Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Zen and the Art: Changing the World

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I recently read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. A surprising number of people (two) seemed to want to know what I thought of the book. So being the accommodating fellow I am, I'm going to attempt to write about it.

Now this won't be a scholarly literary analysis, or a cliffs note summary, or really any kind of review that any self-respecting publication might be interested in. Instead, I'm simply going to try to describe, in a fairly disorganized way, the sorts of things that happen when the thoughts in my head get mushed together with the thoughts in Zen.

What the book is kind of about

For those of you who haven't read Zen, a brief summary might be in order. Zen really seems to be two books, the first being a narrative about the author taking a cross-country motorcycle trip with his son, with periodic flashbacks discussing the author's life and thinking, all the way up to the point where some mental health experts got ahold of him and solved his various problems by applying choice electrical currents to the appropriate areas of his brain.

The second book, interleaved with the first, is a philosophical investigation of separateness. It's a thoroughly Buddhist attempt to contradict our tendency to reduce, subdivide and compartmentalize the world. In my opinion, this is the meat of the book: the narrative is just a framework for moving the reader along and, at some points, for illustrating the author's philosophy.

An interesting thing

Here's something from Zen that I found interesting:
I think that if we are going to reform the world, and make it a better place to live in, the way to do it is not with talk about relationships of a political nature, which are inevitably dualistic, full of subjects and objects and their relationship to one another; or with programs full of things for other people to do. I think that kind of approach starts it at the end and presumes the end is the beginning. Programs of a political nature are important _end products_ of social quality that can be effective only if the underlying structure of social values is right. The social values are right only if the individual values of[sic] right. The place to improve the world is first in one's own heart and head and hands, and then work outward from there. Other people can talk about how to expand the destiny of mankind. I just want to talk about how to fix a motorcycle. I think that what I have to say has more lasting value.

How should you go about trying to change the world, if you're turned on by that sort of thing?

Pirsig seems to suggest that you're going to get the best results if you focus on improving yourself. And this approach makes a lot of sense: if all the leaves on a tree are green, one's experience of the tree should be green. If all the people in a society are kind, one's experience of the society should be one of kindness.

Then why write a book?

I suppose that one answer would be: you improve yourself to the point where you have something worthwhile to say to other people, and *then* you write your book. Another answer is: "Rob, you're full of crap." If you want to change the world, then bottom-up methods are important, but top-down methods are also good. Writing a book, reforming a government, starting a charity - all of these methods are just as likely to be effective as "make myself a better person".

This poses some problems from a Buddhist point of view: it reinforces my tendency to distinguish between myself and the world. But another problem - a related problem - is that one has to decide what kinds of changes to try to make. And this, I think, is why Pirsig's emphasis on introspection has merit: because effective change does not necessarily equal positive change. If your values are screwed up, then your broad attempts to change the world are likely to screw the world up rather than make it better.

So how do you get good values?

"Good values." Heh.

OK, I'm stuck. Somebody come pull me out.


Cody said...

(I will not/cannot help you out, but you look like you're having so much fun being stuck I thought I'd join you.)

Good values? Good by what standards? Are we born with a sense of good? Is there some inborn law that governs our standards so that we can tell that our values are good?

In my opinion (whatever that's worth) there is something inside each person, call it the Image of God maybe, that helps us understand what is good. I also think there have been people and there are people now who have explored that place and given us insight. Maybe studying what those people have said and exploring that place within ourselves will help us to develop good values.

Sounds pretty 'Eastern Religion' now that I read over it again.

Cody said...

you posted too quick, i wanted to see what other people would say about this.

Richard said...

Here's something that I take away from the book. Pirsig is trying to unite Western thought with Eastern thought. He thinks he can do this via a mediation on "quality" or "value." He feels that Western thinking with its rationalistic dualisms separates Subject from Object. He finds this separation pernicious since it creates a separation between things like Technology and the Spirit (expressed via Art and Aesthetics). Pirsig sees Quality/Value/Beauty as only flowing from a Eastern-style breakdown of the division between Subject and Object, a Oneness. When this fusion occurs we think of ourselves as "identifying" with our work. Even while fixing a motorcycle, especially while fixing a motorcycle. Buddhists call this "being in the moment," mindfulness. The idea is to, via mindfulness, bring beauty and identification back into life so that the "death force" of technology is reclaimed by our spiritual sides.

This all sound so abstract so I ground it out in something simple: Shaker furniture. If you look at shaker furniture it is very simple and functional and, thus, tempts you to think of it in technological terms. But anyone who has looked at Shaker furniture knows it's anything but "technological" or "functional." Shaker furniture is art, it is extraordinarily spiritual. And its this fusion (Form/Function, Western/Eastern, Subject/Object, Technology/Art, Rationality/Mysticism) that I think Pirsig is after. He thinks this path will produce more "humane technology" as well as help spiritual people reconcile to the technological advances in the modern world (we have to remember when this book as written, lot's of people--those hippies and flower children--in the 70s were rebelling against the "modern," "technological" world).

In the end, I don't buy Pirsig's metaphysics, but I do love the book because it is a window on a very strange, troubled, but brilliant mind.