08 September 2012

Book review: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle maintenance (1974), by Robert Pirsig *****

She does not look zen (Sorong, Indonesia)

A narration of a summer motorcycle trip undertaken by a father and his son, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance becomes a personal and philosophical odyssey into fundamental questions on how to live. The narrator'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. Resonant with the confusions of existence, this classic is a touching and transcendent book of life.

You can find a lot about the author here.


This book tells the story of a few people riding their bikes across the West of the United States, but it is not really a book about travel. But then again it is. Travel toward the center of our own self. It is a complex book. To be read in sequence with Zen and the Art of Archery by Eugen Herrigel.The main point of the book is that happiness (or "quality") can be achieved by focussing on and finding beauty in whatever one is doing at any one moment while keeping a cool head on the way forward. Even listening to the unusual noise of a defective motorbike and looking for a fix can yield unexpected satisfaction. At the same time, fixing the broken bike requires scientific, rational knowledge, thinking.

The challenge is to focus on the moment (zen) through a sort of meditative practice of detachment and at the same time never lose sight of where one is going, with (rational) planning for the future.

"Quality" and "truth" were the same thing for the ancient Greeks, and perhaps they should be for us too. Here East Zen meets Western rationalism, the two are complementary. A great read, but a difficult one and I admit I was only able to understand more of it by reading secondary literature about this book.

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