Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance


When I was a teenager, I saw a new book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It was something I never read. I didn’t seem to be able to relate to something like this at the time. I just thought that it was a strange combination of ideas, from Buddhist meditation techniques to something as prosaic as the work of a mechanic servicing the machines that make schoolboys dream. I am almost in a mind to buy this book and read it, because it is a work of philosophy arising from the cultures that formed our baby-boomer generation.

Going by what I read about this work, there are two essential ideas corresponding with the two parts of the title, namely the desire for something like self-knowledge and “being” on one hand, and on the other, seeking to know the details and reasons for everything, having an enquiring mind. Oddly, this is often the binary that is found in a relationship between a man and a woman. Men often love technical things and reasons for everything, whilst a woman goes by emotion, immediate necessities and instincts. Of course, there are exceptions to these stereotypes, and life has many surprises for us all. If any of my readers has read this book, comments would be most welcome.

How was I brought to think about this product of our age and something so eschewed by those who would love to go back to the 1920’s or the nineteenth century? A very interesting blog linked to one of my articles – Real Rest is the Best dedicated to, I’ll put it in his words – “I am a beloved child of God, and so are you. We are spiritual beings on a human journey. My main interests in life include Nature, music, spirituality, inspiration, philosophy, sports, reading and photography“. I wondered at first whether this blog was not some kind of machine-manufactured spam site to get us to buy something. No, it is obviously a real blog with some quite enlightening articles in the light of my recent discovery of those who go down to the sea in ships and occupy their business in great waters.

The main theme dealt with in this blog is the ever-elusive post-modernism, or the revolt by people of our time against discredited old structures and social conventions. Knowing whether the blog author is an “orthodox” Christian is of no concern to me. There are some fascinating articles. I mentioned Nietzsche in his solitude in the Swiss Alps when writing about the sea, and then I discover Finding solitude where our hearts can grow in love and the quote “the only cure for loneliness is solitude”.

Continuing on from my reflections about solitary yachting, I see so many of my own intuitions reflected in this article. There are two notions that are related but distinct: loneliness and solitude. Loneliness is the condition of alienation found in the writings of existentialists like Sartre, the feeling of alienation from the society in which we feel we need to be integrated and resulting loss of self-esteem. Solitude, on the other hand, is a decision to retreat from the “world” to recover our purpose in life and sense of identity – to seek God. In the tradition of the Church, you can enter a monastery and become a hermit when your Abbot thinks you are ready for it, or you can simply go on a retreat for a week.

I have done retreats, but find them of little meaning. St Ignatius of Loyola had many ideas that are reflected by aspects of modern psychology. For example, you don’t make a decision when you’re upset! He would call it the discernment of spirits. But, many people find such experiences tremendously fulfilling, and retreats can be very useful for spiritual and personal growth. That is if those responsible are mature human beings, which has not always been the case in my experience!

The best retreat need not take more than a week, but away from people, churches and religious establishments. Try camping for a few days in the woods or the mountains if you get seasick… Just a short walk in the park after work for city-dwellers can make all the difference.  It takes a very special kind of person to cope with nine months at sea, as we saw with the account of the 1968-69 non-stop circumnavigation race. Crowhurst was driven to insanity, Moitessier found himself and rejected the rules of the race and Knox-Johnston seems more to have had the “profile” of the motorcycle mechanic, the practical man who kept his mind on the job and returned home to richly-deserved fame and glory. Between Moitessier and Knox-Johnston, who was right? Some of my readers ask this question and see the limitations of those who would have strong opinions of what is right and wrong.

Have a look at this blog, even if it doesn’t seem to be “your thing”. I find depth of thought, something less messy than dismantled motorcycle engines and less “exotic” than Buddhist meditation, perhaps close to our own gardens of the soul…

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12 Responses to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

  1. ed pacht says:

    It’s been such a long, long time since I read “Zen and . . .”, but I still consider it a valuable work, really just as suitable for an orthodox Christian as for a Buddhist, perhaps even more so. It’s really an account of the author’s developing ‘mindfulness’, a thing actually very much in accord with Brother Lawrence’s “Practice of the Presence of God”, the experience of Infinity in the very tissue of ordinary life. He helped me to find God in the most humdrum and boring details of life as much as, and maybe more than, in the profound ‘religious’ moments. It’s a strange book, but worth the read. I think you could write something similar under such a title as “Christ and the Art of Sailing.”

  2. Stephen K says:

    Ah! “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”! One of my formative reads, and one to which I go back time and time again. I have my copy with me here, as I write. From Pirsig’s division of a way of thinking into “classical” and “romantic” – to which you have alluded – to his engaging presentation of Einstein, Kant, Hume, Greek philosophy and Zen as he describes his journey with John and Sylvia and his journey as and from his former self, I found the book simply marvellous. A critic might say that his ideas on reality, truth, function, etc were not new or original but the point is that for me – and no doubt for many readers – they were, and thus its effectiveness was in helping one to see a different angle on such foundational ideas. His Phaedrus challenges even the scientific method. In saying that “he felt institutions such as schools, churches, governments and political organisations of every sort all tended to direct thought for ends other than truth, for the perpetuation of their own functions, and for the control of individuals in the service of those functions” Pirsig exposes a difference between Truth with a capital ‘T’ and “truths”, or purposes, between corporate goal-setting and a meaning of what it is to be an individual.

    I’m sure everyone who liked the book will have drawn their own particular riches from it. The book contains some ideas that are reminiscent of Jiddu Krishnamurti who famously told his followers something to the effect that no-one could find truth by following others (including himself) when he renounced any claim to special status and dissolved the Order of the Star. Organised religion and truth-seeking were incompatible.

    Well, as I say, “Zen and..” was thought-provoking, which may be, after all, its principal point. The value of thinking lies to a large extent in whether we do it creatively, ourselves, by ourselves, and not simply rely on memory and indulge, however elegantly, in regurgitation. You must read it, Father!

    • I’ve just ordered the book from Amazon, and I’ll do a blog article when I read it. I can’t agree more with the idea that we can’t criticise something we’ve never read! What I now know is that it’s worth reading. Yes, I think it is something we will have our own slant on, since I last owned a motorcycle, a Suzuki T200, in 1979.

  3. Stephen K says:

    Father, I too looked up the website “Real Rest is the Best”. One of the presentations linked to it was a talk by Alan Watts, who wrote a lot about Zen. Here, at http://themysteryofchrist.wordpress.com/2013/01/23/jesus-his-religion-by-alan-watts/
    he talks about the religion of Jesus. It is within the theme which we are discussing and, speaking personally, I think provides a salutary reflection for a Christian.

  4. Dale says:

    I am rather embarrassed, the closest I have ever come to this work is to be completely confused by “Volkswagen Repair for the Complete Idiot”!

  5. Stephen K says:

    If I may expand here let me throw up in the air some propositions: (1) you cannot find Zen in Christianity, although you may find Christ in Zen; (2) Resurrection is “Truth”; the “resurrection of Jesus” can be either “Truth” or “a truth” depending on how you use it; the “physical resurrection of Jesus” is a mere “truth”, serving a religious “purpose”; (3) “Incarnation” does not mean God became a specific Man, but that Man becomes God through a specific Man.

    Don’t simply dismiss these propositions as “heresies”. Think about them and see if you can find some truth in them. Then we can discuss why and how. That’s what books like “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” can empower you, or give you the courage, to do. Somehow, I think the Gospels do the same.

    • I think what we need to explain to people is the notion of analogy. Theological language is often expressed as analogy, and becomes nonsense when interpreted literally. If our mind can cope with analogy, then everything appears in a different light and Christianity becomes less “absurd”.

    • ed pacht says:

      (1) you cannot find Zen in Christianity, although you may find Christ in Zen;

      I most certainly do find Zen in Christianity. Though there have been many attempts to present Christianity as a logical construct (in Aquinas, for instance), all such ultimately fail, and it is in the contemplation of logical impossibilities and seeming contradictions that the reality of Christ is found. What is more like a koan than consideration of one as equal to three, of Christ as entirely God and entirely man, of the truth of both predestination and free will? I could go on. Revealed truth is true, and yet ultimately makes no sense. What could be more Zenlike? Ultimately the very act of trying to make sense of it is a colossal missing of the point.

      (2) Resurrection is “Truth”; the “resurrection of Jesus” can be either “Truth” or “a truth” depending on how you use it; the “physical resurrection of Jesus” is a mere “truth”, serving a religious “purpose”;

      I’m not a fan of “either/or” thinking, generally preferring “both/and”. I think that choosing one of these formulations over the other is to eliminate a vital aspect of truth/Truth. The physical resurrection of Jesus is not a “mere” anything. If it be only a historical fact, it is merely a ‘random’ miracle and need not signify anything. If it be not a historical fact it becomes an example of wishful thinking or invented symbolism. It is AND it signifies and in the simultaneity of fact and not-fact us the fullness of real meaning.

      (3) “Incarnation” does not mean God became a specific Man, but that Man becomes God through a specific Man.

      Again, why must we say, “not” and “but”? “Incarnation” means that God became a specific man, the very human Jesus, and walked among us as one of us, breaking down the barrier between humanity and divinity. AND “incarnation” means theosis, the taking up of man, in some ineffable sense, into the divine nature through that specific man.

      • Stephen K says:

        ed, I think your responses are wonderful and a perfect example of how we can see or discover alternately Truth and Mystery through the consideration of different propositions or formulations – a kind of koan approach; an ‘open’ dialectic. Your responses articulate a clear, generous synthesis. I cannot specifically disagree with anything you said. My “propositions” were indeed not intended as counter dogmas but as “problems” or, if you like, “provocations” (in a benign sense) or invitations to the sharing of wisdoms. My point was perhaps to underscore how, in our tendency to insist on this or that “truth”, we often show how little we love “Truth” because we are prepared to ignore or discard the truth that lies beneath the cloak in which it is vested because we do not like the garment. The way of Zen is the way of ‘awakening’. It is not a catechetical system. But then, I think I think, we might find deep benefit were we to read the Gospels in the same spirit. I am sure many Christians have done so where so many have apparently not. May the contemplative construction and our readiness to abandon it simultaneously continue.

  6. ed pacht says:

    I sat down to write my daily poem, and this conversation began to work on me somewhere deep inside. It got all mixed up with an interview I heard on Public Radio with an actor, concerning a part he had in which he needed to turn to the audience and speak directly. This is what resulted . . .

    Words to You,

    You’re listening, aren’t you?
    You want to hear a poem, don’t you?
    It’s insight you want, isn’t it?
    I know you’re there,
    I know you’re thinking,
    examining my words,
    deciding what you think I said.
    Is it what I really said?
    Are those the thoughts I have thought,
    the things I’ve wished to say?
    Have you understood my meaning?
    Does it matter?
    Does it matter?
    Do I know just what I’ve said,
    really know?
    Is there logic in my writing?
    If there is, does it bind my thought?
    Do I mean no more than what I mean?
    If so this poem’s not a poem,
    this vision stops short of what it is,
    and I’ve not touched the hem of truth,
    let alone the One that wears the garment.

    You’re listening, aren’t you?
    You want to hear a poem, don’t you?
    It’s insight you want, isn’t it?
    I know you’re there,
    but there is nothing I can tell you,
    no wisdom I can pour into your mind.
    I can only point,
    by questions lead your gaze within,
    to find the still, small voice of God,
    to know the knowledge that never can be known,
    to find not answers, but Him who is the Answer,
    infinite, unknowable, yet deeply known,
    untouchable, yet touching every atom of your being.

    You’re listening, aren’t you?
    Listen not so much to me.
    Just . . .
    . . . listen!

    —–ed pacht

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