Apr 28, 2017 Robert Pirsig passes at double infinity – Wrote “Zen & The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”
Some books stand very much apart from the rest. Three such books that have particularly influenced me are Jack Kerouc’s On the Road; which reminds me that adventure and intrigue exist everywhere — starting within ourselves (which is a fitting lesson from a writer so taken by Buddhism) even in at-first bland-seeming settings; Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid, which explores strange loops and other phenomena and ideas, and uses Gödel’s, Escher’s and Bach’s works as a vehicle to explaining these phenomena, rather than being a book strictly about those three men; and Robert Pirsig’s Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values, which as the author has agreed is less about Zen and motorcycle maintenance, and more about his unique observations on life, coming to terms with his mental illness, connections and divisions among people, and perceiving the world in new ways, including through favoring secondary rather than primary roads during a lengthy motorcycle journey with his son Chris on the back of his seat, and his two friends joining.
Zen And The Art’s author Robert Pirsig left his body on April 24 at the age of 88, which number when turned ninety degrees is double infinity. Pirsig’s double infinity final year stands in stark contrast to his son Chris’s young death after being brutally stabbed after unable to produce any money to a robber.
As Pirsig sadly writes in his afterward several years after the publication of Zen and the Art, Chris in 1979 went to visit a friend on Haight Street after leaving the Zen Center where he was studying: “According to witnesses, a car stopped on the street beside him and two men, black, jumped out.” One of the men “jammed the knife into Chris’s chest. Then the two jumped into their car and left.” Pirsig then went “on living, more from force of habit than anything else.”
This afterword gripped me, but also distracted me — and still does — about why Pirsig felt the need to mention the race of Chris’s murderer. It is one thing to mention race if that is among the physically identifying essentials — like height, hair and eye color — for instance for police to identify a wanted suspect, but in Pirsig’s afterword it was unnecessary. Too many people still too often talk about race in a way that at best has the effect of being unnecessarily divisive, and at worst has the motivation and ugliness of racism. Too many people motivated by racism have surrounded me in my Fairfield, Connecticut, hometown, while at college outside Boston, and when with a Wall Street bank for a year before law school. Ironically, it is through now living in the South and up the road from the Confederacy’s capital (actually here in Fairfax, Virginia is the north of the South, and an extension of the nation’s capital) that I feel the least surrounded by racist people.
In this world, it is ideal to take what works, and leave the rest. Otherwise, I would ignore Thomas Jefferson’s essential messages on liberty, seeing that Jefferson used hundreds of slaves — and many were whippted — and freed only two handfuls of them.
Robert Pirsig underlined the importance of knowing how to maintain the machines we use, including knowing how to use a beer cans for shim material to tighten the handlebars. On the vacation road: “Plans are deliberately indefinite, more to travel than to arrive anywhere… Secondary roads are preferred. Paved county roads are the best, state highways are next.”
The word “Zen” has become overused in society and commercialism to the point of meaningless in so many contexts, but at the same time, every time “Zen” is used, it gives people the opportunity to know, explore and practice its benefits and wonders. My own deep influence from Buddhism started not with Zen but with the Nipponzan Myohoji order of my essential teacher Jun Yasuda, a Buddhist nun based outside Albany but who constantly is on the road. Two of my most important connections to zen are through the great teacher Norman Fischer, with whom I spent a long mindful lawyers’ weekend in heavy silence; and my wife’s native Korea, where Buddhism is deeply alive and well with over ten million adherents, with Zen as the main Buddhist practice.
Pirsig used Zen in his book’s title, apparently influenced by the title of the tremendously eye-opening Zen in the Art of Archery, by Eugen Herrigel, a German who learned his Zen lessons in Japan before Hitler ever took power, but who sadly embraced Hitler and was a die-hard Nazi, and was found guilty by West Germany’s denazification court “of having been a Mitläufer (lit. a ‘runner with’) of the Nazis… resulting in his dismissal from the university. Thereafter he retired, dying of lung cancer in 1955.”
Over one hundred publishers rejected Pirsigs Zen and the Art decades before the days of self publishing and selling books online. Confederacy of Dunces author John Kennedy Toole killed himself after being unable to get that masterpiece published, which publishing his mother finally achieved. I have roughly outlined my own first book, which I either need an editor or retirement (I do not plan to retire) to put together well. The best works of human creation arise from loving and devoted work and investment of every cell in one’s body, and not from any expectation of any profit nor adulation.
Deeply thanking and bowing to Robert Pirsig, 1928-2017.