Karavansara

East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

Robert M. Pirsing: zen and motorbikes

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pic0904-pirsig002About two hours ago I wrote “and now I’ll write a post for tomorrow”.
In those two hours, I received the news of the death of Robert M. Pirsing, the bestselling author of Zen and the art or motorcycle maintenance, originally published in 1974 after 121 publishers had rejected it.

And as I was writing a few lines about him on my Italian blog, I realized that Zen, that I read in the mid-80s when I started taking an interest in zen philosophy, is a book that touched me deeply, certainly one of the ten, or fifteen, or fifty books that are essential in my library, that made me what I am.
And also, it is a book about which I never think, a book I never remember when those lists of essential books get posted online. Probably because it got in deep, when I read it. It struck a deep chord.

Pirsing himself explained that his book

should in no way be associated with that great body of factual information relating to orthodox Zen Buddhist practice. It’s not very factual on motorcycles, either.

imagesIndeed, Zen and the art or motorcycle maintenance has very little to do with zen or with motorbike maintenance, and it is aptly subtitled An Inquiry into Values.
It is also a very intimate, often disturbingly so, map of the author’s mind and perception – a complex, starkly honest view of the life history of a man that was a brilliant student, a confused scientist, a soldier, a mental patient undergoing shock therapy, an estranged father…
And he puts it all on the page, to build a case for his search for the meaning of quality, and of value.

One of the reasons why it hit me so hard, back then, this book about a father and a son travelling on a BMW motorbike, is that I too was a passenger on my father’s BMW motorbike, for a few years, when I was around 10 years old. We ran up and down Italy, usually under pouring rain. I could relate to that, to being a passenger, to travel with my father. Just as I could relate to the being estranged from a father with whom it was very hard to communicate.

41vxAMcHOzL._SX307_BO1,204,203,200_I read Zen and the art or motorcycle maintenance, now that I think about it, more or less when all my high-school friends were deep into Siddartha – a book I found insufferable.
Weird, what?
Almost as weird as finding out, right now, that Zen is a counterculture classic.
Counterculture? Really?

And I remember another thing.
It was in 2013, I think (I should go and check my blog or my CV for dates, but I’m lazy), and I was taking part in a master in the communication of science. During a lunch break I was sitting with a few other students, the discussion came to the subject of the philosophy of science (that is one of the themes of Pirsing’s book), and a bunch of my colleagues started dissing this book, and another1, taking a haughty, elitist attitude.
I think I was never so pissed off in my life – here were people that were supposedly learning about how to communicate science, that laughed at such attempts. But I also think this incident goes to show what sort of deep attachment I have for this book I never remember to mention. I cut all contacts with those individuals.

6356962456680018582137298160_image.imgopt1000x70

But I am rambling.
Robert M. Pirsing was 88 – he was born in 1928, he had a long, eventful life, and he left with us two excellent books, Zen and Lila2.
In case you missed them, you should go and give them a try.


  1. Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, another book I liked very much but that was too popular for my learned colleagues. 
  2. Lila, too, I liked a lot – but you should read Zen firts. 
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Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

12 thoughts on “Robert M. Pirsing: zen and motorbikes

  1. I haven’t heard about this author. The only book I’ve read related to zen is “Zen buddhism and psychoanalysis” by Erich Fromm.

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  2. Nice 👌

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  3. Nice post and quotes!

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  4. You have certainly got me curious. I love to ride and read, this book seems to be the next pick for my upcoming ride. Thanks

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  5. Lovely post and pics are amazing! 🙂

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  6. I never knew about Robert M. Pirsing. Deep and interesting read.

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