Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

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In his Afterword, Pirsig suggests that his book was so successful because it offered, at a pivotal time in American culture, “a positive goal to work toward that does not confine.” In the years leading up to the book’s 1974 publication, romantic and classical ideologies were at odds in the United States. The narrator observes rejection of the capitalist American Dream and mounting popular disgust with the effects of technology as hallmarks of a burgeoning form of anti-classical thought. Ultimately, however, the narrator believes that these sorts of negative ideologies cannot erect anything meaningful in place of the thought they oppose. In response, the narrator weaves into his text a subtle set of prescriptions that can be pieced together to form an approach that transcends both classicism and romanticism. Though this approach is never given an explicit name, it can be understood as Zen.

The narrator uses motorcycle repair as an allegory to describe his concept of Zen—when done right, the craft offers precisely the “positive goal” Pirsig recognized was needed. Devoted motorcycle maintenance fosters an attunement, a sense of presence, and most of all a commitment to Quality work that allow the mechanic to pursue the process out of an intrinsic sense of reward. Importantly, the Zen process is divorced from egotistical concerns. Throughout the book, characters driven by ego are met with failure: for instance, Chris is unsatisfied by his adventures, and Phaedrus’s egotistical attempts to argue his thesis antagonize the academe and ultimately destroy his sanity.

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Zen Quotes in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Below you will find the important quotes in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance related to the theme of Zen.
Chapter 1 Quotes

What is in mind is a sort of Chautauqua...that’s the only name I can think of for it...like the traveling tent-show Chautauquas that used to move across America, this America, the one that we are now in, an old-time series of popular talks intended to edify and entertain, improve the mind and bring culture and enlightenment to the ears and thoughts of the hearer. The Chautauquas were pushed aside by faster-paced radio, movies and TV, and it seems to me the change was not entirely an improvement. Perhaps because of these changes the stream of national consciousness moves faster now, and is broader, but it seems to run less deep.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Page Number: 8-9
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator begins with visual descriptions and the motivation behind the motorcycle journey that he is taking with his son, Chris. He describes images seen from the cycle, the feeling of his feet inches above the pavement, and the type of winding country road he and his friends prefer for such trips. With the time such a trip provides for deep thought, the narrator here introduces the philosophical inquiries he will undertake. To these inquiries he give the name Chautauqua, "traveling tent-show," which provided popular adult and spiritual education at the turn of the 20th century.

The narrator's assertion that Chautauquas were "pushed aside by faster-paced radio, movies, and TV" looks forward to much of the content of his philosophical inquiry, which deals with responses to changing technology and the American way of life. Here he says that the change has not been entirely good, since it has increased the "stream of national consciousness" in speed and breadth, but reduced the depth of culture and general inquiries. Much of the book will deal with what the narrator calls a "romantic" response to technology, also linked to the irrational, which resists the changes and romanticizes the past (much like this nostalgia for Chautauquas). The narrator will try to reconcile this romantic perspective with the "classical" perspective, linked with the rational, which embraces changes and new technologies.


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I would like, instead, to be concerned with the question "What is best?," a question which cuts deeply rather than broadly, a question whose answers tend to move the silt downstream. There are eras of human history in which the channels of thought have been too deeply cut and no change was possible, and nothing new ever happened, and "best" was a matter of dogma, but that is not the situation now. Now the stream of our common consciousness seems to be obliterating its own banks, losing its central direction and purpose, flooding the lowlands, disconnecting and isolating the highlands and to no particular purpose other than the wasteful fulfillment of its own internal momentum. Some channel deepening seems called for.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Page Number: 9-10
Explanation and Analysis:

The central question of the narrator's Chautauqua will be "What is best?" Eventually, this question will lead to a philosophical inquiry into what the narrator calls Quality. The question "What is best?" he says, "cuts deeply rather than broadly," meaning that it requires intensive focus. The narrator suggests that at certain times in human history popular thought and human consciousness was too focused and deeply ingrained so that no change or progress was possible. What was "best" was determined only by the principles and decisions of authority.

The narrator observes that the current "stream of our common consciousness" is now running wild without a "central direction or purpose." Using figurative language to describe the river of thought, the narrator says that popular thought and culture are breaking into new directions, isolating people and ideas, and wasting energy in a purposeless, unfocused broadening. Again, he presents a duality or dichotomy, two sides pitted against each other like Romanticism and Classicism in the quote above. And again, the narrator will try to find a middle ground. Here he says that some deeper thought ("channel deepening") is required, but he will attempt to get deep without reverting to the entrenched, dogmatic characteristics of some eras.

Chapter 2 Quotes

And it occurred to me there is no manual that deals with the real business of motorcycle maintenance, the most important aspect of all. Caring about what you are doing is considered either unimportant or taken for granted.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Related Symbols: Motorcycle Maintenance
Page Number: 34
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator has been captivated by the memory of previous times that his motorcycle has broken down. He remembers with embarrassment a time that he thought the cycle was broken when in fact it simply ran out of gas. He tests the heat of the cycle he is riding, and explains that since this machine has had past "seizures," he tests it from time to time to make sure they wont recur.

After the first time the engine seized, the narrator took the bike into a shop. At the time, he felt it was too important to do the repair himself. The mechanics completely botched the repair, demonstrating a lack of interest in their work. They were detached from the job and rushed it, ultimately causing damage to the machine. The narrator says the young mechanics were spectators in their work, much like the authors of the computer manuals he edits for his profession. Here, he realizes that "there is no manual that deals with the real business of motorcycle maintenance, the most important aspect of all." All current volumes simply deal with the detached, spectator business of repairing the cycle in a disinterested vacuum. The most important aspect to the narrator is simply caring about the work and being invested in what you are doing. This desire for investment, interest, and active awareness will lead to and be further explicated by the narrator's quest for a philosophy of Quality.

The novel itself can thus be seen as the narrator's manual to fill this niche. By showing the attitude required for quality, meaningful motorcycle care, the narrator hopes to communicate a productive overall life philosophy.

Chapter 7 Quotes

What has become an urgent necessity is a way of looking at the world that does violence to neither of these two kinds of understanding and unites them into one. Such an understanding will not reject sand-sorting or contemplation of unsorted sand for its own sake. Such an understanding will instead seek to direct attention to the endless landscape from which the sand is taken. That is what Phædrus, the poor surgeon, was trying to do.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), Phaedrus
Page Number: 98
Explanation and Analysis:

Just before this quote the narrator introduces the metaphor of a handful of sand to describe both the Classical and Romantic modes of thought and being. Some sort of sorting, says the narrator, is essential and is done by everyone, since we are exposed to so many experiences at once that if we were aware of it all at once we could not even think. The landscape of awareness available to us is endless and unfathomable. From that landscape, we take a handful of sand, which represents details and experiences and the world we are conscious of. Taking the handful alone is an act of sorting.

But the romantic seeks to look at the whole handful of sand at once, and the classicist seeks to sort the handful into specific piles by the means of Phaedrus' "knife"—logic used to divide the world we are conscious of into distinct parts.

In the quote, the narrator describes the major project of Phaedrus and of the book itself, to find a way of looking at the world that "does violence to neither of these two kinds of understanding and then unites them into one." By violence, he means that when you attempt to look at the handful all at once, you lose some of the nuance found in the sorting, and when you sort, you lose some of the beauty of the whole. Something is always lost. Phaedrus attempted to embrace both means of viewing the world and unite them. He wanted to look at the endless landscape itself, and the idea that we grab sand at all.

Chapter 14 Quotes

This divorce of art from technology is completely unnatural. It’s just that it’s gone on so long you have to be an archeologist to find out where the two separated. Rotisserie assembly is actually a long-lost branch of sculpture, so divorced from its roots by centuries of intellectual wrong turns that just to associate the two sounds ludicrous.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Related Symbols: Motorcycle Maintenance
Page Number: 209
Explanation and Analysis:

The travelers have arrived at their destination in Bozeman, Montana, where Phaedrus used to teach, and have met DeWeese, the old friend of Phaedrus with whom they will stay. There they are greeted by a small welcoming party, during which at one point DeWeese asks the narrator to review an instruction manual for a rotisserie (a cooking appliance for roasting meat). The inspection of the manual sends the narrator on a long philosophical speech.

In this speech he returns to the split of the classical and the romantic, explaining some of the content of his private Chautauqua to his friends. Here, he elaborates on the false dichotomy between technology and art, saying that it is "completely unnatural." This idea, he says, has been carried throughout history much since the invention of reason. He says "rotisserie assembly is actually a long-lost branch of sculpture," suggesting that technology and art are one. He explains that instead of there being only one right way to assemble a piece of machinery, there are actually infinite ways. The art is in approaching the problem with peace of mind, and in the process of figuring out and choosing which way to proceed.

Chapter 17 Quotes

Mountains should be climbed with as little effort as possible and without desire. The reality of your own nature should determine the speed. If you become restless, speed up. If you become winded, slow down. You climb the mountain in an equilibrium between restlessness and exhaustion. Then, when you’re no longer thinking ahead, each footstep isn’t just a means to an end but a unique event in itself.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Page Number: 258
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator and Chris are hiking through the mountains. The narrator has compared this hike to Phaedrus' intellectual journey, so while the lines quoted refer to the literal climb, they also speak to the mindset the narrator thinks best for approaching other tasks, like intellectual pursuits or motorcycle maintenance. As he does elsewhere with the ideal mindset for fixing a motorcycle, the narrator here describes the "Zen" of mountain climbing.

The climb should be done with little effort and with no desire, the narrator says, and the speed should only be determined by the climber's reality. If you are a slow climber, climb slow. If you feel energetic, speed up. When climbing in between "restlessness and exhaustion," you are able to live in the moment. Every step and task are not just means to accomplish some goal, but rather are events for you to experience and cherish. The narrator suggests noticing things, paying attention to nature, observing, and caring. Later, he will say that someone who climbs just for the goal of reaching the top or satisfying their ego will never be happy during the hike, since they will always wish they were further ahead on the trail. The point (which itself is very "Zen") that the narrator is essentially trying to make here is that we should live in the moment.

Chapter 21 Quotes

No, he did nothing for Quality or the Tao. What benefited was reason. He showed a way by which reason may be expanded to include elements that have previously been unassimilable and thus have been considered irrational. I think it’s the overwhelming presence of these irrational elements crying for assimilation that creates the present bad quality, the chaotic, disconnected spirit of the twentieth century.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), Phaedrus
Page Number: 327-328
Explanation and Analysis:

Still descending the mountain, the narrator says that he wishes to move way from the abstract intellectual pursuits of Phaedrus and connect those ideas back to everyday life and the general dissatisfaction with technology and the spirit of the 20th century. He says that he cannot say for sure if Phaedrus' comparison between Quality and Tao was correct, or good, and he even says that it's possible to "hurt" Quality just by trying to define it.

Rather, the narrator says that Phaedrus' work was done in the service of reason. By climbing the intellectual mountain (investigating Quality), Phaedrus showed how to include irrational and emotional issues under the umbrella of reason. He found a way to connect what had "previously been unassimilable" in reason and academia. The narrator goes on to say that it is the presence of irrational ideas and the need to assimilate them (understand them, and bridge the gap between classic and romantic) that is driving all of the "bad quality' and the "chaotic, disconnected spirit of the twentieth century" which drove him to begin the Chautauqua in the first place.

Chapter 24 Quotes

There has been a haze, a backup problem in this Chautauqua so far; I talked about caring the first day and then realized I couldn’t say anything meaningful about caring until its inverse side, Quality, is understood. I think it’s important now to tie care to Quality by pointing out that care and Quality are internal and external aspects of the same thing. A person who sees Quality and feels it as he works is a person who cares. A person who cares about what he sees and does is a person who’s bound to have some characteristics of Quality.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Related Symbols: Motorcycle Maintenance, The Glass Door
Page Number: 353
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator has woken up from a Glass Door nightmare. The nightmare shows an incident at the hospital, where Phaedrus sees his family on the other side of a glass door and is unable to open it. Note that the nightmare chapter is written in a different font, since it is from Phaedrus's perspective. After waking, the narrator and Chris get back on the motorcycle, and the narrator continues with the Chautauqua.

He explains that there has been a "haze, a backup problem" so far. He began with the issue at hand, the technological hopelessness of people like John, but in order to get to Quality, he had to back up and explain "classical" and "romantic" and give the history of Phaedrus' breakdown. Now, finally turning back to his original point, the narrator shows how Quality is linked to caring. He says that the two ideas are "internal and external aspects of the same thing." In other words, someone who cares a lot about their work produces Quality, and someone who produces something with Quality is someone who cares. Motorcycle maintenance, then, is the real-life application of Phaedrus' ideas, and the narrator has thus been talking about Quality in a way even before it was formally introduced.

Stuckness shouldn’t be avoided. It’s the psychic predecessor of all real understanding. An egoless acceptance of stuckness is a key to an understanding of all Quality, in mechanical work as in other endeavors. It’s this understanding of Quality as revealed by stuckness which so often makes self-taught mechanics so superior to institute-trained men who have learned how to handle everything except a new situation.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Related Symbols: Motorcycle Maintenance
Page Number: 366
Explanation and Analysis:

At this point in the Chautauqua, the narrator is discussing the feeling of stuckness that occurs when reason fails to solve a problem. The example he uses is of a screw stuck in a motorcycle you are trying to repair. Like the screw itself, you become stuck, unable to remove it and unable to proceed. Such a moment can be extremely frustrating.

However, the narrator suggests that moments like this are actually key to new ideas and recognizing Quality. Stuckness is what comes before true understanding. Rather than avoiding stuckness, he says it should be embraced. Without ego, we need to accept this position of stuckness as a key to understanding Quality. It is this patience and embrace of stuckness, he says, that makes self-taught mechanics better than "institute-trained men." The self-taught person knows how to move past stuckness and figure out ingenious solutions to new problems, but the institute-trained person knows only a set of procedures which sometimes can lead to the unfamiliar stuckness he or she can't handle.

Chapter 25 Quotes

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 barriers 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. When this transcendence occurs in such events as the first airplane flight across the ocean or the first footstep on the moon, a kind of public recognition of the transcendent nature of technology occurs. But this transcendence should also occur at the individual level, on a personal basis, in one’s own life, in a less dramatic way.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Page Number: 373-374
Explanation and Analysis:

Here the narrator reiterates a point made earlier in the Chautauqua. The aversion that John and Sylvia feel to technology needs to be solved, and running away from it wont solve the problem. Indeed, the narrator said early on how reliant they all are on technology, despite their hatred of it. The best way to approach the conflict, he says, is "to break down the barriers of dualistic thought" (classicism vs romanticism) which prevent a true understanding of what technology really is.

Technology is not an exploitation of nature. Rather, it is a "fusion of nature and human spirit.. a new kind of creation that transcends both." We recognize this special transcendence of nature in major technological revolutions or events, like the first airplane or the moon landing. But the narrator says we also need to recognize how special and artful technology is on a personal (and "less dramatic") level. As we know by now, proper understanding and application of Quality, both as a designer of technology and as a user and a consumer, will alleviate the problem and help us to recognize technology for what it truly is and should be. This sort of recognition, the narrator believes, will make people like John and Sylvia feel like they don't want to or have to run from technology any more.

Chapter 26 Quotes

If you’re going to repair a motorcycle, an adequate supply of gumption is the first and most important tool. If you haven’t got that you might as well gather up all the other tools and put them away, because they won’t do you any good.

Gumption is the psychic gasoline that keeps the whole thing going. If you haven’t got it there’s no way the motorcycle can possibly be fixed. But if you have got it and know how to keep it there’s absolutely no way in this whole world that motorcycle can keep from getting fixed. It’s bound to happen. Therefore the thing that must be monitored at all times and preserved before anything else is the gumption.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Related Symbols: Motorcycle Maintenance
Page Number: 389-390
Explanation and Analysis:

In this stage of the Chautauqua, the narrator addresses the necessity of gumption, meaning spirit, initiative, or drive. He says that in order to repair a motorcycle (or approach any task), first and foremost you need enough gumption to get you through it. No matter what else you have, like literal tools and expertise, without gumption you won't get anywhere in your repair.

The narrator deems gumption the "psychic gasoline" that energizes and sustains the whole process. Without it the motorcycle will never be fixed, since you won't have the energy or the drive to fix it and break past "stuckness" and frustration, and to keep focusing and striving for Quality. With enough gumption and the ability to sustain your gumption levels, however, nothing in the world can stop you from completing your task and fixing the motorcycle. Therefore, the narrator says, when repairing a motorcycle one must constantly monitor and preserve his or her levels of gumption. He will go on to explain "gumption traps," or possible pitfalls which might enable you to lose gumption, and methods to avoid them and keep your drive at a healthy, working level.

A very strong case can be made for the statement that science grows by its mu answers more than by its yes or no answer. Yes or no confirms or denies a hypothesis. Mu says the answer is beyond the hypothesis. Mu is the "phenomenon" that inspires scientific enquiry in the first place! There’s nothing mysterious or esoteric about it. It’s just that our culture has warped us to make a low value judgment of it.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Related Symbols: Mu
Page Number: 413
Explanation and Analysis:

Here the narrator is continuing to discuss possible "gumption" traps. He has introduced the truth trap, which is concerned with "yes" or "no" questions. The narrator introduces a third option: the Japanese Mu, which means "no thing." It is a kind of "no" answer; it means that the question is too small, or the answer is neither yes nor no. Our natural inclination is to resist "mu," but it is even present in the sciences.

What's more, the narrator asserts that mu answers actually contribute more to science than yes or no answers. The reason he gives is that yes or no simply tells you that a certain hypothesis is correct or incorrect. But "mu says the answer is beyond the hypothesis." Mu, he says, is the very "phenomenon" that inspires scientists to study and explore in the first place. The narrator says that we should place more value on mu, and that it is an error that "our culture has warped us to make a low value judgment of it." Like embracing "stuckness," the narrator says that we should embrace mu as part of his Zen solution.

Note also that much of his (and Phaedrus') project has been to unify or break the duality of classic and romantic. Mu is the same type of answer and gesture—a rejection of duality. It refutes what seems like should only be "yes" or "no," and provides a third option.

Chapter 32 Quotes

Trials never end, of course. Unhappiness and misfortune are bound to occur as long as people live, but there is a feeling now, that was not here before, and is not just on the surface of things, but penetrates all the way through: We’ve won it. It’s going to get better now. You can sort of tell these things.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Page Number: 531
Explanation and Analysis:

These are the last lines of the book, excepting the Afterward. Chris has asked if one day he can get his own motorcycle, and Phaedrus is confident that his son will approach motorcycle maintenance with the right attitude. Phaedrus reflects that "trials never end," and that unhappiness and bad things are bound to happen, but now there is a new feeling that has been absent. It's not just a surface feeling, but a deep feeling that seems to be on the Quality level (though he doesn't say this for sure). The feeling is this: "We've won it. It's going to get better now." Phaedrus ends by asserting that finally he has reconciled with himself, and that he and Chris (and he and the narrator) have won and completed their journey. Things are going to get better for everyone. His reason for believing this fact recalls the instinctual way that Phaedrus asserts we make Quality judgements: "You can sort of tell these things."