“The Buddha, the Godhead, resides quite as comfortably in the circuits of a digital computer of the gears of a cycle transmission as he does at the top of a mountain or in the petals of a flower.”

— Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values


Robert Maynard Pirsig (1928-2017) died last week, at age 88 — we shared birthdays (not birth years!). I must have read ZATAOMM right after it came out, in 1974, because I still have a clipping, from a professional engineering journal of that year, which saw fit to publish a my letter extolling the virtues of taking a “romantic” (versus “classical”) approach to — get this — designing a sewer system! The journal editor must have had too much space to fill.

Pirsig’s “Classical vs. Romantic” (he capitalized the terms) way of looking at the world wasn’t the first approach to the rational/intuitive dichotomy. My friend Per in New Zealand was an ardent fan of Friedrich Nietzsche (I remember waking one icy morning — we were on the slopes of a volcano — hearing Per greet the day with, “He who lives is right!” Heady times.) Nietzsche, Per told me, made a big deal of philosophically opposite ways of looking at life: Apollonian (rational) vs. Dionysian (intuitive). I thought Dionysus was only about wine, women and rock ’n’ roll, so at least I was put straight about that.

ZATAOMM had a huge effect on me when I read it — yesterday I looked for my tattered, torn, marked-up copy, no luck. Could I really have tossed it in one of many moves since then? Apparently, yes. Sacrilege! 

Two issues (of many, many) addressed by Pirsig that have stuck with me over the years:

  • I forget exactly how he put it, but basically, if you have a problem with your motorbike (which I’ve applied successfully to problems with pedal bikes, washing machines, computers, differences with my beloved), before jumping in trying to fix it, first sit down and shut up … allowing the solution to emerge from the stillness, so to speak.
  • He scorned the modern preoccupation (for which he blamed Plato and Aristotle) with dividing the world into the “ordinary” and the “transcendent.” As Robert Vitello, writing Pirsig’s obituary for the New York Times, put it: “Mr. Pirsig’s narrator declares that the real world is a seamless continuum of the material and metaphysical.”

Robert Pirsig in 2005 (Ian Glendinning, Creative Commons)

This no-difference has stood me in good stead over the years, through various and sundry “spiritual” explorations. Spiritual in scare quotes because — probably as a result of reading ZATAOMM at an impressionable time of life — I think the whole notion of downplaying our rational waking consciousness (using William James’ phrase) while exalting the spiritual/enlightened state is false and unfortunate. In this view, to strive for enlightenment is a worthy activity — the corollary being that “just this” is somehow unworthy, a second-class state of consciousness. (IMHO, if there is such a thing as “enlightenment” — which I doubt — it’s realizing that we’re already there. Unhappiness comes from wanting to be happier; this is as good as it gets.)

It sounds as if Pirsig’s life post-ZATAOMM was not particularly happy, despite the unexpected success of the book ( — he said 121 publishers rejected it before William Morris took it on, with the caveat that he shouldn’t expect any royalties beyond his $3,000 advance). He divorced (and remarried); retreated into long periods of solitariness; was disappointed that mainstream philosophers didn’t embrace his ideas; and his only other book, Lila: An Inquiry into Morals, was not well received. And, in a terrible irony, his son Chris (who, the book, rode pillion with him on their 17-day odyssey from Minneapolis to San Francisco, via Arcata and Eureka) was murdered a few years later outside the San Francisco Zen Center on Page Street.

Robert and Chris’ route, July 1968 (Ian Glendinning)

Time for a re-reading. If you’re unfamiliar with ZATAOMM, I heartily (but not spiritually!) recommend it. If you’re anything like me, god forbid, your life will never be the same.