Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance | Study Guide

Robert Pirsig

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Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance | Part 3, Chapter 17 | Summary



As Chris and the narrator climb the mountain, Chris feels tired and unwell. The narrator suggests Chris climb more slowly and pace himself. "Mountains," the narrator thinks, "should be climbed with as little effort as possible and without desire." In the narrator's view, people should treat each step as a unique event, not a means to an end. It's shallow to live only for a distant goal. On the other hand, in mountain climbing, the goal is to reach the top. Still, there's no reason to push themselves, and they can still be mindful of each step.

The narrator thinks back to the time Phaedrus presented his class with the statement that an intuitive and nonverbal process recognizes Quality, not a rational, logical process. He adds that even though Quality is undefinable, "you know what Quality is!" To prove his point, Phaedrus has students rank various essays according to Quality. Once they realize they can recognize a high-quality essay, they also realize that learning the rules of good rhetoric can help them become better writers.

However, this still does not satisfy Phaedrus. His own thoughts about Quality keep expanding outward: "For him there was nothing but ever expanding waves of crystallization."

Chris is once again struggling, and the narrator suspects the boy's ego is so deeply involved he has lost the will or ability to pace himself. The narrator does attempt to cheer Chris and tells a comical story about his encounters with a big bull moose. It works for a little while, but Chris is soon enraged, defiantly rushing past the narrator, ignoring requests to slow down.

The narrator discusses the problem of ego involvement further with a story about Phaedrus and his spiritual pilgrimage to a holy mountain in India. Phaedrus does not reach the top. While waiting for the others to return back down, he thinks about the difference between climbing to reach the top versus climbing simply for the experience of it. Others weaker than himself did complete the journey up the mountain. He concludes that it is the "holiness of the mountain" that gives them greater endurance than he can muster. The narrator thinks this is Chris's problem, too. He is too eager to reach the top, finish climbing, and disconnect from the mindful activity of climbing. The narrator thinks Chris would have an easier climb if he realized the journey is more important than the arrival.


As the narrator ponders Phaedrus's changed teaching methods that preceded his past breakdown, Chris becomes increasingly angry and fatigued. The strained relations between father and son contrast sharply with the noble attempts by Phaedrus to improve his teaching methods. Readers get a picture of a confused man trying to deal with his former madness while unsure of how to connect with his son. For the reader it's clear this trip so far has little to do with strengthening his bonds with Chris and more about reconciliation with his former self, Phaedrus.

In this chapter Phaedrus appears a bit fanatical but still quite sane. He comes upon the idea of grade-free classes and redesigns his teaching appropriately, and students seem to thrive. Always in search of the one underlying principle, his rational mind concludes that the less teaching he does, the more the students will find their own way through the course, and the more they will learn. He concludes that the students don't really need him—but that doesn't make sense. He's still obsessed with finding the answer to the question "What is Quality?" Just as reaching the top of a mountain only satisfies for a moment, so does a reset of his teaching methods. He sees them improve, but it isn't enough for him.

Phaedrus's frustration illuminates a central pillar of Buddhist philosophy: the desire to satisfy a want or a goal leads only to more suffering. Both personalities—the narrator and Phaedrus—wrestle with this desire and try to satisfy it through logic. But the Buddha taught that living in the present, there is no resolution, no problem, no goal to reach. This is the only way to end the maddening search for the unattainable. The "answers" come not through intellectual understanding, but through mindful, meditative experience.

Phaedrus, however, has not reached this stage of enlightenment in the journey being recollected by the narrator. He is still stuck on trying to find an absolute truth. Similarly, in the present moment, Chris is focused on reaching the top of the mountain.

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