How Robert Pirsig found Zen on his Motorcycle

Things went bananas back in the late 60’s and early 70’s. Counter-culture had gone from fringe to mainstream. Everyone was rebelling against something and everyone was trying to find themselves in the process. It was kooky.

For some, me included, this significantly raised the level of angst. How could you feel otherwise when things were not “ok”, and you didn’t know if they would get any better?  I became a big fan of Kafka and thought that the novel “One Flew Over the Cukoo’s News” (written back in 1962 by Ken Kesey) was prophetic. The folks in power seemed like nurse Ratched and we all wanted to be the MacMurphys of our lives. Of course, we were not, in fact, all that heroic, and so Woody Allen’s comedy (about hilariously failing to live up to standards) hit the mark.

In that environment, a book like Robert Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” (published in 1974) was a tonic for the soul.  Pirsig actually was a bit nuts – diagnosed as schizophrenic – which was a good starting point when being a bit nuts was cool. Not completely bonkers, but just a bit wild-eyed. And Pirsig needed to find peace.  To get there. he fused two cool symbols: zen and motorcycles and pitched a tale of healing — as well as closing the generation gap with his son. Naturally, it became a best seller.

The Guardian writes

Pirsig said its protagonist “set out to resolve the conflict between classic values that create machinery, such as a motorcycle, and romantic values, such as experiencing the beauty of a country road”.

People talked like that a lot back then and it was serious stuff. Pirsig was trying to tell us something about being overly committed to “romantic” storylines at the expense of rationality. It was an idea that Nietzsche had talked about as well. One could get pleasure out of riding motorcycles AND fixing them.   Balance dude!

Of course, few got into the serious side of Pirsig’s thought. Zen and transcendental meditation became pop culture artifacts. So everyone got the joke in the film Annie Hall, when at a Hollywood party Jeff Goldblum complains to his therapist (?) over the phone that “I forgot my mantra.” Here is that classic scene.


..After the great success of his first book, Pirsig then spent 17 years writing a sequel to Zen. It was called Lila: An Inquiry into Morals, and it came out in 1991.  It traces a sailing journey along the east coast of the US. Sadly, the word “morals” did not resonate in the 1990’s the way the words “zen” and “motorcycles” did in the 1970’s   Self-improvement –  as in Jane Fonda workouts – yes, but morals, not really. Lila went unread and even unnoticed by most.

That does not diminish what Pirsig gave to us back in 1974 with Zenn. The thing I remember most about reading it was that it was ok to calm down a bit. Not that I actually did calm down just then. But it was an option to keep in mind. One might at least try to figure out what was going on around oneself rather than just rebel. Later on, I bought into that point of view.

Robert Pirsig just passed on at the age of 88. Thanks man!


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