An Interview with Robert Pirsig
The Observer, November 19, 2006
Edited by Andy Ross
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was the biggest-selling
philosophy book ever.
At 78, Robert Pirsig can look back on many
ideas of himself:
— The nine-year-old-boy with the off-the-scale IQ
— The young GI in Korea picking up a curiosity for Buddhism
The radical, manic teacher in Montana making his freshmen sweat
homicidal husband sectioned into a course of electric-shock treatment
The broken-down father trying to bond with his son
— The best-selling
author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (ZAMM)
sits in a hotel room in Boston. "It is not good to talk about Zen because
Zen is nothingness ... If you talk about it you are always lying, and if you
don't talk about it no one knows it is there." He would rather "just enjoy
watching the wind blow through the trees."
Ever since he could think,
he had an overwhelming desire to have a theory that explained everything. As
a young man he thought the answer might lie in science, but he quickly lost
that faith. "Science could not teach me how to understand girls sitting in
my class, even."
After the army he majored in philosophy and
persuaded his tutor to help him get a place on a course in Indian mysticism
at Benares, where he found more questions than answers. He wound up back
home, married, drifting between Mexico and the States, writing technical
manuals and ads. He picked up philosophy again in Montana, and started
At that time, in his early thirties, he used his students
to help him discover some of the ideas that make up what he calls the
"metaphysics of quality" in his books. He was reading Kerouac, and trying to
live in truth.
One day in the car with his six-year-old son Chris,
his mind buzzing, Pirsig stopped at a junction and had to ask his son to
guide him home. What followed was the point where he either found
enlightenment or went insane.
"I could not sleep and I could not stay
awake," he recalls. "I just sat there cross-legged in the room for three
days. All sorts of volitions started to go away ... I realized that the
person who had come this far was about to expire. I was terrified, and
curious as to what was coming. I felt so sorry for this guy I was leaving
behind. It was a separation. This is described in the psychiatric canon as
catatonic schizophrenia. It is cited in the Zen Buddhist canon as hard
Pirsig was treated at a mental institution, the first
of many visits. He was committed by a court and underwent comprehensive
Pirsig was able to keep a tenuous grip on his former
self. He figured that if he told anyone he was in fact an enlightened Zen
disciple, they would lock him up for 50 years. So he worked out a new
strategy of getting his ideas across. He embarked on a book based on a
motorcycle ride he made with his son, Chris, from Minnesota to the Dakotas
When the book came out, in 1974, edited down from 800,000
words, and having been turned down by 121 publishers, it seemed immediately
to catch the need of the time. It has since taken on a life of its own.
In 1979, when his son died, Pirsig was in England. He had sailed across
the Atlantic with his second wife, whom he had met when she had come to
interview him on his boat. He was working at the time on Lila, the sequel to
his first book. He hoped Lila would force the "metaphysics of quality" from
the New Age shelves to the philosophy ones, but that has not happened.
He lives these days in cyberspace, he says, where his ideas circulate.
He doesn't write any more, and he hardly reads. He tries to live as best he
can to the dictates of his dharma: to stay centered.
The Buddha resides 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.
Metaphysics is a restaurant where they give you a 30,000 page menu and
Traditional scientific method has always been, at the very
best, 20-20 hindsight. It's good for seeing where you've been. It's good for
testing the truth of what you think you know, but it can't tell you where
you ought to go.
Why, for example, should a group of simple, stable
compounds of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen struggle for billions of
years to organize themselves into a professor of chemistry? What's the
The only Zen you find on the tops of mountains is the Zen you
bring up there.
AR I was greatly
impressed by ZAMM. It's one of the few books I've bothered to read twice.