“Buddha, the Deity,” he writes, “dwells as comfortably in the circuits of a digital computer or the gears of a bicycle transmission as it does on the top of a mountain or in the petals of a flower.”
“The study of the art of maintaining a motorcycle is really a miniature study of the art of rationality itself.”
“Metaphysics is a restaurant where they give you a 30,000-page menu and no food.”
“The only Zen you find on mountaintops is the Zen you carry there.” — Robert Persig
When I was 20 and an English major in college, I read the novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Exploration of Values by Robert Pirsig and it changed my life. Published in 1974, it sold over a million copies in its first year and has sold more than 5 million copies overall. His novel topped the bestseller lists for a decade, making Pirsig the most widely read philosopher of the modern era.
For those unfamiliar with the rigor of Pirsig’s work, it’s easy to stereotype Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance with the dozens of so-called Zen and the Art of books; some titles include Zen and the Art of Murder, Zen and the Art of Stand-Up Comedy, Zen and the Art of Disc Golf, Zen and the Art of Productivity, Zen and the Art of Poker, Zen and the Art to collect old cars”, “Zen and the art of business communication” and “Zen and the art of killing vampires”.
While Zen is a system of philosophy and meditation that is applicable to all dimensions of existence, when so many people seek to talk about and define an ancient tradition, often without any actual knowledge or training in the tradition, it can raise questions of cultural appropriation. and misrepresentation.
Persig, however, was a serious, lifelong practitioner and student of Zen. He first became interested in Zen while living in East Asia. He studied under the respected Zen master Shunryu Suzuki and after receiving his Ph.D. in Asian philosophy in Benares, India, he returned to the United States to work as a college professor.
There is a classic saying in Zen: “Great suffering equals great enlightenment.” And Pirsig’s life embodies this Zen stance. At age 9, he was rated as having an IQ of 170, and he entered college at age 15 to study chemistry. Being a genius can increase its difficulty. He stuttered, had trouble making friends, and was expelled from the University of Minnesota for failing classes.
Persig was diagnosed with schizophrenia in the early 1960s. He was court-ordered to undergo psychiatric treatment and underwent two years of inpatient interventions, including extensive electroshock therapy. While he is undergoing shock treatment, his wife divorces him. One of the reasons he wrote Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was to heal the trauma he experienced from his schizophrenia and related treatments. Pirsig’s son, Chris, was also hospitalized for mental illness, and in later editions of his seminal text, Pirsig discusses how Chris, aged 22, was murdered outside the Zen Center in San Francisco.
Although his text has arguably become the most widely published and influential Zen text in the West, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance entered the Guinness Book of World Records as the best-selling book rejected by the greatest number of publishers ( 121). Both in his life and in his writing, Persig showed the world how to endure, and endurance is perhaps the most typical of all Zen traits.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is based on an actual 17-day motorcycle trip he took with his 11-year-old son Chris and two family friends. They traveled from the twin cities of Minneapolis-St. Paul to San Francisco. Most of the book consisted of Persig silently riding his motorcycle, Chris on the back, as he contemplated the intersections of Zen and Western thought.
For a military brother like me who grew up in the South playing football and attending conservative Christian schools and churches, Pirsig’s insights were a revelation. Pirsig espoused the classic Zen position: that nothing is sacred in itself, and instead spirituality and transformation can manifest at any time depending on the intention of the meditator. Pirsig taught a generation that even the deepest suffering can be overcome if one has a philosophy and practice that helps one understand the world, and they work to cultivate resilience and courage.
I read Pirsig’s book at a time of transition in my life. I was 24, majoring in English literature, and had been offered a Peace Corps assignment in Nepal — my dream job. My friend Rob had just bought a motorcycle and suggested I buy one too and ride around the country. My friend’s proposal seemed absurd; I had never ridden a motorcycle in my life. Taking a motorcycle trip across the country would mean I wouldn’t be joining the Peace Corps, and a precious chance to immerse myself in the Asian culture I loved would be lost.
More Zen for Everyday Life:Back to the trail
Instead of going to Nepal, I rode with my friend Rob around the country. I thought about Persig’s book as I rode my motorcycle. After the trip, I returned to the East Coast, completed my master’s degree, met my future wife, and enrolled in theological school, which led me to become a Buddhist monk. The roots of karma are deep and ultimately unknowable. Sometimes I wonder what my life would have been like if I hadn’t taken that motorcycle trip: would I still have become a Zen monk, a psychologist, a father? The truth is, I’ll never know. And it is good Zen practice to sit without knowing.
What I do know is that I am grateful for my journey. And I’m grateful for writers like Robert Persig who harness the deep suffering of their lives to make the world a better place. I’m also grateful for friends like Rob who offer bold guidance and push us to stretch our comfort zones; adversity is often where we have the most growth. And I am grateful for the causes and conditions of my life, visible and invisible, that have blossomed into my present existence. Pirsig’s work helped me become the monk I am today. What skillful resources have helped shape you into the person you have become?
Dr. David Zuniga is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Austin and is also a vice bishop in one of the oldest lineages of Korean Zen; his website is a free, interdisciplinary source of support: drdavidzuniga.com/