Robert Pirsig died on Monday, April 24, 2017, at his home in Maine. He was 88 and had been in poor health for some time.
In 1974, he published Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, an autobiographical account of the road trip he took with his 11-year-old son Chris from Minneapolis to San Francisco in the summer of 1968. It became an unexpected and almost immediate success, selling a million copies within a year and many more millions since.
The book also describes his experience, years earlier, of going clinically insane while trying to discover the meaning of life, eventually leaving him confined to a psychiatric hospital to receive electroconvulsive therapy. Yet a third strand of the novel develops the philosophy he explored during those difficult years—a metaphysics of what he calls “Quality”—in a series of informal narrative essays that form the bulk of most chapters.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is not about traditional Zen, although Pirsig was clearly inspired by Zen Buddhism. His philosophical investigations began through teaching English composition to college students and asking himself the simple question of what made writing good. He started with this practical quandary:
Quality—you know what it is, yet you don’t know what it is. But that’s self-contradictory. But some things are better than others, that is, they have more quality. But when you try to say what the quality is, apart from the things that have it, it all goes poof! There’s nothing to talk about. But if you can’t say what Quality is, how do you know what it is, or how do you know that it even exists? If no one knows what it is, then for all practical purposes it doesn’t exist at all. But for all practical purposes it really does exist. What else are the grades based on? Why else would people pay fortunes for some things and throw others in the trash pile? Obviously some things are better than others—but what’s the “betterness”? So round and round you go, spinning mental wheels and nowhere finding anyplace to get traction. What the hell is Quality? What is it?”
Pirsig describes a sort of enlightenment experience around this ineffable Quality koan of his, and he comes to equate his notion of Quality with the Buddha quite literally: “Quality is the Buddha,” he declares near the end. His writing on this point evokes a distinctly Zen flavor:
“To discover a metaphysical relationship of Quality and the Buddha at some mountaintop of personal experience is very spectacular. And very unimportant . . . What’s important is the relevance of such a discovery to all the valleys of this world, and all the dull, dreary jobs and monotonous years that await all of us in them.”
Pirsig adapted his famous—and now frequently imitated—title from Zen in the Art of Archery, a slim volume published by a German philosophy professor in the late 1940s that became one of the first works on Japanese Zen available in English. Although Pirsig’s own book makes few direct references to orthodox Zen practice, there are hints within that Pirsig knew much more than he let on. He makes a fleeting reference to “beginner’s mind,” that favorite phrase of San Francisco Zen Center’s founder Shunryu Suzuki Roshi. In fact, Pirsig studied extensively with Suzuki’s friend Dainin Katagiri Roshi, helping him start the Minnesota Zen Meditation Center, which still thrives in Minneapolis.
Pirsig developed a deeper and far more tragic connection to the San Francisco Zen Center in 1979, when his son Chris was killed on the street just outside that building a week before his 23rd birthday. Chris had also suffered bouts of mental illness, but had moved to San Francisco and was living at the Center at the time, pursuing the formal practice of Zen that his father’s book largely avoided. Katagiri Roshi gave the address at Chris’s funeral. With the elder Pirsig’s passing last month, both passengers on that legendary motorcycle have now left us.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance likely remains the world’s best-selling book with the word “Zen” in the title. Pirsig himself offered a simple explanation for his work’s enduring appeal: “To reject that part of the Buddha that attends to the analysis of motorcycles is to miss the Buddha entirely,” he wrote early in his book. For certain newcomers to Zen and even some experienced practitioners, Pirsig’s long digressions on tightening bolts and changing spark plugs might just be the inspiration they need to understand life’s great mysteries.
Over 40 years after its initial publication, the book now also serves as something of a primary source for anyone studying the history of Buddhism in America, having been the first exposure to Zen for so many outside the Asian American community. And it remains equally fascinating for its purely autobiographical content, the account of one man’s deep spiritual struggle and eventual glimpse of enlightenment. If Pirsig could confront his considerable demons and find some semblance of inner peace, perhaps there is hope for us all.
“It’s going to get better now,” he concludes in the book’s final lines. After 500 dense pages of thoughtful and often intricate prose, we are inclined to believe him. “You can sort of tell these things.”
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