental particle in my body now is different from what constituted my body then. The potassium in the banana I ate two weeks ago is, for instance, what may be controlling the neuronal firing behind the thought process helping me write this essay. But it is still me, not the banana. We all assume this continuity because it fits.

Losing this continuity of personality is a scary thought. How scary it is is what Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance tells you. As usual, I’m getting a bit ahead of myself. Let’s start at the beginning.

In order to write a decent review of this book, it is necessary to summarize the “story” (which is believed to be based on the author’s life). Like most great works of literature, the story flows inwards and outwards. Outwardly, it is a story of a father and son (Pirsig and Chris) across the vast open spaces of America on a motorbike. Inwardly, it is a spiritual journey of self-discovery and surprising realizations. At an even deeper level, it is a journey towards possible enlightenment rediscovered.

The story begins with Pirsig and Chris riding with John and Sylvia. Right at the first unpretentious sentence, “I can see by my watch, without taking my hand from the left grip of the cycle, that it is eight-thirty in the morning,” it hit me that this was no ordinary book — the story is happening in the present tense. It is here and now — the underlying Zen-ness flows from the first short opening line and never stops.

The story slowly develops into the alienation between Chris and his father. The “father” comes across as a “selfish bastard,” as one of my friends observed.

The explanation for this disconnect between the father and the son soon follows. The narrator is not the father. He has the father’s body all right, but the real father had his personality erased through involuntary shock treatments. The doctor had reassured him that he had a new personality — not that he was a new personality.

The subtle difference makes ample sense once we realize that “he” and his “personality” are not two. And, to those of us how believe in the continuity of things like self-hood, it is a very scary statement. Personality is not something you have and wear, like a suit or a dress; it is what you are. If it can change, and you can get a new one, what does it say about what you think you are?

In Pirsig’s case, the annihilation of the old personality was not perfect. Besides, Chris was tagging along waiting for that personality to wake up. But awakening a personality is very different from waking a person up. It means waking up all the associated thoughts and ideas, insights and enlightenment. And wake up it does in this story — Phaedrus is back by the time we reach the last pages of the book.

What makes this book such a resounding success, (not merely in the market, but as an intellectual endeavor) are the notions and insights from Phaedrus that Pirsig manages to elicit. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is nothing short of a new way of looking at reality. It is a battle for the minds, yours and mine, and those yet to come.

Such a battle was waged and won ages ago, and the victors were not gracious and noble enough to let the defeated worldview survive. They used a deadly dialectical knife and sliced up our worldview into an unwieldy duality. The right schism, according to Phaedrus and/or Pirsig, would have been a trinity.

The trinity managed to survive, albeit feebly, as a vanquished hero, timid and self-effacing. We see it in the Bible, for instance, as the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. We see it Hinduism, as its three main gods, and in Vedanta, a line of thought I am more at home with, as Satyam, Shivam, Sundaram — the Truth, ???, the Beauty. The reason why I don’t know what exactly Shivam means indicates how the battle for the future minds was won by the dualists.

It matters little that the experts in Vedanta and the Indian philosophical schools may know precisely what Shivam signifies. I for one, and the countless millions like me, will never know it with the clarity with which we know the other two terms — Sundaram and Satyam, beauty and truth, Maya and Brahman, aesthetics and metaphysics, mind and matter. The dualists have so completely annihilated the third entity that it does not even make sense now to ask what it is. They have won.

Phaedrus did ask the question, and found the answer to be Quality — something that sits in between mind and matter, between a romantic and a classical understanding of the world. Something that we have to and do experience before our intellect has a chance to process and analyze it. Zen.

However, in doing so, Phaedrus steps outside our mythos, and is hence insane.

If insanity is Zen, then my old friend was right. Sanity is way overrated.

Photo by MonsieurLui


5 thoughts on “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”

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