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Zen en de kunst van het motoronderhoud

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

This book by Robert Pirsig was discussed in a work group on epistomology, of which I was a member. I spent weeks on it. An absolutely wonderful book! The story consists of several layers, including:

  • a travelogue;
  • an autobiography of Pirsig's alter ego, the Phaedrus personality;
  • the relationship between a father and a son;
  • the passion for motorcycling and working with such a machine;
  • ways of being and knowing such as 'hip' and 'square' and 'classical' versus 'romantic', flowing through life or being stuck in limiting thought patterns and practices;
  • and a treatise on a special, monistic philosophy, in which not consciousness, matter or a mixture is the primary substance, but "Quality", the "parent" of subject and object, the measure of all things.

The whole book is a kind of manual for a quality life. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance forces every alert adult reader to think a lot about themselves: about values, about life and about the relationship between the two.

The travel story, the father-son relationship and the tinkering with motorbikes are in themselves worth reading, but not much has stayed with me. Others will probably appreciate these story layers more.

But of course, it was the philosophy that was at the centre of the work group's discussions. I don't remember exactly what we discussed. What has stayed with me is the passion with which this philosophy of Quality ('Metaphysics of Quality' or 'MOQ') is revealed in the book. It had little to do with 'Zen' (other than the aspect of living in the moment), but there are similarities with the Taoism of the Tao Te Ching and also with Native American views.

"Quality", or "value", as Pirsig describes it, cannot be defined because it empirically precedes any intellectual construction of it, namely by the fact that quality (as Pirsig explicitly defines it) always exists as a perceptual experience before it is ever thought about descriptively or academically. Quality is the "razor-sharp edge" of experience, found only in the present, known or at least potentially accessible to "all of us". By equating it with the Tao, Pirsig postulates that Quality is the fundamental force in the universe that drives everything, from atoms to animals, to evolve and incorporate ever higher levels of Quality. According to the MOQ, everything (including ideas and matter) is a product and a result of Quality." (from Wikipedia)

"You don't have to go fishing to fix your engine, of course. A cup of coffee, a walk around the block, sometimes taking five minutes of silence is enough. If you do that, you can almost feel yourself growing towards that inner peace that reveals it all. That which turns away from this inner peace and the Quality that it reveals is poor maintenance. That which turns towards it is good maintenance. The forms of turning away and facing are infinite, but the goal is always the same.

"I think that when this concept of peace of mind is introduced and made central to the act of technical work, there can be a fusion of classical and romantic quality at a basic level within a practical work context. I have said that you can actually see this fusion in skilled mechanics and machinists of a certain kind, and you can see it in the work that they do. To say that they are not artists is to misunderstand the nature of art. They have patience, care and attention for what they do, but more than this - there is a kind of inner peace that is not forced, but the result of a kind of harmony with the work in which there is no leader and no follower. The material and the thoughts of the craftsman change together in a succession of smooth, even changes until his mind is at rest at the exact moment when the material is right."...

"So what you have to do when working on a motorbike, as with any other task, is to cultivate the peace of mind that does not separate you from your surroundings. When that is successfully done, everything else follows naturally. Peace of mind begets right values, right values beget right thoughts. Right thoughts produce right actions, and right actions produce work that will be a material reflection to others of the serenity at the centre of it all. That was what that wall in Korea was about. It was a material reflection of a spiritual reality."...

"You have to remember that you are looking for peace of mind and not just a fixed machine..."