Mondays tend to be terrible for everyone, but on April 24th 2017 it took Robert Pirsig, author of “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” from this world. He was 88, and his book lit the ride for me when the road was darkest.
I first encountered Zen either as a part of a secondhand mooching or while scouring the Strand for treasures. If you’re ever in New York City, that famous bookstore is a repository for rare books, first editions, and advance copies just sitting around in the basement. They also regularly have one to two dollar paperbacks sitting in shelves outside.
At the time I was already taking philosophy courses, so the rambling, musing narrative wasn’t a distraction, but a familiar pace that broke up the rather tedious people that Phaedrus, or the man who would become Phaedrus, met in his journey on a motorcycle with his young son. My copy of Zen was a latter edition with an interview where the author clarified the deal with Phaedrus: that the mental health institutions who were supposed to fix Robert Pirsig had instead destroyed the brilliance within him, and the motorcycle journey was one he had to make to reclaim it. I imagine that both the unfamiliar narrative style, the audacity of drawing from philosophy texts as if people actually read them, and the casual criticism of the society Phaedrus lived in must have contributed to the hundred-plus rejections Zen got before it was published. This sort of thing is what I mean:
“When one person suffers from a delusion, it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion it is called a Religion.”
For a young, pissed-off atheist, that shit is gold. It’s so refreshing to realize people are having the same thoughts I am, and that I’m not insane, just in a minority. I’ve got a much more balanced keel now when it comes to spiritual matters, and that’s partially because of Zen. It helped give resolve to a young man who was having trouble becoming who I am today. Just like Phaedrus, society had been beating me down, probably with the best of intentions, because they didn’t understand who I was growing to be.
Little bit of background: When I was fourteen, my father died from a long fight with kidney disease. We weren’t wealthy, and the wait for a new kidney was long. Dialysis was robbing my father of the usual vigor he had for life. This was a guy who had once led whole gangs and kept a lot of people from dying, all while running around with a ridiculous fanny pack stuffed with tiger balm. For the last two years of his life he was a walking skeleton who was in pain almost all the time. My father went into cardiac arrest while I was flying back to New York from a family trip. We immediately turned around and flew back, but it was too late to see him. I was somewhere in the sky near Japan when he died at a hospital in Hong Kong.
When they called me in to look at the body and to attend the funeral, it was an experience I will never forget. I wasn’t sad, not immediately. The body was just a body, something he had left behind that wasn’t the father I remembered climbing all over and talking philosophy with every day after school. My father had been dying by degrees for two years, and I had more or less come to terms with the fact that he was going. Grief is a strange guest at my house, imposing on me when least expected, but gracious enough to leave me be when there is battle to be done.
And there was battle, oh yes. The thing I will never forget is watching my whole family clustered around my father’s body. You mustn’t cry on him, they said. You mustn’t turn back to look at the grave. You mustn’t do this, you mustn’t do that. All I wanted to do was actually remember the man, but they were more concerned with religion than my father himself. The period between his death and the funeral was a whirlwind of ritual. But my father never visited his ancestors’ markers. He never adhered so much to the ancient customs, so why was my family? Why were they pulling out all the animist and shamanist rituals when my father had converted to Buddhism years ago? That was when I realized that none of that crap was for him, but for all those people milling around, still fucking alive.
I spent a long time wrestling with those thoughts because I never believed in anything religious or spiritual, and I always wondered why anybody did. Those funeral rituals certainly didn’t make me feel better. It didn’t bring my father back or tell me how I should go from there. So I delved into atheism, and how people were pushing back against beliefs that plainly made no sense. And that’s when I found Zen.
Some years later the book would couple with the memory of my father’s unrequitted love of motorcycles, and I would buy one of my own: a Ducati Monster 750, which is still in my garage today. Yesterday my wife tried to make me stop tinkering with it and just get her to run. But that’s not the only thing a bike is for. Zen did a remarkable job describing what bikers feel when we ride:
“In a car you’re always in a compartment, and because you’re used to it you don’t realize that through that car window everything you see is just more TV. You’re a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame.
On a cycle the frame is gone. You’re completely in contact with it all. You’re in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming.”
And while yes, that’s what a lot of people get from it, that tendency for motorbikes to approach the freedom of flight, but I gravitate towards a different quote:
“The real purpose of the scientific method is to make sure nature hasn’t misled you into thinking you know something you actually don’t know.”
Which is, I think, the message that a lot of media covering Pirsig’s death will gloss over. Most of Zen is about the assumptions people have about what they know, and their interpretation of what is valuable in that knowledge. Value was a topic of serious discussion to Pirsig, and one that is embodied by one scene where he is trying to fix his buddy’s bike with a piece of a beer can. His buddy basically looked at him like he was crazy, because no way was a shitty piece of beer-stained aluminum going to work on his top-of-the-line motorbike. BUT IT DID.
That scene reminded me so much of my family standing around my father’s body, talking about what they were going to do with it in keeping with Chinese values. Those beliefs had no bearing on whether the rituals themselves would respect my father, who believed in compassion and the richness of the spirit. Nobody asked me what I wanted to do, or who I wanted to be, because the values my family had already decided were important overrode many of the values that might have been of concern. There was no rational thought involved, no equivalent of scientific method. No sense, if I’m being callous.
The motorcycle manufacturer’s badge, like my family’s superstitious belief and the mental institutions that destroyed the first Phaedrus, was an artificial value, artificial knowledge. The badge has no bearing on whether or not a part will work on the bike, especially trapped in the desert miles from the nearest dealership. Those values exert an undue influence that has nothing to do with who we, as individuals, think is valuable. And while my family is still my family, and I care for them very much, they’re all trapped in this artificial value that someone else made for them, without the weapon of rationality to cut them free of it.
Like I was trying to tell my wife, the motorcycle and the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is about more than the ride itself. It’s about the bike as a microcosm of the world. There’s a lot of mysterious gee-gaws in there, a lot of machinery that someone could learn about and understand. You don’t have to just trust the manufacturer’s existing values of what should be and ride at factory spec. Rip into it! Rationalize. Improve. Customize. And when that last metaphorical bolt gets ratcheted into place, and the bike finally coughs into life, that moment is when the spirit is finally free to fly.
Ride on, Phaedrus. Your brilliance lives in everybody who’s ever read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.