The Failure of Zen

Zen and Now: on the Trail of Robert Pirsig and the Art of Motorcycle MaintenanceZen and Now: on the Trail of Robert Pirsig and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Mark Richardson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Richardson, editor of the Wheels section of the Toronto Star, sets out to follow the route Robert Pirsig and his 11 year old son took from Minneapolis to San Francisco.

Pirsig’s original, “Zen and the Art of motorcyle Maintenance” was a best seller that established a cult following. The book early impressed Richardson, who now, after re-reading it investigates what happened to Pirsig then sets out to retrace his steps on his own old Suzuki dirt bike. This new book was published on the 40th anniversary of Pirsig’s ride.

The narrative is interspersed with what he learned about Pirsig, events from Pirsig’s ride, the sad relationship with his son, Chris, and what happened to him as he followed the strange philosopher.

As a travelogue, I found it interesting. Richardson has an easy style that includes many observations of the people he met and the places he stayed. Richardson also includes many new facts about Pirsig’s family, his mental illness, the failure of his marriage, his strange relationships with the colleges where he taught and the tragic murder of his son, Chris.

Since I have run into anti-social types who lived on the border between genius and madness, the book intrigued me. Truly, Pirsig was a strange man whose Zen-influenced beliefs probably contributed to his wierdness. Looking at his life through the prism of practicality, one would have to say he was a failure in all his relationships. Is that what Zen teaches? Give me the teaching of the Nazarene any time.

In trying to explain the message of Pirsig’s book, Richardson summarizes it in a truism: if a job’s worth doing, it is worth doing well…includng the repair of a motorcylce. Pirsig lamented the deterioration of standards which have been strained by the pressure to mass produce stuff for our throw-away culture. Lack of time to do something well is a huge problem. We see the decline of craftsmanship, of expertise in repairs…gone because new items can be purchased cheap from China.

Pirsig felt that the comes down to “the scientific, which he called the Classical, and the artistic, which he also called the Romantic. These are opposites that we need, the light and the dark, the yin and the yang…we need proper balance.” I would comment that we need a balance between the technological, the work related, the time driven and the artistic, meditative, relaxing side of ourselves/our lives.

So Pirsig’s message is to slow down, “the real cycle you are working on is yourself. Attain peace of mind.”(p. 145) Pirsig continually searched for the right balance, and the enthronement of Quality. That he failed in every area, seems to me to show the failure of Zen and of those who pursue it. But his thoughts do point out the failure also of our western society to achieve balance and peace and relational harmony.
Zen, peace, quality, failure, insanity, travelogue

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One response to “The Failure of Zen

  1. Very insightful, Eric. It is helpful to see someone do a thoughtful critique of Zen Buddhism, which many people seem to be accepting without careful reflection.

    Ed Hird+

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