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 26 | Summary

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Summary

At dawn the narrator awakes and looks up at his motorcycle, thinking to himself he'll probably never sell it. If he keeps it tuned and overhauled, it should last as long as he does.

He and Chris have reached Oregon now. As they ride, the narrator thinks of poems from The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, which were written in Persia around the 11th century.

The narrator wants to talk about gumption. He likes the word: "It describes exactly what happens to someone who connects with Quality. He gets filled with gumption." Gumption, he adds, is like psychic gasoline. Without it, people can't fix a motorcycle; with it, they can. When someone's working on a machine or doing any job, they risk running into "gumption traps," which drain energy and destroy enthusiasm. Using the motorcycle as a metaphor, the narrator offers some practical suggestions for escaping these traps.

The first is anxiety caused by "over motivation." It is often the reason beginning a project is difficult. The goal should be not a "fixed machine," but peace of mind. The more someone plans and prepares for a task, the calmer they'll become.

Second is boredom, the "opposite of anxiety" and a sign of ego problems and a low "gumption supply." The narrator says, "When you're bored, stop!" For potentially boring projects, he advises readers to think of each step as a ritual in a rite—almost like a performance.

Next is impatience. The narrator thinks this always results from "an underestimation of the time the job will take." He suggests some solutions: allow an indefinite amount of time for a job, double the allotted time if you must prepare a "time budget," and scale down the scope of what you want to do overall. Immediate goals, however, "must be scaled up."

Finally, to avoid the trap of binary "yes-no" thinking, the narrator introduces the Japanese concept of mu, which means "no thing": "It states that the context of the question is such that a yes or no answer is in error and should not be given." Mu thinking works when the experiment or motorcycle repair being done results in an incomplete or indefinite answer—not yes and not no. One way to conceptualize mu thinking is to look at circuits when the power is off. He says they are in a "mu state." According to the narrator, "they aren't at one, they aren't at zero, they're at an indeterminate state." He thinks science grows and benefits more through mu results than yes-no answers. Better than confirming a hypothesis is to determine the answer is "beyond the hypothesis," which inspires further questioning and research.

As evening draws near, the narrator and Chris feel exhausted. The narrator stares at the cars going by as the two rest along the side of the road. He notices the loneliness of all these people in their individual cars, all staring straight ahead, all seeming very much alike in their loneliness. As Sylvia noticed when they began their trip, these lines of drivers and cars are like a funeral procession. If eye contact does happen, people look away, wanting separation, not connection. It is a depressing sight.

They get back on their bikes and back on the road, now feeling the "danger" of hectic, crowded highway driving. The concern of the drivers is not where they are but where they want to be. Abruptly, the narrator recalls the biggest gumption trap of all: "this hyped-up, fuck-you, supermodern, ego style of life that thinks it owns this country." Because their journey has stayed on back roads, reentering a fast-paced interstate highway in northern California is an unpleasant shock. He notes he and Chris have traveled 325 miles in one day as they camp for the night.

Analysis

Within the scope of the chapter, the narrator interweaves excerpts from The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. The poems, written by an ancient Persian mathematician and astronomer, address deep philosophical issues akin to those the narrator has addressed in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, including the nature of reality. The poet, Omar Khayyám, takes solace in nature, appreciating the moment. This is akin to the narrator's stance, connecting the frame story to the Chautauqua. Talk of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám leads into a meandering Chautauqua on gumption traps, including impatience and boredom. By the construction of his text, Pirsig replicates the slow pace of the things he references. This effectively contrasts with the end of the chapter as the narrator and Chris negotiate the noise, speed, and traffic of an interstate highway while exhausted from a long day of travel.

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