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Robert M. Pirsig, Author of ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,’ Dies at 88

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Photo: Robert Pirsig and his best-selling book “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle.”

Robert M. Pirsig, whose “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” a dense and discursive novel of ideas, became an unlikely publishing phenomenon in the mid-1970s and a touchstone in the waning days of the counterculture, died on Monday at his home in South Berwick, Me. He was 88.

His publisher, William Morrow, announced his death, saying his health had been failing. He had been living in Maine for the last 30 years.

Mr. Pirsig was a college writing instructor and freelance technical writer when the novel — its full title was “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values” — was published in 1974 to critical acclaim and explosive popularity, selling a million copies in its first year and several million more since. (A first novel, it would be followed by only one more, the less successful “Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals,” a kind of sequel, in 1991.)

The novel, with its peculiar but intriguing title, ranged widely in its concerns, contemplating the relationship of humans and machines, madness and the roots of culture.

Todd Gitlin, a sociologist and the author of books about the counterculture, said that “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” in seeking to reconcile humanism with technological progress, had been perfectly timed for a generation weary of the ’60s revolt against a soulless high-tech world dominated by a corporate and military-industrial order.

“There is such a thing as a zeitgeist, and I believe the book was popular because there were a lot of people who wanted a reconciliation — even if they didn’t know what they were looking for,” Mr. Gitlin said in 2013 in an interview for this obituary. “Pirsig provided a kind of soft landing from the euphoric stratosphere of the late ’60s into the real world of adult life.”

Mr. Pirsig’s plunge into the grand philosophical questions of Western culture remained near the top of the best-seller lists for a decade and helped define the post-hippie 1970s landscape as resoundingly, some critics have said, as Carlos Castaneda’s “The Teachings of Don Juan” helped define the 1960s.

Where “Don Juan” pursued enlightenment in hallucinogenic experience, “Zen” argued for its equal availability in the brain-racking rigors of Reason with a capital R. Years after its publication, it continues to be invoked by famous people when asked to name a book that affected them most deeply — among them the former professional basketball player Phil Jackson, the actors William Shatner and Tim Allen, and the Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, a Nobel laureate.

Part road-trip novel, part treatise, part open letter to a younger generation, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” unfolds as a fictionalized account of a cross-country motorcycle trip that Mr. Pirsig took in 1968 with his 11-year-old son, Christopher, and two friends.

The narrative alternates between travelogue-like accounts of their 17 days on the road, from the Pirsigs’ home in Minnesota to the Pacific Coast, and long interior monologues that he calls his “Chautauquas,” after the open-air educational meetings at Lake Chautauqua, N.Y., popular with self-improvers since the 19th century.

Mr. Pirsig’s narrator (his barely disguised stand-in) focuses on what he sees as two profound schisms. The first lay in the 1960s culture war, in which the “hippies” rejected industrialization and the technological values that had been embraced by the “straight” mainstream society.

The second schism is in the narrator’s own mind, as he struggles in his hyperrational way to understand his recent mental breakdown. Mr. Pirsig, who was told he had schizophrenia in the early 1960s, said that writing the book was partly an effort to make peace with himself after two years of hospital treatments, including electric shock therapy, and the turmoil that he, his wife and children suffered as a result.

Describing both breakdowns, cultural and personal, Mr. Pirsig’s narrator invokes the Civil War: “Two worlds growingly alienated and hateful toward each other, with everyone wondering if it will always be this way, a house divided against itself.”

He adds: “What I’m trying to do here is put it all together. It’s so big. That’s why I seem to wander sometimes.”

(Mr. Pirsig’s son Chris was later also found to be mentally ill and institutionalized. He died in 1979 after being stabbed in a mugging outside the San Francisco Zen center where he had been living.)

In a foreword to the book, Mr. Pirsig told readers that despite its title, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” should “in no way be associated with that great body of factual information relating to orthodox Zen Buddhist practice.”

He added, “It’s not very factual on motorcycles either.”

Instead, he wrote later: “The motorcycle is mainly a mental phenomenon. People who have never worked with steel have trouble seeing this.”

He added, “A study of the art of motorcycle maintenance is really a miniature study of the art of rationality itself.”

The literary critic George Steiner, writing in The New Yorker, described the book as “a profound, if somewhat clunky, articulation of the postwar American experience” and pronounced it worthy of comparison to “Moby-Dick” as an original American work. The New York Times critic Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, in his review, threw in a comparison to Thoreau. In London, The Times Literary Supplement called the book “disturbing, deeply moving, full of insights.”

(Not all reviewers were wowed. Writing in Commentary, Eva Hoffman found Mr. Pirsig’s ruminations obtuse. “Beneath the complexity of disorganization,” she said, “the picture of society which the book presents and the panaceas it offers are distressingly naïve.”)

One of Mr. Pirsig’s central ideas is that so-called ordinary experience and so-called transcendent experience are actually one and the same — and that Westerners only imagine them as separate realms because Plato, Aristotle and other early philosophers came to believe that they were.

But Plato and Aristotle were wrong, Mr. Pirsig said. Worse, the mind-body dualism, soldered into Western consciousness by the Greeks, fomented a kind of civil war of the mind — stripping rationality of its spiritual underpinnings and spirituality of its reason, and casting each into false conflict with the other.

In his part gnomic, part mechanic’s style, Mr. Pirsig’s narrator declares that the real world is a seamless continuum of the material and metaphysical.

“The Buddha, the Godhead,” he writes, “resides quite 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 or in the petals of a flower.”

Robert Maynard Pirsig was born in Minneapolis on Sept. 6, 1928, to Harriet and Maynard Pirsig. His father was a law professor and dean of the University of Minnesota Law School. As a child, Robert spoke with a stammer and had trouble making friends; though highly intelligent (his I.Q. was said to be 170), he was expelled from the University of Minnesota because of failing grades.

Serving in the Army before the start of the Korean War, he visited Japan on a leave and became interested in Zen Buddhism, and remained an adherent throughout his life. After his Army service, he returned to the university and received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in journalism.

He later studied philosophy at the University of Chicago and at Banaras Hindu University in India and taught writing at Montana State University in Bozeman and the University of Illinois at Chicago. He also did freelance writing and editing for corporate publications and technical magazines, including the first generation of computer journals.

His first marriage, to Nancy Ann James, ended in divorce. He married Wendy Kimball in 1978. She survives him, as do a son, Ted; a daughter, Nell Peiken; and three grandchildren.

Mr. Pirsig maintained that 121 publishing houses rejected “Zen” before William Morrow accepted it. He was granted a $3,000 advance, but an editor cautioned him against hoping the book would earn a penny more. Within months of its release, it had sold 50,000 copies.

With the book’s success Mr. Pirsig became famous, wealthy and the recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship. He also, he said, became thoroughly unnerved. After enduring a flood of interviews, he began refusing them. He said he had reached the limits of his patience when fans started showing up at his house outside Minneapolis.

His neighbors called them “Pirsig’s Pilgrims.” Most were young people in search of a guru. Mr. Pirsig wanted none of it.

“One morning I just woke up at 3,” he told The Washington Post years later. “I told my wife, ‘I just have to get out of here.’ We had the camper packed in half an hour, and I was on the road.” He stayed away for months at a time, sometimes far out at sea on his boat.

In interviews, he lamented that he was not embraced by academic philosophy departments, and that his books were sometimes lumped with “new age” publications in bookstores.

The near-cult popularity of “Zen,” though, puzzled him for years before he came up with a theory. Writing in an afterword to the 10th-anniversary edition in 1984, he used a Swedish word (it was his mother’s native language) to describe the phenomenon. “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” he wrote, was a “kulturbarer,” or culture-bearer.

A culture-bearing book is not necessarily a great book, he said. It does not change the culture. It simply heralds a change already underway. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” an indictment of slavery published before the Civil War, was a culture-bearing book, he said.

“I was just telling my own story,” he said in a short interview posted on his website. He had never intended to make a splash.

“I expressed what I thought were my prime thoughts,” he added, “and they turned out to be the prime thoughts of everybody else.”

–Paul Vittello

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Written by MattAndJojang

April 26, 2017 at 11:16 am

The Longing For Spiritual Freedom

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Paul Gauguin's "Who Are We? Where Did We Come From? Where Are We Going?"

Paul Gauguin’s “Who Are We? Where Did We Come From? Where Are We Going?”

There is within us–in even the blithest, most light hearted among us—a fundamental dis-ease. It acts like an unquenchable fire that renders the vast majority of us incapable in this life of ever coming to full peace. This desire lies in the marrow of our bones and the deep regions of our souls.

All great literature, poetry, art, philosophy, psychology, and religion tries to name and analyze this longing. We are seldom in direct touch with it, and indeed the modern world seems set on preventing us from getting in touch with it by covering it with an unending phantasmagoria of entertainments, obsessions, addictions, and distractions of every sort. But the longing is there, built into us like a jack-in-the-box that presses for release.

Two great paintings suggest this longing in their titles—Gauguin’s “Who Are We? Where Did We Come From? Where Are We Going?” and de Chirico’s “Nostalgia for the Infinite”—but I must work with words. Whether we realize it or not, simply to be human is to long for release from mundane existence, with its confining walls of finitude and mortality.

–Huston Smith

Written by MattAndJojang

January 14, 2017 at 5:40 pm

A Zen Life – D.T. Suzuki

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A Zen Life

He’s probably the most culturally significant Japanese person, in international terms, in all of history.

—Gary Snyder

A Zen Life – D.T. Suzuki is a documentary about Daisetsu Teitaro Suzuki, Zen philosopher and one of the most influential thinkers of the 20th century. He is considered to be the person who single-handedly introduced Zen Buddhism to the West.

After saying that Zen is impossible to describe, he proceeds to write more than a hundred books about Zen. Lynn White, professor of medieval history at Princeton (and later at Stanford), says:

It may well be that the publication of D.T. Suzuki’s first Essays in Zen Buddhism in 1927 will seem in future generations as great an intellectual event as William of Moerbeke’s Latin translations of Aristotle in the thirteenth century or Marsiglio Ficino’s of Plato in the fifteenth.

Aside from writing books, he also traveled and lectured around the world.

He influenced many of the great Western intellectual figures of the 20th century. Among those who admitted the impact of D.T. Suzuki on their work and thought are: the psychologist Carl Jung, the philosopher Martin Heidegger, the psychoanalyst Eric Fromm, the writer Jack Kerouac, the poet Allen Ginsberg, and the Catholic monk Thomas Merton.

Martin Heidegger admits:

If I understand [Dr. Suzuki] correctly, this is what I have been trying to say in all my writings.

On his deathbed Carl Jung was reading Charles Luk’s Ch’an and Zen Teachings: First Series. His secretary writes:

he was enthusiastic… When he read what Hsu Yun said, he sometimes felt as if he himself could have said exactly this! It was just ‘it’!

After meeting with D.T. Suzuki in New York, Thomas Merton writes in his journal:

These talks were very pleasant, profoundly important to me—to see and experience the fact that there really is a deep understanding between myself and this extraordinary, simple man whom I have been reading for about ten years with great attention.

The documentary is a vivid portrait of one of the most extraordinary intellectuals of the 20th century. It includes rare footages of D.T. Suzuki, as well as reminiscences of people he influenced.

To watch the trailer of the documentary click the link below:

A Zen Life – D.T. Suzuki

–Matt

Written by MattAndJojang

November 18, 2014 at 7:35 pm

The Most Important Thing In Life

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Photo: Kelly Vaclavek/Flickr

Lots of people have hobbies. Some people collect old coins or foreign stamps, some do needlework, others spend most of their spare time on a particular sport.

A lot of people enjoy reading. But reading tastes differ widely. Some people only read newspapers or comics, some like reading novels, while others prefer books on astronomy, wildlife, or technological discoveries. If I happen to be interested in horses or precious stones, I cannot expect everyone else to share my enthusiasm.

If I watch all the sports programs on TV with great pleasure, I must put up with the fact that other people find sports boring. Is there nothing that interests us all? Is there nothing that concerns everyone—no matter who they are or where they live in the world? Yes… there are questions that certainly should interest everyone. They are precisely the questions this course is about.

What is the most important thing in life? If we ask someone living on the edge of starvation, the answer is food. If we ask someone dying of cold, the answer is warmth. If we put the same question to someone who feels lonely and isolated, the answer will probably be the company of other people.

But when these basic needs have been satisfied—will there still be something that everybody needs? Philosophers think so. They believe that man cannot live by bread alone. Of course everyone needs food. And everyone needs love and care. But there is something else—apart from that—which everyone needs, and that is to figure out who we are and why we are here.

Being interested in why we are here is not a “casual” interest like collecting stamps. People who ask such questions are taking part in a debate that has gone on as long as man has lived on this planet. How the universe, the earth, and life came into being is a bigger and more important question than who won the most gold medals in the last Olympics.

The best way of approaching philosophy is to ask a few philosophical questions: How was the world created? Is there any will or meaning behind what happens? Is there a life after death? How can we answer these questions? And most important, how ought we to live? People have been asking these questions throughout the ages. We know of no culture which has not concerned itself with what man is and where the world came from.

Basically there are not many philosophical questions to ask. We have already asked some of the most important ones. But history presents us with many different answers to each question. So it is easier to ask philosophical questions than to answer them.

Today as well each individual has to discover his own answer to these same questions. You cannot find out whether there is a God or whether there is life after death by looking in an encyclopedia. Nor does the encyclopedia tell us how we ought to live. However, reading what other people have believed can help us formulate our own view of life.

Philosophers’ search for the truth resembles a detective story. Some think Andersen was the murderer, others think it was Nielsen or Jensen. The police are sometimes able to solve a real crime. But it is equally possible that they never get to the bottom of it, although there is a solution somewhere. So even if it is difficult to answer a question, there may be one—and only one—right answer. Either there is a kind of existence after death—or there is not.

A lot of age-old enigmas have now been explained by science. What the dark side of the moon looks like was once shrouded in mystery. It was not the kind of thing that could be solved by discussion, it was left to the imagination of the individual. But today we know exactly what the dark side of the moon looks like, and no one can “believe” any longer in the Man in the Moon, or that the moon is made of green cheese.

A Greek philosopher who lived more than two thousand years ago believed that philosophy had its origin in man’s sense of wonder. Man thought it was so astonishing to be alive that philosophical questions arose of their own accord.

It is like watching a magic trick. We cannot understand how it is done. So we ask: how can the magician change a couple of white silk scarves into a live rabbit?

A lot of people experience the world with the same incredulity as when a magician suddenly pulls a rabbit out of a hat which has just been shown to them empty.

In the case of the rabbit, we know the magician has tricked us. What we would like to know is just how he did it. But when it comes to the world it’s somewhat different. We know that the world is not all sleight of hand and deception because here we are in it, we are part of it. Actually, we are the white rabbit being pulled out of the hat. The only difference between us and the white rabbit is that the rabbit does not realize it is taking part in a magic trick. Unlike us. We feel we are part of something mysterious and we would like to know how it all works.

~Jostien Gaarder

Written by MattAndJojang

November 11, 2011 at 9:34 am