Two Zen books

There are at least two books that I have read which begin with “Zen and the Art of…” (or something very similar). One is Robert Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” and the other is Eugen Herrigel’s “Zen in the Art of Archery”. (I’ll leave out Michael Abrash’s “Zen of Assembly Knowledge” for now.)

The two “Zen” books are both very influential amongst their respective followers. I tried to read “Motorcycle Maintenance” first when I was about 16, when it was rather too dense for me. Then I tried again a few years later. For a couple of years, I was completely in love with the book; I even did a Western Philosophy research paper on Socrates’ “Phaedrus”, and synthetic vs. analytic thinking. I haven’t read it for many years now. Perhaps I should pick it up again and browse through it one of these days.

“Motorcycle Maintenance” is the journal of a philosopher who has been operated upon for mental illness at some point of time in the past. As part of the electroshock therapy that was a part of his treatment, some part of his personality was lost. Over the course of the book, whose ‘context’ is a trip that the philosopher makes with his son (on motorbike) through various landmarks of his past life, this ‘hidden’ portion of his personality resurfaces occasionally in greater and greater force.

The philosopher is aware of his past personality, which he calls “Phaedrus”. The name is from a character in one of Socrates’ dialogues, who has a long discussion with Socrates about making speeches, and how the impact a speech has on its listener is not governed by facts as much as by rhetoric. The philosopher’s main thesis (in his voice as narrator of the book) is that Truth is neither objective nor subjective, but is identical in a large part to a thing called “Quality”. He then goes on to describe Quality in more detail, tracing it from its Greek roots, all the way to modern technology. It is in this context that the “motorcycle” aspect of the book emerges. He contrasts two different attitudes towards motorcycles: the ‘classical’, which seeks to understand the motorcycle as a combination of its parts and governed by the laws of physics, and the ‘romantic’, which concentrates on the emotion and experiences that a motorcycle induces in the person driving it, and leaves its repair and maintenance to a trained technician. The philosopher uses the so-called “knife of quality” to slice between the romantic and the classical views, to reconcile them to each other, and to find ‘truth’ somewhere in between.

Robert Pirsig lifted the name of his book from Herrigel’s, which is a completely different book. I read this one first when I was about 26. It’s a very slim book – not much more than a hundred pages – and is a memoir of a German professor of philosophy, who taught in Tokyo in the 1920’s. During this time, Herrigel approached a traditional Japanese master of archery and requested permission to learn the art. The Japanese master (Awa Kenzo), after much reluctance,   agreed to take on Herrigel as a disciple. Herrigel discovers that his master ‘teaches’ him archery in a completely different way from what he expects as a Westerner; for the first several lessons, all he has to do is to pull the bowstring. Then for the next several lessons (which span more than a year), all he is told to practice is to ‘release the bowstring’, gracefully and naturally. The pattern of these seemingly meaningless lessons is the same: the master starts the class by making some incredibly accurate shots of the bow and arrows, and then asks his students to imitate him. During this process, the master instructs his students to become ‘effortless’ at the art of archery; he tells them that if they practice hard enough, it will not be they who are consciously shooting the arrow, it will be ‘It’ that shoots the arrow. He teaches them that an understanding of Zen – where the Doer is not the person but something bigger – is integral to the effective study of Archery.

Herrigel’s book is rather more hagiographic of Zen than Pirsig’s (the latter may not even be a proper account of Zen). However, it does introduce some very nice ideas – for example, Herrigel claims that he could not make a breakthrough even with pulling the bow until he had refined his breathing technique. And he talks about a stunning scene where the master, in a dark room, lit by a single small taper, shoots an arrow into the bulls’-eye of a target, and then shoots another one that splits the first arrow down the middle. The master’s response to this is to bow deeply to the target, and to pronounce, “It was not I that shot the arrows; it was It that shot the arrows.”

Both books are complex reads, and ultimately raise more questions than they answer. However, both of them were certainly among the most thought-provoking books I have read so far.

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One thought on “Two Zen books

  1. Thanks for explaining Zen and the Art of Motorcycle maintenance. I read it several times and never understood it. I will try once more.

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