Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig is perhaps one of the most unusually named works of contemporary philosophical narrative. The book takes the form of a novel in which certain philosophic truths about Zen are revealed. The book attempts to explicate Zen Buddhism for an American audience through the use of a narrative and a subject matter that will be understandable to an American audience.
The plot of the novel is deceptively simply.
The novel and philosophical classic tells the tale of a man named Phaedrus who is traveling across America with his troubled son and a couple, the Sutherlands. Phaedrus, the narrator later explains, is a kind of name for the author's former identity, the person whom he was before his electroshock treatments. As the group travels across the country, they discuss different philosophical issues, the Sutherlands espousing and emotional and impractical Romantic philosophy that ultimately distances themselves from the realities of their motorcycle tour, and the author espousing a much more Classical, mechanical philosophy. Ultimately, the new self that emerges from this trip in the form of the author is able to merge these dual Classical and Romantic philosophies in a new, Americanized form of Zen that Pirsig calls "Unified Field Theory."
By simply choosing such a setting and plot device the reader is treated to his or her first example of how skillful Pirsig is at rendering the truths of Zen in an American context. Rather than using a samurai narrative, for instance, that might be only comprehensible to a Japanese reader and aficionado of, perhaps, The Tale of Gengi, Pirsig instead uses the classic 'road trip' as the plot to explicate what Zen means. The trip takes place on a motorcycle, on which he and his son are able to travel like Henry Fonda and Jack Nicholson of "Easy Rider," a popular countercultural 'road trip' movie of the time that would no doubt have been on many of the minds of Pirsig's readership. Perhaps this is why the author selects a motorcycle, as opposed to a car, to tell his tale. The story unfolds in a series of "Chautauquas," what the narrator calls his talks with his companions about the nature of philosophy. In these talks, the narrator discusses his electroshock therapy and some of the unstated or positive aspects of insanity. Insanity, in Pirsig's view, is just the rejection of an individual culture's dominant "mythos" or cultural attitude by a member of that culture. Pirsig states that he rejects the dominant Western view of the self as well as of his social world.
To analyze the author's philosophy in a more in depth fashion, it is important to note that Pirsig specifically uses a journey via motorcycle (as opposed to a journey on foot) because he believes the necessity of maintaining the cold, rational realm of motorcycle technology is a powerful metaphor. It demonstrates how even something as mechanistic as the innards of a vehicle can be infused with spirituality through mental clarity. In a state of Zen understanding, an individual become one with whatever activity he or she pursues. It does not matter if one is walking in the woods or down a busy city street. It does not matter if one is writing a book on philosophy or tightening the chain on a motorcycle. All must be done with clarity of mind and immediate focus on present circumstances, not the historical past. This is often referred to as a state of present mindfulness in Zen. This does not mean mindless action, as in just doing something mechanistically by rote. Rather it means even the simplest tasks, if done with the individual feeling that he or she is 'in the moment' of action, and is behaving with total focus upon the action, can be spiritually beneficial.
Zen originally evolved as a way for samurai warriors to bring the focused religious principles of Buddhism to the physical strain of their daily military lives. The samurai brought the focus of Zen to their fighting. This was seen as the source of their effectiveness as fighters. Zen also emphasizes meditation, or 'sitting zazen' as the core of its philosophy, rather than any particular creed. Zen Buddhism is realized in the ethos of doing, of action, of being present and mindful in one's actions, rather than obeying a specific core list of precepts.