What is the Purpose of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

by Karen Neill

Two Wheeled Inspiration, Motorcycle Maintenance

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is a book by Robert M Pirsig first published back in 1974.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M Pirsig

I first read this book back in 1992, when I had not long passed my full motorcycle license and was swept up in the philosophical ideology of being young and riding a motorcycle to find meaning in life’s journey.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is not a book about how to fix your motorcycle, instead, it is a fictional journey following a father and son on a road trip through the USA and for part of the story, two friends accompany them. Many themes run throughout this book such as philosophy, mental health, parental relationships with their children and friendship all set alongside a journey of a father and son riding their motorcycle to both bond and address the son’s (Chris) mental health issues.

My favourite theme that is covered by this book is that John Sutherland (one of the friends accompanying the dad and son duo for part of the journey) has a brand new BMW R60 (state of the art in 1974) which he refuses to learn how to maintain. John has the philosophy that his bike is new therefore he will ‘hope for the best’ when it comes to looking after it along the journey. Of course, problems do occur with John’s bike and so he gets annoyed when he has to rely on others to fix his bike for him.

The narrator of the book (the father) rides a much older motorcycle, knows his bike well and is able to diagnose faults on his vehicle and repair them as they occur. It could be argued that this comparison can relate to a person’s mental health. Many people ignore taking care of their minds and mental well-being and put off ‘checking in with ourselves’ and looking for answers from other people rather than examining our behaviour and taking care to keep our mental well-being healthy.

So, what is the purpose of the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance? I suppose you could say the book is a philosophical exploration based on the story of a Summer motorcycle trip. It explores how to recognise it in experiences, relationships, and ways of living. The narrator contrasts a ‘romantic’ approach to life (avoiding difficulty) with a ‘classical’ approach (embracing challenges and problem-solving). The book delves into how our values inform our actions and how finding quality can lead to a more meaningful life.

Robert Pirsig, the narrator, finds a connection between the mindfulness of Zen Buddhism and the focus required for working on a motorcycle and the journey becomes a metaphor for self-discovery, with the narrator confronting his past and his relationship with his son.

This book is very of its time, which does not detract from what it essentially is. In my opinion, it is a journey of self-discovery and the obstacles life throws at you along the way. If you have any interest in philosophy and how it can be aligned to riding a motorbike then give it a read. Remember, with all works of literature, you need to read it in order to know if you like it.

What is the Purpose of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance FAQ

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