Archive for the ‘Zen and the Art of…’ Category

Robert Pirsig’s recent passing has led a lot of people to reflect on Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which he published in 1974. He acknowledges in his author’s note that the book has nothing to do with “orthodox Zen Buddhism,” but the rest of the book makes it clear that he’s not interested in orthodox Zen Buddhism in the first place. Instead, Pirsig understands Zen as direct, unmediated experience that cannot be expressed in language. In this sense, his book is about Zen, but it’s the kind of Zen that isn’t tied to a particular culture, history, or religion.

For Pirsig, Zen is the romantic counterpart to the rational, logic-driven mindset that he initially favors. Eventually, he concludes that one must embrace and balance the rational and the romantic to achieve Quality, a philosophical ideal in which one finds fulfillment. Zen isn’t the only religion or philosophy Pirsig draws from in developing his idea of Quality, though; Greek philosophy, Hinduism, and the thought of people like Henry David Thoreau also play important roles, even to the point of overshadowing Pirsig’s use of Zen. Yet the connection between Zen and this book remains outsized due to its title and its influence on popular conceptions of Zen in the U.S.

Pirsig didn’t invent the idea that Zen is fundamentally about direct experience, or “being in the moment.” As the UC Berkeley Buddhist Studies scholar Robert Sharf points out in two articles (one on Zen and Japanese nationalism, the other on the idea of experience in Buddhism), D.T. Suzuki popularized this notion, drawing on Romanticism as well as the Kyoto School philosophy of Nishida Kitarō. Suzuki’s version of Zen inspired Eugen Herrigel, the Nazi who wrote Zen in der Kunst des Bogenschiessens, or Zen in the Art of Archery in 1948. Herrigel presented Zen as a kind of practiced effortlessness that underlay archery as well as various other Japanese arts. These ideas, as well as Herrigel’s title, clearly inspired Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (though there were several other Zen in the Art of titles that came out just before Pirsig’s title, such as Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing in 1973).

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance marked a shift to “Zen and the Art of…” titles, replacing the previous “Zen in the Art of…” titles. Ironically, Pirsig’s philosophy suggests that his title should have been “Zen in the Art of…” which would have underscored the importance of direct experience in motorcycle maintenance, a skill that to Pirsig symbolized of the rational approach to life. Regardless, Pirsig’s title paved the way for a slew of Zen and the Art of… books, from Zen and the Art of Making a Living to my personal favorite, Zen and the Art of Cooking Beer-Can Chicken. These titles may seem superficial and incidental, but they have significantly shaped perceptions of Zen in American popular culture. Not only is Zen inextricably tied to art (however one may define it), it can also be associated with absolutely anything. These titles remove any historical or cultural specificity from Zen Buddhism to make Zen a transcultural, ephemeral experience. This ties in very closely to how Pirsig presents Zen in the body of the book as well.

At the same time, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance has sparked its many readers’ interest in Zen, Buddhism in general, and comparative religions. The book’s creative structure, which combined road trip memoir, autobiography, and philosophical treatise, echoes its eclectic contents. While it may not cohere as much as a traditional narrative, it provokes deeper reflection and challenges readers to make their own meaning from Pirsig’s journeys. I think this is why the book has left a mark on so many people, and even steered some into the academic study of religion.

I was honored to discuss Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance earlier this week on PRI’s The World. I hope it’s of interest!



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I gave a public lecture at the University of Tennessee’s McClung Museum last September in conjunction with the exhibit I curated, “Zen Buddhism and the Arts of Japan.” The exhibit recently won an award of excellence at the annual conference of the Tennessee Association of Museums, so on that occasion I’m posting the video of the talk, titled “From Zen Art to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” It looks at the connection between the kind of art done by Japanese monks in the exhibit and the proliferation of “Zen and/in the Art of…” titles in the late 20th century.

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Zen and the Art of Air Travel,” a short article about airline delays in the Dallas Morning News, doesn’t have much to do with Zen, but that’s sort of the point. Going all the way back to Eugen Herrigel’s 1948  Zen in the Art of Archery (Zen in der Kunst des Bogenschießens) and Robert Pirsig’s 1974 Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the first books to use the “Zen in/and the art of…” titles, there was little connection to Zen Buddhism. The ubiquity of “Zen in/and the art of…” speaks to the increasing dissociation of Zen from any historical and cultural context, as well as the perception that Zen is embedded in the arts. Anything can be a Zen art, to the benefit of lazy headline and title writers.

The author here at least makes an attempt to draw on something Asian, but chooses the legendary Daoist sage Lao Tzu (Laozi) rather than a Zen, or even a Buddhist, figure. Zen Buddhists adopted many ideas from the writings attributed to Lao Tzu and the later Daoist philosopher Chuang Tzu (Zhuangzi), but I suspect that the use of a Lao Tzu quotation in this short article bespeaks the conflation of Asian religions rather than an acknowledgement of Zen Buddhism’s debt to earlier Chinese traditions. Incidentally, Lao Tzu described the ideal country as one in which people felt no need to leave home, so he probably wouldn’t have made the best airline customer.

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Toysmith makes this “deluxe” version of an office-friendly Zen garden (though in true  kōan-like fashion, the box proclaims “This is not a toy”). It comes with a 9 x 9 inch tray that you can fill with sand and decorate with rocks and two ceramic cranes. A wooden rake, bamboo rake, and brush allow you to rake the sand into patterns that you can then contemplate with the enclosed book of meditations. The box is decorated with the kanji (Sino-Japanese character) for “meditation,” meisō 瞑想, and the book of meditations reproduces the kanji for several Buddhist terms (Buddha 佛, Chan/Zen 禪, charity 布施, contemplation 觀想, enlightenment 覺悟, four great elements 四大, karma 業, nirvana 涅槃, and wisdom 智慧) with only two errors, but apparently without any reason for including these particular terms. The use of kanji is decorative, and probably meant to enhance this product’s exotic aura.

More interesting is how the idea of the “Zen garden” developed. The “Book of Meditations” claims:

Zen-inspired gardens took root in Japan, where Zen Buddhism has heavily influenced Japanese culture for centuries. In Japan, the physical makeup of the country — mountains and sea – is reflected in garden design. Through the use of rocks and plants, the gardens are symbolic, scaled-down representations of Nature. In a garden, a meditative mental plane is reached by viewing this physical plane. A Zen garden is for contemplations, for finding truth and personal enlightenment. It transcends space and time.

The purpose of cultivating a Zen rock garden is to learn to open your mind and see more than what is before you. This kit includes a base, sand, rocks, and a wooden rake. These elements when combined allow the Zen gardener to experience what Zen masters have practiced for centuries. You can experience Zen gardening on a personal level wherever you choose.

It is certainly true that for centuries, Zen monasteries have had gardens, but Shoji Yamada shows in the second half of Shots in the Dark: Japan, Zen, and the West that the idea of a “Zen garden” as a place intentionally designed in accordance with Zen principles for the purpose of meditation only appears after World War II. This doesn’t make the Zen garden “fake,” but it does remove the patina of historical authority it might otherwise have.

The idea of having a Zen garden in your backyard or on your desk also ties into the emphasis on the “personal” that comes up in the “Book of Meditations.” This vision of Zen is detached from institutional, social, historical, political, and economic contexts, and can thus be anything anyone wants it to be. Of course, this vision of Zen is part of its own historical context, and owes a debt to modern Protestant definitions of religion as a matter of personal, interior faith rather than socio-historical practice.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have my own Deluxe Zen Garden (a tounge-in-cheek gift from a kind colleague) on my office desk, but it mostly languishes there behind huge stacks of papers. Maybe I would benefit from following the “Book of Meditations” more closely and busting out the rakes every once in a while.

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