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 [Book Reviews]



and the Art of
Motorcycle Maintenance

An Inquiry into Values

by Robert M. Pirsig

1974, William Morrow and Company

Here we have another writer that but for contact with the True Dhamma might well have gone all the way. He shows us he has the mental power (this book was written subsequent to recovering his memory after having been involuntarily given massive convulsive electro-shock 'therapy' (the madness of this world!)); all he lacked was the information.

As it happens it is a crying shame as his miss was razor thin: He was right there! His vision was pure Pajapati without the context. He even studied Eastern Religions in India! How could he have missed the Pali?! But at the time (the time when the actual story in this story took place was in the mid-sixties and it was written over four years c 1970; a time just following the Beat Generation and when the hippies that were seeking The Truth were just discovering Zen Buddhism or were looking into Hinduism and Castaneda was just about to enter the picture) the Pali texts were only just beginning to emerge into the public awareness (I believe largely due to the work of Bhante Punnaji in the US). I would love to have met him, he would surely have understood if he had listened, but now he is gone.

The book has been given an approved reference guide "which includes contextual information on both the Eastern and Western philosophical traditions, [and] deep analysis of Persig's text" and Persig has written a sequel. I am not going to bother with either as I am sure the analysis is useless for us ('philosophical traditions') and sequels from authors of sky-high popular first books are always a let down ... and the description of it sounds like it will be a let down ... and it doesn't need a squeal, he could not go further with his idea without the True Dhamma. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is sufficient to inspire admiration and has valuable information concerning the background ideas leading up to the Buddha's Dhamma, but is ultimately off track and we do not need to elaborate on an erroneous path. Further, I am not going to analyze the book or its premises in any great detail; the true value of the work is in the writing itself.

The real value of this book, in the reading, is that as a writer he has managed to give us a powerful demonstration of 'seeing'. Again and again we get situations where he perceives the meaning virtually instantaneously. What a mind! Even if you object that he is writing after the fact, what is there would be impossible to recreate fictionally.

In a nutshell the premise is that the world (which to the Western mind consists of the West) is divided between and set at enmity between Aristotelianism and Platonism. That is described as either being idealistic (Platonism) or materialistic (Aristotelianism). There is no resolution of this duality in western thinking. Persig provides the resolution. He calls it 'Quality'. It is a wonderful break for us that he relates this to the word Dhamma. And what it means is that there is an order imposed on the creation of things which is also the driving force of creation which is undefinable but 'sensed' that strives for perfection (Pirsig's 'Quality') in both the idealistic and realistic — Rhys David's translation of Dhamma as "Norm", meaning the right way of doing things. For a Buddhist, this can be put into even simpler terms as: the concerns of those whose orientation is towards seeking The Truth in the phenomenological world and those whose orientation is towards seeking The Truth in flights of Intuition. The inner dynamics of the two horns of this dilemma cancel each other out and can only be unified by something higher.

The structure of the book is a sort of dialog between events in the real world (a travellog of a motorcycle trip with his son) and philosophical speculations. The unifying device is, of course, motorcycle maintenance.

We could summarize Pirsig's thought as: "And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord" Colossians 3:17. As Buddhists we would say to do it APPAMĀDA, without carelessness. "Make every step as though you were planting seeds of the gold-fruit tree."

One irreverent highlight is his wonderful put-down of the arrogant Phdilosophers at the U. of Chicago. Worth the price just for that.

Speculation: From the description Pirsig gives of the Aristotelian point of view and intellectual context I would not be at all surprised to find out that the Abhidhammists were attempting to reconcile what the Buddha taught with his system.

There is one more point that is worth making: This book, together with Future Shock should be read not only by Buddhists or potential Buddhists seeking to understand the background out of which rose the Dhamma, but by all persons who wish to understand the mass madness of the day.

See also note: Viññāṇā as Discrimination

Highly Recommended

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