Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance | Study Guide

Robert Pirsig

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Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance | Context


Pirsig published Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in 1974 but worked on the manuscript throughout the 1960s. The decade saw tremendous social upheaval in North America and Europe. Some of the decade's social developments were as follows:

  • Sexual mores changed dramatically with the introduction of birth control pills.
  • African Americans and women struggled for equality.
  • The U.S. war in Vietnam and Cambodia inspired protests nationwide, especially on college campuses.
  • Repeated acts of violence tore the social fabric of the United States. The assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, Senator Robert Kennedy, and activist/civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. all occurred in the decade. In the South, bigots and traditionalists fought integration as civil rights protesters took part in public demonstrations, and several major cities endured violent riots.

Three other important U.S. social and cultural trends of the 1950s and 1960s intertwine in the book: Buddhism, the antipsychiatry movement, and the literature of road trips, which explored local American cultures throughout the country. It might seem these trends have little in common, but they all demonstrate the resistance to traditional authority that marked the decade.


All Buddhists follow the teaching of the Buddha, whom they believe to be an enlightened man who lived in what is now Nepal and India between the 6th and 4th centuries BCE. The Buddha's meditative life and teachings attracted many disciples, and Buddhism spread as a religion from India to other Asian regions, including China, Korea, and Japan.

Zen Buddhism

There are many branches of Buddhism. In the sixth century CE, Buddhists from India encountered a similar religion in China called Taoism, and the form called Zen Buddhism was born. The word Zen is Japanese for the Chinese Chan, which in turn derives from the Sanskrit Dhyana, itself a representation of the Pali Jhana, all of which translate to "meditation."

Zen Buddhists say Zen can't be defined because it has no definition and no categories. Nor can it be described, because it's beyond description. It is not a religion and has no deity. Nor does it have a philosophy that can be pinned down. In fact, language isn't particularly good at conveying what Zen means. Japanese author Toichi Yoshioka, in his 1978 book titled Zen, says, "Zen is not something that can be explained in words, but is a practice which is carried out for one's own self-development and leads to a state of liberation called satori (spiritual enlightenment or awakening)."

In an author's note, Pirsig says Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance "should in no way be associated with that great body of factual information relating to orthodox Zen Buddhist principles. It's not very factual on motorcycles either." But readers don't need to know much about Buddhism to realize Zen thinking permeates the book. Like many Americans of the 1960s and 1970s—and ever-increasing numbers since then—Pirsig found that Buddhist practice, meditation, and principles made his life more harmonious and his thinking clearer.

Buddhism in the United States

The first Buddhists to arrive in the United States in large numbers were Chinese immigrants who settled along the West Coast in the 1840s. Western travelers to Asia during this period brought back Buddhist texts with them, and these influenced such American writers as Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Walt Whitman.

The 1893 Chicago World's Fair featured a World Parliament of Religions. Two participants—a Zen master from Japan and a Buddhist teacher from Sri Lanka—later toured the United States, lecturing on Buddhism. Some of their students also traveled to the United States to continue this work. In 1898 Japanese Buddhists created the Buddhist Mission of America, which evolved into the Buddhist Churches of America after World War II. Once the mission took root, more Buddhist teachers moved to North America to establish Buddhist outposts. By the mid-20th century, several major U.S. cities had Buddhist monasteries or Zen centers, and there were several Buddhist mountain retreats for longer periods of training.

The 1960s counterculture found much to admire in Buddhism, especially because, in the minds of young people, the Western Judeo-Christian ethic seemed to have produced such a violent and desperate decade. Some of the most celebrated American Buddhists went to Asia for training and returned to create their own Zen centers.

World politics also played a part in bringing Buddhism to the attention of the West.

  • When China invaded Tibet in 1959, the flight of the Tibetan Buddhist monk the Dalai Lama received worldwide attention. Tibetan refugees who began new lives in the United States. brought Tibetan Buddhism along with them.
  • In 1965 the Immigration and Nationality Act ended the quota on Asian emigration to the United States. Increased numbers of Buddhist immigrants from Asia moved to the United States.
  • In 1966, to protest the Vietnam War, Buddhist monks in Saigon committed suicide by self-immolation (lighting themselves on fire). In the same year a book about the war, Lotus in a Sea of Fire (1967), was first published in English. The author was a Vietnamese Buddhist, Thich Nhat Hanh. The book deeply affected American civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr., and he nominated Nhat Hanh for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1967.

Among other American authors, Jack Kerouac was a Buddhist and wrote extensively about his Buddhist experiences. In The Dharma Bums, published in 1958, the novel's protagonist, Ray Smith, backpacks across the United States after a friend commits suicide. Ray sees himself as a spokesperson for "millions of young Americans wandering around refusing to subscribe to the general demand that they ... work for the privilege of consuming all that crap they didn't really want anyway."

The 1953 American publication of a book by Eugen Herrigel, a German philosophy professor in Tokyo, undoubtedly influenced Pirsig. Titled Zen in the Art of Archery, it also looks at how the principles of Zen apply to learning a new skill.

The Antipsychiatry Movement

The 1960s witnessed a growing distrust of psychiatry, which led to the development of an antipsychiatry movement in the United States that was both social and political. Some of the reasons for this include:

  • Many patients suffered in poorly run mental institutions.
  • Abuses of the mentally ill in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union had been well publicized.
  • For decades, homosexuality had been treated as a "curable" mental illness, leading Americans to think other diagnoses of mental illness might be equally misguided.
  • Compulsory hospitalization and treatment—electroconvulsive treatment and lobotomies—began to be perceived as a civil rights issue.
  • Some antipsychotic drugs had serious side effects, and some were overprescribed as a way of keeping patients quiet.
  • A number of books that criticized institutionalization of mentally ill patients and questioned the diagnosis of mental illness were published.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance shows the narrator has suffered a serious mental breakdown at some point in the past, with symptoms so dire he was repeatedly hospitalized. The narrator assigns the name Phaedrus to his former self—the person he was before being involuntarily institutionalized. Pirsig's description of Phaedrus makes him sound desperately unhappy as well as out of touch with reality. Once Phaedrus has been "banished" via electroconvulsive ("shock") therapy (ECT), readers might expect the narrator to be glad his treatment was successful.

In fact the narrator is markedly critical of his "cure." He does not think ECT helped him. Rather, he thinks it deleted his former authentic self in favor of a completely new personality. (ECT, which can be extremely beneficial, does not liquidate personalities, but it may induce memory loss.) In Robert Pirsig's introduction to the 25th anniversary edition of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, he scornfully describes himself as "a heretic who is congratulated by everyone for having saved his soul but who knows secretly that he has saved his skin ... he has abandoned truth for popularity and social acceptance by his psychiatrists." He continues this line of thinking in Lila, his sequel to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. In the book, Pirsig compares a person with mental illness to one who chooses to stay inside a movie theater. "Why should he get 'better'? He already is better ... Insanity isn't the problem. Insanity is the solution." Modern readers may feel that the psychiatric treatment Phaedrus received helped him; Pirsig seems to disagree.

Road Trip Literature and Films

In 1935 American writer Ernest Hemingway wrote this famous line: "All modern literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn." Though Twain's character Huck Finn traveled down a river, not a road, he inspired many great writers to make their own pilgrimage through the American landscape. This is evidenced not only in literature, but in the "biker" film subgenre. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance creates a uniquely American text by pulling together the cultural mystique of bikers and the American road trip. Pirsig creates a compelling story of man on the road, exploring the great American landscape, and it is within this framework that he can explore philosophical ideals.

The book followed a number of earlier American "road trip" stories. One of the most influential of these was published a decade and a half before Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance—Jack Kerouac's On the Road (1957). Kerouac's fictionalized autobiography took him and his Beat generation friend Neal Cassady on several drives across the United States and into Mexico. The book, which supposedly took Kerouac only three weeks to write, was tremendously influential. In a New York Times review it was called "the most beautifully executed, the clearest and the most important utterance yet made" by anyone in the Beat movement of writers and poets. The American Beat writers, who also included Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs, embraced counterculture values and sought to portray authentic experiences through improvisational prose.

Road-trip books often invoked the romantic notion of the traveler as an enlightened outlaw with no need to conform to society's expectations. In The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968), American author Tom Wolfe wrote about his travels with a group of hippies who called themselves the Merry Pranksters. The group was led by American writer Ken Kesey (author of the 1962 novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) and fueled by quantities of the psychedelic drug lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD). They roamed California in a wildly painted school bus, seeking to transcend ordinary reality by means of psychedelic drugs, music, and huge parties. Pirsig certainly could join this group of "outsiders" with his unconventional philosophical views.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream by American journalist Hunter S. Thompson, published as a book in 1972, was another hero-as-outlaw book with even more drugs and a lot of drinking as well. Rolling Stone magazine hired Thompson to write about the accidental death of a journalist. The assignment turned into a fictionalized autobiography about Thompson's trips to Las Vegas with the dead journalist's lawyer. In the book Thompson's narrator describes the sense that, in the battle for American culture, he and his cohorts will manage to beat "the forces of Old and Evil ... Our energy would simply prevail." The New York Times called the book "by far the best book yet on the decade of dope ... [Its] ripples spread from Huckleberry Finn to F. Scott [Fitzgerald]'s Rockville grave."

Road-trip films, and especially the so-called "biker flicks" about motorcycle journeys, were also predecessors of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. "Biker flicks" were a popular B-movie subgenre in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. The classic biker road-trip film is Easy Rider (1969). This was no B-movie but a serious attempt to comment on the decline of American culture. The popularity of these films certainly predisposed an American public to accepting a motorcycle trip as a metaphor for exploring what is important in life.

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