Finding the Zen in Motorcycling
What follows is based on actual occurrences. Although much has been changed for rhetorical purposes, it must be regarded in its essence as fact. However, it should in no way be associated that great body of factual information relating to orthodox Zen Buddhist practice. It’s not very factual about motorcycles either.–Robert M. Pirsig
I awake with a feeling of anticipation for the road ahead. It is excitement, enthusiasm, and a little bit of anxiety all rolled into one. I loaded the bike, last night, except for a few things on the dining room table. My camera, the sandals I wore while I packed, the sun block and the bug spray will go into the saddlebags. There is also a post-it note reminding me to look in the freezer where two water bottles are now frozen. These are for later, when it gets hot out on Highway 395.
The note says, “Look in the freezer.” It does not say, “Remember water bottles.” I think that’s important. It’s how my mind works. I am not a subtle person, but sometimes direct information leads to direct dismissal. I’m sure without the note I will probably remember the bottles anyway, but more importantly, I know that if I word the note incorrectly I am almost certain to forget. So I write the note just to be safe, but I don’t tell myself what it is in the freezer that I’m looking for. I’m reminding myself without reminding myself. This is not really a Zen way of thinking, but the concept of doing without doing strikes me as very Zen-like.
The water bottles are the last things I load. There really isn’t any place for them. I want them to be handy when I stop, but somewhat insulated from the sun so they stay cool. Finally, I stuff them between the tent and the ground tarp that are bungeed to the back.
I am headed to Kennedy Meadows, at the base of the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range, for a simple overnight camping trip. The plan is to meet friends there, hang out, and enjoy the summer, the Kern River, and the camaraderie that is created when motorcycles bring people together. This is a short trip, 150 miles from my home in Redlands. Leaving the house at 8:00 a.m. leaves me plenty of time to pick up cash, gas up the bike, and get on the road in time to meet my friends at noon. It is already 70 degrees Fahrenheit when I roll out of Redlands and shaping up to be a hot day. Still, it will be cool enough once I get on the freeway and it is already feeling like the beginning of a beautiful morning ride.
As I cruise north on Interstate 215, the humming of the V-twin motor between my legs lulls my mind into thoughts of Quality and Truth. The miles fly beneath my feet as I reflect on the ideas that Robert M. Pirsig had been drumming into my head over the past several days. I had been reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance for the fourth time. Well, to be absolutely precise, it was the first time, sort of.
I first came across Motorcycle Maintenance in 1983, nine years after its original printing. I recall a good friend who was, at the time, in the throes of a spiritual dilemma; how does one reconcile his Buddhist leanings with his Christian upbringing? I was not really the spiritual type and he thought I could use a solid dose of enlightenment. Willie didn’t believe this to be a particularly important book, having Sun Tzu’s The Art of War and Eugen Herrigel’s Zen in the Art of Archery prominently displayed on his shelf, but, since I was into motorcycles, he thought I might get something out of it. I read it for a while and remember enjoying the part about the motorcycle ride through Montana, but it took a turn for the weird just before the halfway point and I ended up putting it away. Eventually, I gave it back to Willie, ashamed to tell him I hadn’t managed to finish it.
As the years went by I got married, moved, and bought a motorcycle, a 400cc Honda Hawk. It was a compromise between what I wanted and what we could afford. What it really meant was freedom—freedom for my wife who would no longer have to cart me back and forth to work.
One day, as we were perusing the used books at a garage sale, I spotted a copy of Motorcycle Maintenance. The wave of shame at not finishing it the first time suddenly stung me and I found myself scrounging in my pocket for 50 cents to purchase the book. I was determined to finish it this time. I fought my way past that halfway point, but soon lost interest again and put the book down on the end table and left it there. Eventually, my wife put it away and I never saw that copy of Motorcycle Maintenance again.
A few years later my wife and I parted ways. I can only assume that this particular copy of the book went with her. I didn’t give it any further thought.
The year after the divorce I bought my first Harley. It was a 1977 Sportster that ran great off the lot, and then didn’t run much at all for the next few months. After repeatedly taking it back to the shop with no success, I decided to delve into the repairs on my own. All I had to prepare me for this mechanical adventure was the advice of friends, a Harley-related e-mail list, and a sort of analytical courage that I can neither define nor explain. As for mechanical skill and experience, I had fumbled miserably through a class on brake repair about 10 years earlier.
This courage that I mention has allowed me to ride across the country a number of times, and has me heading confidently off into the desert on my current ride, a 1985 Harley-Davidson FXR, on this particular hot summer day. It’s the same courage that keeps me from panicking when I notice my clutch lever going out of adjustment on the highway.
I’m just coming to a stop light on Highway 395 when I notice my clutch lever is just sort of flopping around in its housing. I am able to successfully disengage the clutch at each light, but I can feel it getting progressively worse with each pull. Finally, at Kramer Junction, I am forced to stall the bike at the gas pump because I am no longer able to downshift gracefully.
I know what the problem is. I replaced the clutch cable a couple of weeks ago and the new cable is stretching out—more rapidly than I expect, but easy enough to adjust. I reach my gloved hand between the hot cylinders and turn the adjuster until the lever feels tight. Things are fine until I get on the highway. Almost as soon as the traffic lights are behind me, the clutch lever is flopping in its housing again. This isn’t good. It could be one of two things; either the clutch itself is going out of adjustment, or I’ve forgotten to tighten down the lock-nut on the adjuster. I hope for the latter and keep going. As long as I don’t need to stop or shift gears, I don’t need the clutch, so I figure I can make it to Ridgecrest, another 50 miles up the road, before stopping again.
It is still early, about 10:00 a.m. Apart from the clutch, everything is going smoothly. And the clutch isn’t a problem as long as I don’t worry about it. But how do I keep from worrying about it? A broken clutch can leave you stranded on the side of the road. Stranded in the middle of the desert is a dangerous proposition indeed. Still, I set my sights on Ridgecrest and go.
I think what keeps me from worrying is the same thing that gave me confidence to dive into the starting problems I had with that old Sportster all those years ago. Eventually, I got it running and rode the wheels off it for the better part of a year. I also collected a fine assortment of tools, most of them second-hand, and developed confidence in my mechanical abilities that was real, rather than confidence left behind by the ghost of something long forgotten.
These days I’m very familiar with the ghost that infuses me with problem solving confidence. It’s not really a ghost at all; it’s just the way I break down a problem. I had always believed I came to the Socratic Method of understanding by osmosis. More specifically, I believed that the Socratic Method was the natural progression of my attempts to apply the scientific method to problems that are not easily resolved through experimentation. The Socratic Method is effectively solving problems by asking questions, called the dialectic by Plato (Pirsig 330).
My version is not precisely what Plato had in mind, but I explain it as follows: You define any problem in two columns: things you know and things you don’t know. First, you ask a question such as, “Why won’t my bike start?” Then you think up all the possible answers. There are obviously too many possible answers, so you narrow it down. Refine the question. “What does a bike need to start?” There are only a couple of valid answers: fuel and spark. So you ask the obvious. “Is my bike getting spark?” You can prove this by removing a spark plug and holding it close to the cylinder head with the wire still attached while you gently kick over the bike. You should see a fat, blue spark jump from the plug to the head. If you do, you have spark. Then, of course, you check the gas tank to see if it’s empty. While you’re asking these questions and finding your answers, you start putting them into your columns. When you have a lot of entries in the things-you-know column, you can start weeding out items from the things-you-don’t-know column.
While this is not really Socratic method, it is also not precisely scientific method. It is more of a hybrid of the two, inspired by failed attempts at both. The goal is to come up with a hypothesis, a guess about what could be happening to keep your bike from running. To test it, you may have to take some of the things you don’t know and put them into the things-you-know column. These are now called assumptions because they’re not facts but things you have to assume to make the experiment work. I discovered early on that if the experiment doesn’t work, the culprit is just as likely to be the assumption as the actual problem. Therefore, you have to scrutinize your assumptions. Eventually, your problem is solved by elimination. If it isn’t, then it’s likely you gave up too soon, rather than because the problem was too difficult. I would venture to say that 99% of the problems you encounter with a motorcycle can be solved by this method and tenacity alone. The rest require luck and a good mechanic.
With my Sportster, tenacity won out. It was getting good spark, but I ruled out everything electrical anyway, mostly because the tests were simple enough and I didn’t want any road gremlins sneaking back later. So, the problem must be fuel. Well, the first thing to check is fuel flow to the carburetor. This is easy: close the petcock under the tank and remove the fuel line from the carburetor. Hold the fuel line over a container and fuel should rush out when you open the petcock again.
I had worked my problem from both ends and narrowed it down to the carburetor, which I rebuilt. But that didn’t solve the problem. I kicked the bike over and it tried to fire, but when it didn’t start on a few kicks, it flooded and it took half an hour to get it running.
I began asking everyone I knew, and some I didn’t, about the best ways to kick over a bike and tried every ritual recommended, but they all produced the same results. Kick, kick, my leg’s exhausted, kick, kick, and then came the inevitable smell of gasoline. My mind kept telling me that it had to be the carburetor. So I rebuilt it again, this time cleaning each part with a nylon jewelry cleaning brush. I put it back together carefully and ensured that the float bowl was properly adjusted. Once again, it was kick, kick, kick, and then nothing but the smell of gas. The bike flooded every time I tried to start it.
The third time I rebuilt the carburetor, I removed each part and soaked it in Chem-dip®, which is a chemical solvent that comes in a gallon can with a parts dipping rack. I hoped this would help remove every last speck of dirt and glaze. As I pulled the basket of parts from the Chem-dip®, I inspected each piece by wiping it dry with a white towel and holding it up to the light. When I got to the main jet I noticed something strange.
The ’74 Sporty comes with a Bendix carburetor that has a single main nozzle through the center of the carb body. This nozzle is a 3/8” hollow brass tube with a bunch of holes near the top for the fuel to spray out. One can assume that there is just the right number of holes and they are just the right size to ensure that the proper mixture of fuel is released from the nozzle when you open the throttle. I noticed on part of the nozzle, just below the holes, that the solvent wasn’t evaporating as quickly. I dipped the nozzle back in the solvent and removed it again. Holding it up to the light I could see the solvent evaporate from both ends almost immediately. But there was a thin line below the atomizer holes that stayed wet a little bit longer. Hmmmm. I tried this again and again. Finally, I hooked a finger over each end and, supporting the tube on my thumbs, I gave it a good bend. There it was! There was a crack in the main nozzle that went halfway around the tube. To prove my point I applied just a bit more pressure, and snap! The nozzle broke in two, right at the evaporation line. I replaced the nozzle and never had another problem starting that bike.
I thought that I had come up with this whole approach of asking questions and making columns on my own. I hadn’t. When my incredible hubris died down, I began to think maybe I’d learned it in school somewhere. Not right either. Then perhaps some long forgotten sage had imparted this piece of wisdom upon me. Wrong again.
At that time in my life, I was learning things at an alarming pace. I was learning how to work on my Sporty, refining my skills as a geographer, and taking classes in mathematics so I could learn to speak intelligently to engineers. I was on a growth curve.
About this time I encountered Mr. Pirsig’s book once again. It was a gift from my girlfriend at the time. Kate considered the search for a spiritual path a lifelong occupation. She was always looking for answers, yet she didn’t seem to have a handle on the questions. So she went from one metaphysical topic to another, reading about all kinds of answers to questions she hadn’t the slightest notion of formulating. It wasn’t that she was dim; she simply wanted someone else to tell her what she needed to know. She didn’t know how to just be and look inside herself for the questions and answers. Of course, finding answers in the stillness of one’s own existence is not exactly something a person comes to easily, and so it was with Kate.
Perhaps it was her thirst for answers without questions that drew me to her in the first place. I was just getting the hang of this dialectic thing, and we had long conversations in which I supplied the questions and she did her best to come up with the answers. Eventually, however, she lost interest in finding the Truth, content to endlessly seek answers to questions never formulated. We went our separate ways.
But not before leaving yet another copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in my possession. I got about two-thirds of the way through before life got in the way and I put it down yet again.
Six years went by. Every once in a while I’d see that book and think to myself, “I’m going to tackle that thing again one day.” But it seemed I had neither the time nor the inclination.
When I arrive at the turn for Ridgecrest, my clutch lever is flopping around so badly I am afraid the cable will pop out of the slot. Still certain that I can fix it, I go past the turn before finding a place to pull over. My logic is that Ridgecrest is about eight miles down the hill from Highway 395 and another eight miles back. If I need a hardware store I can certainly limp the bike in, but I don’t want to go sixteen miles out of my way if I don’t have to.
Sure enough, the adjuster screw has backed out again. It takes less than five minutes to adjust the cable. This time I remember to tighten the lock-nut as well. Everything is only hand tight, but I don’t see any need to break out the tools just yet. I get back on the road and make it another 30 miles before I notice the clutch cable loosening up again. Well, nothing to do but roll with it, so I do, on in to Pearsonville.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is over thirty years old. I was of the opinion that it was mildly interesting but wholly unimportant. I was told this when it was first loaned to me, now nearly 25 years ago. Surely that was why I didn’t finish it then and couldn’t remember a whole lot about it now. The book must have been so unimportant that nothing really stuck.
But then Socrates stepped in. Damn him and his pesky questions. Apparently the long-dead philosopher wanted to get at the Truth of my objections. That’s what he was best at, I suppose, finding the Truth. Why was I really resisting it? Because I didn’t want to finish it. But why? Because the book is too old. Isn’t wisdom timeless? But there is no wisdom! The book is not important! Are you sure? Of course I’m sure. How can you be so sure? Well, I read the book—3 times! Did you? Well, most of the way. But not all the way? No, the book was not important enough to hold my attention. Was it that the book was not important, or that you didn’t like where it was going? Well, it did start to get pretty weird. Weird how? It started talking about ghosts and split personalities and things. I thought you liked stories about ghosts. Well, I do, but not these ghosts. Why not? Because these weren’t real ghosts. What kind of ghosts were they? They weren’t really ghosts at all; they were ideas! So it was the ideas you objected to? Yeah, I guess so. What was it about those ideas that offended you so badly? I don’t know. Perhaps it’s time you read the book again.
And so I did. Well, not at first. I had to work up to it. I was still convinced that I was right and Socrates was wrong. So I set out to only skim the book and maybe jot down any interesting passages. At least this way I could prove once and for all that the book was a worthless pile of crap and be thereby vindicated for never having finished it in the first place.
When riding a motorcycle on an open two-lane highway, you have a lot of time to think. After a while you get tired of thinking, so maybe you sing songs to yourself in your head. Anything can trigger a song. I remember heading east out of Santa Rosa, New Mexico and seeing the sign for Amarillo, Texas. For the next four days George Strait’s “Amarillo by Morning” kept running through my head. After a while the radio in your head turns down its volume, and all you’re left with is yourself. You may not be aware of it, but if you ride a motorcycle and really love it, I think this is probably a large part of the reason for your passion.
Zen is a contemplative discipline. The goal is to remove yourself from desire. This isn’t easy to do, so you approach it in stages. The idea is to tear down everything else around you until there is only you. When you look down the road you see yourself there, at your destination. When you look back the way you’ve come, you see yourself there, too, at your starting point. When you can truly see yourself at your beginning and your end simultaneously, then you are truly in the present moment. That’s a rare thing for Westerners to do: be in the present moment. But that’s what a motorcycle does. It takes you to the now. When you are in the now, the answers come.
In Zen meditation, called zazen, you sit in a mildly uncomfortable position for about 50 minutes. Posture is very important. You must keep your head up as if a string is suspending it from the sky. You do not close your eyes in zazen. You keep them fixed at a point about 45 degrees in front of you, but not focused on it. Your mouth is closed and you sit. The important thing about zazen is that you are not contemplating, you are not looking for answers, and you are not dozing off. You do not go into a trance. You must remain awake and alert while thinking about nothing (Suzuki 26).
In order to think about nothing, it is important not to think about not thinking. What this means is to ignore thoughts that come into your head. You don’t shoo them away or try to force them out of your brain; you simply pay them no attention (Suzuki 34). Eventually, they will get bored and leave. Thoughts come and thoughts go and you just don’t let them bother you. Your arms and legs may begin to fall asleep. You pay this no mind either. You are uncomfortable, but not unbearably so, so you just go with it.
After about 50 minutes it is time to get up and stretch out and try to work some feeling back into your limbs. You realize that you are calm, relaxed, and things that you may have perceived as impenetrable barriers prior to the meditation no longer seem so.
Now, compare zazen with a long motorcycle ride. You sit in a moderately uncomfortable position for a long period of time. You keep your attention about 45 degrees in front of you, but you don’t stare at that point. If your arms and legs go numb, you let them. If it becomes unbearable, you may shake them out or shift positions slightly, but on a bike there’s not a whole lot of places you can go. So you sit. You may watch the scenery, but eventually that becomes the background. You are concentrating on a thousand different things, without really concentrating at all. Everything you do on the bike is automatic now. You don’t need to think to downshift or adjust the throttle for a slight grade. You don’t need to focus on the curve to find your line and lean into it properly. You just do it.
Thinking about it is not being in the present moment. If you are thinking, you are dwelling on something that is already past, and therefore behind you, or you are worrying about something that has not yet come to pass, and therefore out of reach. Either way, you are leaving yourself unprepared to deal with whatever is happening right now. When you are riding a motorcycle, you absolutely must be in present moment and so you ultimately remove the duality of man and machine from your experience. In essence, you operate as though you and the machine are one. Mind and body are one. You have made a direct connection with the experience and eliminated from it the self. Perhaps not so ironically, this is precisely what is supposed to happen when zazen is practiced correctly.
You can practice zazen while sitting in the lotus position, or while sitting in a chair. Some even practice zazen lying down, although I’m not sure how they stay awake. I believe it is also possible to practice zazen while riding a motorcycle. In fact, if you show the motorcycle, the road, and your environment the amount of respect truly required, I believe it is nearly impossible to not practice zazen while riding a motorcycle.
I have already been riding for a few hours, thinking about the clutch cable much of the way. It is only when I let myself stop thinking about the cable that I begin to understand it. I begin to realize that the cable is coming loose because the vibration of the engine is causing the lock nut to back off. This, in turn, is allowing the adjuster to back out and loosen the cable. It isn’t reason that leads me to this conclusion. I can see it happening. When I let myself stop thinking about it, the answers come to me as if I am down between the cylinders watching the clutch adjuster loosen up. I grow calmer because I understand what is happening with my motorcycle. This is the calm from whence my confidence comes. I have only been able to truly experience this calm through motorcycling. I can only guess that it is the same calm that Zen adepts experience practicing zazen.
So, in Pearsonville, I break out the tools and tighten the lock-nut on the clutch cable. I have no more problems with that cable for the rest of the trip. I also take a look at my directions. It is starting to get warm out and I don’t want to overshoot my turn and have a long ride out of my way. I know how hot it can get on the backside of the Sierras in the summer and I don’t want to expose myself to any more heat than I need to.
The directions confirm that my turn is coming up shortly, so I relax, drink some cool water from one of the now-melted bottles, and get back on the road. I am about 40 minutes from my destination.
Prior to tackling Motorcycle Maintenance again I had read both of the books that were displayed prominently on my friend’s shelf all those years ago. I found The Art of War to be exactly the way most Westerners describe it: very specific in the ways of persuasion. At the same time I began to experience a certain duality in the philosophy. Master Sun teaches the best way to go out and kill the enemy. He literally provides instruction for carrying out warfare. At the same time, he claims that the best way to win is not to fight. I found this very elegant: to set yourself up so that it is nearly impossible to lose, and then convince your opponent of this. Unless he is blind or insane, he will see things your way almost immediately.
To do this effectively it is necessary to be a student of human nature. Understand where your opponent is vulnerable and where he is strong. Be honest with yourself about where you are vulnerable and never assume that you are strong. Always put yourself in your enemy’s position before moving on him. “Those who are not thoroughly aware of the disadvantages in the use of arms can not be thoroughly aware of the advantages of the use of arms” (Tzu 59). Try to win through wit and intelligence rather than force. Master Sun takes your thirst for blood and converts it, almost magically, into a thirst for peace. The Truth of Master Sun’s words seem to be that the way that creates the least disturbance in the fabric of the Universe is the Way that will be most advantageous to you. I like this because I have found this to be true when I resist the most harmonious path.
Zen in the Art of Archery came next. In Archery, Herrigel describes hitting your target without aiming (56). He’s talking about the very Zen concept of knowing without knowing. This seems contradictory to our Western ears, but again, it’s about getting to that quiet place where there is only you. It’s about being in the present moment; being in the now. When you are in the now, the things that you need to know come. The things you do not know are not important. You must remove yourself from the duality of mind and body, and just be. You do not need to understand why; you only need to know this is true. You must be in the present moment to grasp this.
My brain was filled with these axioms from Eastern philosophy when I picked up Motorcycle Maintenance for the fourth time. I had no intention of actually reading it. I was merely going to skim it so I could vindicate myself for never having finished it in the first place. But before I knew it I had stopped skimming and started reading. I began to see images of myself in the book so clearly that I soon began to question whether I really was who I thought I was.
The road from Highway 395 to Kennedy Meadows is a lonely road indeed. It is so poorly maintained in some spots that I wonder if it’s not going to give out altogether and become a rutted dirt track. It never actually does, remaining paved all the way. The next 22 miles is peaceful and charming. First the road winds up to a respectable elevation. The twists and turns are such that I can’t see the road ahead, but can often see the continuation of the road above. At the top, I can see the whole valley below. It seems as though, if I stretched far enough, I could see to the other side of Death Valley. The horizon to the east goes on forever.
It’s very barren. There are a few scrub oaks here and there, and the ground is covered with the dry, brown grass so common to the lower Sierras. Over the rise, however, things change dramatically. The scrub oak gives way to pine and the brown grass awakens to lush, green meadows. Small white flowers with yellow centers dot the edge of the road.
After a bit the scene changes again. This time it’s not because of altitude or the side of the mountain. The change is more violent and disturbing. The pine needles are a sort of dry, rust color. I realize they’re dead and only then discover the black bark of the tree, which was burned during a fire. This area, once a rich evergreen forest, is now a charred, hulking skeleton. The ground is charred and black too. Just when I think everything is black and dead the world explodes with color and life. White flowers with yellow centers have sprung up everywhere between the trees. Beneath them are tiny purple flowers. For some reason the view of the world is always like that from the saddle of a motorcycle.
The first thing I recognized in Motorcycle Maintenance was my thought pattern. I’ve explained the “3-D experience” of motorcycling to a hundred people. It was my own original idea, I was sure. Yet here it was, right here on the pages of a book written over 30 years ago. Pirsig says, “you’re in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming” (4) How can you claim to have discovered something that somebody else wrote before you were even ten years old? Robert Pirsig described being inside the scene on a motorcycle in almost exactly the same way as I have for years. How can this be?
I was just about to chalk it all up to similar experiences created from similar interests when the next big jolt hit. He talked about diagnosing a starting problem. Before I knew it, he was talking about the Socratic Method and identifying things you know and things you don’t know. He even explained how to test for spark! (95) I could no longer deny it. The very foundation upon which I’d based all of my ability to reason came from Pirsig.
But how could I have read and forgotten only portions of a book that shaped the way my mind formulates thoughts? This was bizarre. The more I read the more I discovered the basic truths around which I had built my entire belief system. It’s as though I was a sentient robot who just discovered his own programming manual. Perhaps this book wasn’t so unimportant after all. I had no choice but to continue reading.
At Kennedy Meadows, there are a half dozen Harleys in the parking lot, but none I recognize. I am about a half hour early; it’s only 11:30 a.m. So, I go inside, confirm my registration, pick up my ride t-shirt, and ask about the camping. The lady behind the bar directs me out back. I discover an outhouse and a single trailer, but no tents. I walk the grounds and even back beyond the signs that said, “Private Road,” but near as I can tell, nobody is here. There is nothing to do but wait so I go inside for a beer and a sandwich.
It’s about 12:30 when I try the pay phone to my friends’ cells. I get voicemail, but they are only a half hour late so I don’t leave a message. Instead, I order another beer, watch some kids shoot pool and listen to the talk around the place.
After a while a couple of bikes roll in, a couple of guys from the Viet Nam Vets Motorcycle Club looking for water for a friend whose truck overheated. I sip my beer while they carry a two-gallon gas can of water down the road on their Harleys. I finish my second beer when they come back, the steaming pickup not far behind. I am getting restless.
On the pay phone, I get voicemail, but this time leave a message. It is now 1:30 p.m., my friends are an hour and a half late and I’m a bit concerned. I cruise through the campsites once more, then roll out of there.
Motorcycle Maintenance started to get weird when he began talking about Quality. A teacher asked his students to define Quality (Pirsig 183). Try as I might, whenever I read the book before, I couldn’t get past that point. What was it about Quality that frightened me so? This time I was reading not so much because I was interested, but because I found myself on a personal journey to find out what it is about Quality that I was afraid of.
Pirsig talks a lot about Classical and Romantic thinking. Classical thinking embraces technology and strives to understand it. The Classical thinker is very courageous about solving problems because he knows that he can reason them out. If you are tenacious enough and you ask the right questions, you can solve practically anything. The Romantic thinker, on the other hand, knows certain things are simply unfathomable. The Romantic turns his back on technology because he likes it that some mysteries are best left unsolved. The Classical and Romantic never seem to be able to get on the same page.
It was my Classical approach to problem solving that created my problem with Quality, and hence with Motorcycle Maintenance. Of course this is ironic, since Motorcycle Maintenance had been what instilled the Classical thought patterns into my mind in the first place. The problem is that I couldn’t come up with a satisfying definition of Quality.
Think about it for a moment. What is Quality? Quality, you might suggest, is the characteristic that determines one thing is better than another. How do you know it’s better? When it comes right down to it, there’s only one way to answer these questions: it just is and you just know. The ghost of Socrates goes spinning off into the stratosphere.
A cruise through the local campgrounds proves fruitless, so I head back to the restaurant. The same bikers who were there when I left look up with mild interest. When they recognize me as the guy who left a half hour earlier, they go back to their conversations. My friends are still not there. I glance at my watch; it is now 2:30 p.m. Disappointed, I turn the bike toward home.
Retracing my path, the flowers in the burnt-out forest give way to green meadows which give way to pines, to scrub oaks, to brown grass. The temperature goes up accordingly. By the time I get to Pearsonville it’s over 100 degrees. I buy fresh water before gassing up my bike.
Just as I’m replacing the gas cap, my cell phone rings. My friends got my message. They are in Lake Isabella just about to head for Sherman Pass. This is a ride of legendary Quality, fine twisty roads, beautiful scenery, and very little traffic, perfect for motorcycles. I suggest they wait for me, but they’re afraid of hitting thunderstorms, so they suggest I meet them at Kennedy Meadows in about three hours.
I’m really disappointed. We have gotten our signals crossed. They thought I would be there at 8:00 a.m. They waited until 11:00. I’d missed them by thirty minutes.
I feel angry and upset. I know noon was the meeting time. I had mentioned it in two emails. It is irresponsible for them to have spaced this so horribly. When you’re meeting on motorcycles it’s important to keep your connections. If you get into trouble, your friends should be able to follow your trail. If you don’t keep your connections, there is no way to know you’re in trouble. This little get-together is turning out to be much more stressful than anticipated.
I tell my friends I don’t feel like waiting another two and a half hours and am going home, upset they didn’t wait for me. I have just ridden 150 miles to spend time with them, not hang out in a restaurant in the middle of nowhere with strangers. I ride out of Pearsonville into the fierce July desert heat.
As Pirsig talks about Quality, he is really tearing down reason. However, he’s also attacking the purely Romantic point of view. Where he once described things as Classical and Romantic, he now describes things in terms of Quality. He believes reason is at fault for removing Quality from the equation in the first place. Socrates is about to be put on trial (Pirsig 334).
In our technological world, Quality has been replaced by style. We have more and more conveniences which cost less and less each year, but where is the Quality? A DVD player, which cost over $400 in the year 2000, costs less than $100 only a few years later. It comes in a fancy, space-age looking case, but one broken part will cost nearly as much to repair as the price of the whole device. Where is the Quality?
We have the same problem with motorcycles. Beautiful chrome pieces seem to rust long before they should. Batteries vibrate to an early death. Fuses pop and linkages break. At the repair shop, you’re put on a waiting list, given the runaround, and often return with the same problem. Where is the Quality?
Manufacturers offer more and more accessories for our scoots. There are chrome and leather covers for everything, and fringe for the masses. There is so much stylized trash that it borders on the absurd.
The really crazy thing about this is that it turns Classical bikers into Romantics. As every generation grows older, they talk more about the old days. When I was a kid, the bikers who hung out at the local Chevron cursed the sellouts who rode the AMF Harleys. Today, many of those same bikers sit quietly with amused grins and listen to modern bikers curse the newbies who trailer their Twin-cam 88s to Sturgis. It’s the same story told by a newer generation in a different vernacular. What’s really happening is that the bikers who once favored function over form are romanticizing function as though it were form.
They don’t realize that the AMF sellouts eventually evaporated, leaving the real riders who cared only about motorcycles. They can’t see that the trailer queens, too, will eventually evaporate, leaving behind a new generation of motorcyclists. Quality always prevails over style and function.
It’s really hot now. I decide to make time rather than stop for water, but it is a mistake. By the time I get to Adelanto, I am light-headed from dehydration. My clutch is slipping because of the heat. The sign on a nearby bank reads 108 degrees. The breeze from the road feels like a blast furnace.
I turn off the highway when I see a sign for a Shell station. It is another ghost, boarded up like it has been closed awhile. A lot of things in the town are like that: new construction next to boarded up history. I putt on past the police station, which is right next to an open convenience store. The cashier is standing next to the open cooler. Since the place doesn’t sell gas I keep going. Finally, at the far end of town, I find gas.
Pay-at-the-pump is perhaps my favorite modern convenience. I know I’m getting punchy now because for the first time in the two years I’ve had these heavy stainless gas caps, I drop one. I cringe at the scratched surface when I pick it up. I start to pump but gas pours out of the boot all over the tank. I swear bitterly and remove the nozzle to shake out the rest of the gas. I try again, but the hose is broken and gas is pouring out of the boot instead of the nozzle.
Angrier by the minute, I hang the nozzle back on the hook and move to the next pump. This pump won’t take my card, so I have to go inside to pay. I grab a couple of bottles of water and then try to pay for my gas and water with a ten-dollar bill.
“How much do you want in gas?” asks the girl behind the counter.
“I don’t know,” I say. “I’m sure it won’t take more than a few dollars.”
“I have to know how much so I can ring it in,” she says.
“I’m going to fill it, so why don’t you just ring in whatever’s left after the water’s paid for.”
“Well, how much is that?” she asks.
“How the hell should I know,” I gripe. “I don’t even know how much you want for the water.”
Finally, with a little not-so-gentle persuasion, she rings up the water and gives me my change so I can give it right back to her for pump number one. I try to pump the gas again but the pump won’t reset. I go back inside and she tells me that it has to be reset from inside.
By this time I’ve inhaled about a quart of water and I’m in a much better mood. The rocket scientist behind the counter isn’t helping much, but I soon realize that she is not the enemy. No longer feeling dehydrated, I douse my head and shirt with the rest of my water before putting my leather jacket back on. This will act as a swamp cooler for at least the next 30 miles. With a full tank, I begin the final leg of my journey.
This thing about Quality challenged my entire way of thinking. I couldn’t define Quality, but I knew what it was. I knew it had been replaced by style years ago, but that it still had its worshippers in the remote corners of society. I knew there was a dichotomy in the Universe where we suddenly realize our transition from the Classical to the Romantic and we fight the transition every step of the way. I was beginning to realize that this transition had something to do with Quality. Then Pirsig hit me with the big whammy.
Quality came before everything else.
That’s right, Quality came first and everything else came second.
Socrates would have you believe that reason came first, but reason is actually the frail child of Quality (Pirsig 338). When you were born you knew nothing of reason. As a newborn, you didn’t think things through. The very first thing you felt was quite possibly the slap of the doctor’s hand on your behind. You didn’t know what it was, you didn’t reason through it, but you knew it was bad. Your very first conscious act was to take a big breath of air and let out a scream. You didn’t know what that was either, but you knew that it somehow made things better.
Here’s the kicker. How did you know what better was? Here you are, a brand-new person in the world, no experience with anything, but you knew what was bad and you had some notion you could make it better. How can that be? The obvious answer is that good and bad were there before the slap on the ass or the blood-curdling scream. Quality was there before you had any concept of anything else and you knew it without knowing; there’s something wholly Zen in that.
My copy of the Christian Bible opens up:
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light and that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.
If God knew that light was good, then he could very well have said:
In the beginning there was good and there was bad. And in the good and the bad God created the heaven and the earth. And upon the waters there was darkness. And in the darkness God created light. And God proclaimed the light to be good and the darkness to be bad.
It doesn’t really change anything. It merely states the obvious. Quality came before everything else.
Pirsig proposes that we resurrect Quality from the ashes. We must strive, as individuals, to apply Quality first to everything that we do; that we look for Quality first, and then look for everything else. Only then can we reconcile the Classical with the Romantic. Only then can we face the future with optimism rather than fear. Motorcycle Maintenance began for me as an introduction to Classical thinking. It ended for me as a lesson in Quality.
The motorcycle is a metaphor for Quality. When you’re out on the bike, the world disappears inside the Quality of the ride. It takes practice, finding the Quality in motorcycling. It takes an ability to concentrate without concentrating, to think without thinking, to do without doing. You have to remove the duality between yourself and the machine. You have to remove the duality between your mind and your body. The motorcycle ride is pure meditation, is the only way to truly see the Quality in anything. When you find the Zen in motorcycling, you will have found the Quality in the ride.
The 50 miles I ride from Adelanto to Redlands is the closest possible parallel between motorcycling and zazen. My hands become numb, but not so bad that I have to worry about them. I am not concentrating on my breathing; I am concentrating on traffic. I am concentrating on it, but not thinking about it. The thoughts have gone from my mind. My posture and my balance are perfect. My concentration is absolute. My mind is at once empty and filled with the Universe. There is a Quality in this ride that is neither good nor bad, or perhaps both. I don’t think about this. The thought goes into my brain and then goes out again. I move out of my lane to pass a slow moving Volvo and then move back in again. I am not thinking of this, I am simply doing it. I can see the road behind me, and I can see myself there. I can see the road ahead, and I can see myself there as well. I have come full circle. I am living in the present moment. In reality, that is the only place where one can truly live.
I first came upon Motorcycle Maintenance over twenty years ago, but couldn’t finish it. I was mistaken, however, to have believed that I didn’t finish it because the book was not important. Later on, I encountered the book twice more and didn’t finish it. Again, I was mistaken as to why. I believe I was also mistaken to have stopped reading the book because I didn’t like what it said.
As I read this book through for the fourth time, finishing it for the first time, I came to realize that it had been shaping my mind and my spirit. It gave me only the information I needed, and only when I was ready for it. Each time I read the book I took it a little bit farther. I digested a little bit more. It shaped my mind in increments. Only when I was truly ready to understand Mr. Pirsig’s message was I able to receive it.
I finished the book that night when I got home from Kennedy Meadows. Somehow, I was no longer angry with my friends and I was no longer angry about the rocket scientist behind the counter at the gas station. I was no longer wilted from the heat, no longer exhausted, and no longer in a foul mood. I found myself, however, just a bit melancholy.
As I put down the book for the last time I realize that I had just closed the book on a 20-year chapter of my life. For me, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is, perhaps, one of the most important books I have ever read.
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