By Tim Adams
The Observer, November 19, 2006
Edited by Andy Ross
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was the biggest-selling philosophy book ever.
At 78, Robert Pirsig can look back on many ideas of himself:
— The nine-year-old-boy with the off-the-scale IQ of 170
— The young GI in Korea picking up a curiosity for Buddhism
— The radical, manic teacher in Montana making his freshmen sweat
— The homicidal husband sectioned into a course of electric-shock treatment
— The broken-down father trying to bond with his son
— The best-selling author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (ZAMM)
Pirsig sits in a hotel room in Boston. “It is not good to talk about Zen because Zen is nothingness … If you talk about it you are always lying, and if you don’t talk about it no one knows it is there.” He would rather “just enjoy watching the wind blow through the trees.”
Ever since he could think, he had an overwhelming desire to have a theory that explained everything. As a young man he thought the answer might lie in science, but he quickly lost that faith. “Science could not teach me how to understand girls sitting in my class, even.”
After the army he majored in philosophy and persuaded his tutor to help him get a place on a course in Indian mysticism at Benares, where he found more questions than answers. He wound up back home, married, drifting between Mexico and the States, writing technical manuals and ads. He picked up philosophy again in Montana, and started teaching.
At that time, in his early thirties, he used his students to help him discover some of the ideas that make up what he calls the “metaphysics of quality” in his books. He was reading Kerouac, and trying to live in truth.
One day in the car with his six-year-old son Chris, his mind buzzing, Pirsig stopped at a junction and had to ask his son to guide him home. What followed was the point where he either found enlightenment or went insane.
“I could not sleep and I could not stay awake,” he recalls. “I just sat there cross-legged in the room for three days. All sorts of volitions started to go away … I realized that the person who had come this far was about to expire. I was terrified, and curious as to what was coming. I felt so sorry for this guy I was leaving behind. It was a separation. This is described in the psychiatric canon as catatonic schizophrenia. It is cited in the Zen Buddhist canon as hard enlightenment.”
Pirsig was treated at a mental institution, the first of many visits. He was committed by a court and underwent comprehensive shock treatment.
Pirsig was able to keep a tenuous grip on his former self. He figured that if he told anyone he was in fact an enlightened Zen disciple, they would lock him up for 50 years. So he worked out a new strategy of getting his ideas across. He embarked on a book based on a motorcycle ride he made with his son, Chris, from Minnesota to the Dakotas in 1968.
When the book came out, in 1974, edited down from 800,000 words, and having been turned down by 121 publishers, it seemed immediately to catch the need of the time. It has since taken on a life of its own.
In 1979, when his son died, Pirsig was in England. He had sailed across the Atlantic with his second wife, whom he had met when she had come to interview him on his boat. He was working at the time on Lila, the sequel to his first book. He hoped Lila would force the “metaphysics of quality” from the New Age shelves to the philosophy ones, but that has not happened.
He lives these days in cyberspace, he says, where his ideas circulate. He doesn’t write any more, and he hardly reads. He tries to live as best he can to the dictates of his dharma: to stay centered.
The Buddha resides as comfortably in the circuits of a digital computer or the gears of a cycle transmission as he does at the top of a mountain.
Metaphysics is a restaurant where they give you a 30,000 page menu and no food.
Traditional scientific method has always been, at the very best, 20-20 hindsight. It’s good for seeing where you’ve been. It’s good for testing the truth of what you think you know, but it can’t tell you where you ought to go.
Why, for example, should a group of simple, stable compounds of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen struggle for billions of years to organize themselves into a professor of chemistry? What’s the motive?
The only Zen you find on the tops of mountains is the Zen you bring up there.