Zen and the Art of a Higher Education

WITHIN HOURS of Robert Pirsig’s death at age 88 in April 2017, newspapers and internet outlets began announcing the passing of a philosophical enigma and author of the surprise blockbuster Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values (1974). The obituaries were variations on the same theme: they described how Pirsig was initially blindsided when his book, after having been rejected by 121 publishers, became “one of history’s unlikeliest bestsellers.” Or they noted how the reclusive author reluctantly navigated his fame in the years after its publication. While a handful mentioned “Pirsig pilgrims” who still today retrace the motorcycle tour from Minnesota to San Francisco featured in his novel, most discussed the book’s significance in the past tense. With its “do-it-yourself” mix of motorcycle repair and philosophical inquiry, Pirsig’s book became the bible of the counterculture generation, many of whom were as disenchanted with technological progress as they were with their parents, political leaders, and professors. Pirsig had hoped that his book would also be taken seriously by professional philosophers. But the closest it came to the academy, according to the obituaries, was as a “dog-eared presence in many a college dorm room.”

Beyond agreeing that ZAMM is a relic of the 1970s, the obituary writers struggled to characterize both the genre and the contents of the book that propelled Pirsig into global stardom. At its most basic, it is a first-person narrative of a father who takes a motorcycle trip with his 11-year-old son and two friends, all the while journeying intellectually and existentially into his past, the philosophical questions that both enliven and torment him, and his fraught relationships with his boy, his friends, and the world. It is a thinly veiled autobiography, for it follows, in novelized form, Pirsig’s own path from intellectual Wunderkind to wayward drifter to technical writer to college rhetoric instructor and to doctoral student in philosophy before succumbing to — and nominally recovering from — a debilitating mental illness that landed him in a psychiatric hospital. How does one describe a book that works in different registers (narrative, expository, analytical), speaks in different idioms (mechanical, epistemological, experiential), and addresses such a wide range of themes from the history of science, Eastern philosophies, and the Montana landscape, to camping, valves, and values? The obituaries concurred with the assessment of one reviewer who marveled: “[A]nything you call it, it’s also something else. They may seem silly, but these problems of nomenclature are symptomatic.” Nevertheless, they all agreed that this inscrutable book — with this most improbable title, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance — is utterly, profoundly, sometimes maddeningly sui generis.

Except that it isn’t. While Pirsig’s book is in many respects singular, he drew its title as well as insights on “Oriental philosophy” from Eugen Herrigel’s Zen in the Art of Archery (1948). Herrigel, a German philosopher who took instruction in Kyūdō (“the way of the bow”) in Japan between 1924 and 1929 under Master Awa Kenzô, in order to penetrate what he considered to be the “pure introspective mysticism” of Zen Buddhism. Herrigel’s book recounts his almost six-year-long struggle to experience firsthand the “mystery” of Zen’s “primordial mystic phenomenon.” This required fully submitting to his Master, abnegating his “I,” while trying to tap into the mysterious “It” of the “bottomless ground of Being.” (When, in frustration with his bow and himself, Herrigel asked his Master what exactly this “It” was, the latter answered, “Once you have understood that, you have no further need of me.”) While the book was enthusiastically received by Western readers when it first appeared in English translation in 1953, Arthur Koestler, for one, was disturbed that it was saturated in “the more ponderous kind of Germanic mysticism,” and manifested an “Eastern guru-father complex” that fetishized authoritarianism. Something was off. Gershom Scholem later confirmed what Koestler’s anti-totalitarian nose knew: if Zen in the Art of Archery seemed to reek of a disturbing “Zen-Nazism,” it may very well be because Herrigel spent his “career as a convinced Nazi” and card-carrying member of the National Socialist Party, a fact “carefully hushed up by […] his admirers.”

Nazism, Mysticism, Zen, Archery, Motorcycles, Guru — this is the sort of word combination you might want to consider deleting from your computer’s search history. Herrigel’s and Pirsig’s books share a portion of a title and an interest in using “Zen” for coming into right relationship with the world. But that’s where the similarities end. While Herrigel’s Zen is mystical, esoteric, and accessible to a chosen few, Pirsig’s is plain-spoken, unadorned, practical, and pragmatic.

Differences notwithstanding, the two books helped give birth to a new prolific “Zen-and-the-Art-of” title industry, and with it the convention of yoking “Zen” to an “art” of some task, craft, or field of knowledge. Alan Watts wasn’t wrong when in 1957 he assured his Western readers that Zen “may be applied in any direction, to any conceivable human activity, and that wherever it is so applied it lends an unmistakable quality to the work.” But even he might have been taken aback to learn that there are now “Zen-and-the-Art-of” guides for everything from knitting, running, dodgeball, changing diapers, diabetes maintenance, medical imaging, and statecraft, to screenwriting, healthy eating, successful BBQing, the SAT exam, poker playing, getting rich, and committing murder.

No doubt, many authors simply use the formulation as a marketing hook. (Though few are as honest as Ray Bradbury, who, for his 1990 best seller, Zen in the Art of Writing, admitted: “I selected the above title, quite obviously for its shock value.”) Nevertheless, many of the works — like Pirsig’s and Herrigel’s before them — draw on “Zen” as an “art” to sharply rebuke received forms of wisdom, institutional learning, and familiar intellectual authorities. Their endorsement of an alternative “way of knowing” might be productive for readers if the authors actually provided some history of Mahayana Buddhism, distinguished Zazen from Zen, or perhaps even explained that while Zen emphasizes open experience, it is indeed an epistemology. Instead, as it crops up in this genre, Zen is typically a thin conceit. It can be many things, but even in all of its myriad interpretations and uses, Zen is not an admonition to, as Bradbury puts it, just “learn from instinct,” and “DON’T THINK!” “Beginner’s mind” isn’t an exhortation to be stupid, naïve, or incurious. Rather, it is a powerful way of resetting one’s approach to a knotty intellectual problem or an intractable moral dilemma; but it can also just be a way of finding the wonders and joys of prosaic tasks like housecleaning and dog walking.

While Pirsig’s ZAMM did the most to establish the genre, his book is neither derivative of Herrigel’s mystification and authoritarianism, nor befuddled by the slack anti-intellectualism of the knockoffs that followed it. Too many of these books, however, followed Pirsig’s title but not his book’s erudition or earnest intellectual engagement. They used “Zen” only to mock expertise, evade thinking with evidence, or badmouth analytic thought.

Still we might ask of Pirsig’s opus: What’s Zen got to do with it? If we heed Pirsig’s “Author’s Note” on the first page of the book, the answer might be: nothing. “It should in no way be associated with that great body of factual information relating to orthodox Zen Buddhist practice.” Note taken.

But despite this conscientious disclaimer, there is a lot of “Zen” talk in the book. It discusses concerns that should look familiar to any serious Zen practitioner. ZAMM explores the illusion of the self, all the ways in which our egos blinker, trick, and tangle us. It provides a vivid portrayal of impermanence — not only as the father and his companions ride their motorcycles from place to place, but also in his meditations on the “temporal condition” of ideas, beliefs, even scientific truths. The book offers an unmistakable critique of attachment and incessant striving, the kind of impassioned longings that characterized his earlier zeal for “Quality” and landed him in a psychiatric ward. In this regard, at least, the book is a challenge to the elsewhereness of truth:

Then, when you’re no longer thinking ahead, each footstep isn’t just a means to an end but a unique event in itself. This leaf has jagged edges. This rock looks loose. From this place the snow is less visible […] To live only for some future goal is shallow. It’s the sides of the mountain which sustain life, not the top. Here’s where things grow.

Should Pirsig’s ZAMM be read as a primer on Zen? No. But neither should it be dismissed as a period piece of the ’70s counterculture. To do so would be to miss how it subtly works with some of the insights of Zen and Pirsig’s own academic and para-academic experiences as one long comment on higher learning, which is still surprisingly resonant today. Pirsig’s references to the peculiarities, peccadilloes, and power of the university are frequent and unmistakable. ZAMM observes the tensions between radical college professors and conservative state politics, reflects on the euphemism of a “teaching college” (where “you teach and you teach and you teach with no time for research, no time for contemplation, no time for participation in outside affairs”), and worries over a college education that encourages students’ “calculated mimicry.” No doubt there’s a now-clichéd petulance in his characterization of the university as a cool and technocratic “Church of Reason” (in which, at times, he desperately wanted to worship, but which others rebuffed as a “blind, […] sinister, and inhuman” citadel). Yet these are the warnings of a true believer in the mission, if not methods, of the modern academy.

ZAMM may be critical of particular forms of intellectuality, but it is in no way an anti-intellectual screed. Indeed, intellectual engagement happens all over the place — in the sun and in the seminar, alone on dirt roads and together with students in the classroom. Even though this is a travel narrative, most of the novel’s episodes take place in the narrator’s head. There are no crashes, no dramatic tire blow-outs, no scenes with the father and son being chased by coyotes from their camp grounds. It’s the narrator working through problems of philosophy, which he learned within and without the university, that drives the narrative. The thinking is the action.

ZAMM is in no way hostile to reason. Pirsig values “the Buddha that exists within analytic thought, and gives that analytic thought its direction.” He explores how discursive thought, though insufficient for understanding the world, should not be silenced or ignored, but observed with curiosity and compassion. He recommends the Zen Buddhist “beginner’s mind” as a powerful way of resetting one’s approach to a complicated task, a painful memory, struggles with a loved one, and thinking itself. But rational inquiry has its role to play, too, though as a complement to — not a replacement of — book learning, scientific experimentation, and immediate experience.

Pirsig long regretted that the book’s role in the life of the university was limited to students’ extracurricular reading while flopped on a bean bag at the end of a long day of classes. Here, Pirsig was only partly right. Though it is rare to find ZAMM on a syllabus for a philosophy course, it has been a persistent presence in the academy as a resource for educators to reflect on the “art” of teaching. For decades now, professors and academic administrators have enlisted ZAMM to consider what it would mean for them to “teach the whole person” and to show students the “gumption traps” that keep them from studying. They have turned to it to ask where “Quality” can be found in the rankings of academic departments and to consider the perils of using grades for motivating students. And they have found it to be a way to demonstrate to scientifically illiterate humanities students the rewards of joining the “two cultures” by showing them that “the Buddha, the Godhead, resides quite as comfortably in the circuits of a digital computer or the gears of a cycle transmission as he does at the top of a mountain or in the petals of a flower.”

Even Pirsig’s use of Chautauquas as a means of teaching, whether it be Zen, motorcycles, freshman English, or senior seminars, is worth a third look. I say “third,” and not “second,” because already in the 1970s, Pirsig’s first generation of readers — those of a “counterculture” least likely to find anything in Victorian culture worthy of their appreciation — discovered in ZAMM a reason to reconsider the form. If ever there was a Victorian institution, it was the Chautauqua, the traveling lecture circuit designed to — as Pirsig put it — “edify and entertain, improve the mind and bring culture and enlightenment” to mass audiences (and which William James famously derided as “tame,” “second-rate,” and the “quintessence of every mediocrity”). Surely, James would have agreed with Pirsig that learning should never be reduced to modeling good “table manners,” nor should professors try to “sound like God talking for eternity, [as] that isn’t the way it ever is.” As Pirsig understood it, the true value of the Chautauqua, as with any good form of instruction, is that “it’s never been anything other than just one person talking from one place in time and space and circumstance. It’s never been anything else, ever.” Thus, with the use of Chautauquas, Pirsig managed a most remarkable feat, one college students would surely appreciate today. Namely, to use education to cultivate what the Victorians called “self-culture”: “The real cycle you’re working on is a cycle called ‘yourself.’”

It may seem odd for the university educated or even university educators to welcome a book that seems to view the academy as enemy territory. But properly understood, and more in keeping with Pirsig’s original intentions, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance shows how the learning in a lecture hall or seminar room should be preparation for a life of learning on the open road. His claim that the “real university is a state of mind” doesn’t mean that there’s no work for bricks-and-mortar higher education to do. Just the opposite: it’s a reminder that awakening the appetite and practicing the skills for lifelong learning are what constitute a university education itself. The Zen and the art in a higher education would train students in these habits of mind and prepare them to take their learning with them, wherever they go, whatever roads they ride. 


Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen is the Merle Curti and Vilas-Borghesi Distinguished Achievement Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.