Your Motorcycle Ran Over My Dogma

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2017-08-20 12:00:00 No comments

Not long ago I found out that Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance was available as an e-book from my library's Overdrive portal. I'd originally encountered it around the time I first entered college, and I'd broken out in such hives over it that years would have to go by before I could even be in the same room with anything that had the word "Zen" in the title. Eventually I learned how to tell the difference between actual Zen and the b.s. "Zen" that had become a pop-culture reference point, but a lot of people grok not this distinction, and I wonder how much this book is to blame for that.

In light of all that, a new line of reasoning asserted itself. If the book in fact had little or nothing to do with Zen proper, maybe I ought to re-read it and see what it did have to offer.

It took me around a hundred pages to realize ZATAOMM (nice acronym, that) was even worse than I'd remembered. About a third of it is On The Road / Easy Rider, with decently evocative and observant writing. The rest of it is a humorless farrago of intellectual, spiritual, and philosophical strawmen that's only slightly worse to actually read than it is to hear other people rhapsodize about. (Okay, I don't have a problem with the other people per se who have a soft spot for the book. I just think they're cheating themselves.)

So after about a hundred-plus pages of that drivel, I skipped and flipped through the rest, saw nothing that made me want to stop (and a lot of that made me want to keep right on trucking), and — most importantly — remembered why I'd had such a bad reaction to the book the first time. It was because it had the appearance of something profound, but all you had to do was sneeze and said appearance whipped right off like a torn nightgown.

I don't experience this often. Many times I've come back to something I had a dismissive reaction to and found that life and time had changed me enough to realize what I'd missed (Chinatown, or Notes From Underground). Sometimes things I'd adored as a tot have turned out, on closer inspection, to be offal. But rarely have I gonged something off when I was younger, come back to it out of a sense of wanting to make sure I wasn't missing something, and then gonged it off all the harder the second time 'round.

At bottom, though, my big thumbs-down for the book is because I feel it is at least partly responsible for the way Zen has been reduced to a joke.

Much of what Westerners, and particularly Americans, call "Zen" is not Zen, but a kind of pasteurized processed spiritual food product. Some of that I blame on the way people latched onto individual personalities and popularizers, like D.T. Suzuki or Alan Watts. Both of them have written good and valuable material about Zen, but much of what is good and valuable about that material gets lost in the way people eagerly confuse reading books about something or listening intently to a teacher about something with the actual practice of the thing.

The one thing people wanted to studiously avoid, it seems, was actually having to do any of the work themselves — the one thing that Zen demands that you do above all else.

Mainstream writing in the West about Zen has improved a good deal in the past twenty years. Most of that, though, is in the vein of better or more exemplary translations of things that were previously in hoary, cobwebbed language that belied its early-to-mid-20th-century origins. Not much of it is about Zen as an applied science, as it were, rather than as a more spiritually pretentious version of the Life-Changing Magic Of Tidying Up. And even the ones who bust ass to get it right are taken the wrong way: Pema Chödrön, for instance, is to this day mistaken for a feel-good little old lady by legions of people who don't listen to an actual thing she says.

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To that end, I'm not surprised something named Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance turned out such a cropper. For starters, even the reference in the title is wrong: it's Zen In The Art Of Archery, and I know this because I have that exact book sitting on a shelf less than two feet from the keyboard where I'm typing this. But that's hardly even the most grevious of sins on display here. The biggest problem with ZATAOMM isn't that it misappropriates Zen, because everybody and everyone has been doing just that for god knows how long. It's that it does that on top of being exactly the kind of windy, pretentious, pseudo-philosophical faff that Zen itself was supposed to be an antidote to — and that there are probably a bajillion people out there who believe a reading of ZATAOMM counts as some form of practicing Zen or studying it.

If you genuinely like the book, fine. I can't change your mind about that; you found something of value in it, and I didn't. If you like it and you practice Zen apart from it, fine also. But the two are separate things, and deserve to remain so.

Tags: Buddhism Robert Pirsig Zen