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The stink of Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance
Dan Meyrowitsch, zvg.

The stink of Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance

Because of the dangers, riding a motorcycle is fundamentally different from driving a car. A combination of power, control and vulnerability made the motorcycle an iconic symbol of different countercultures.


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Although motorcycles are primarily used as a means of transport in many parts of the world, the two-wheeled machine has, since series production was launched in 1894, also been perceived and used as an iconic symbol for specific cultures and fashions. There are several underlying reasons for the iconic role and importance of the machine, and some of these do not directly relate to the motorcycle as an object, but rather to the ride.

«Sometimes it’s a little better to travel than to arrive.» The first time I came across this quote was in Robert M. Pirsig’s book, Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance (1974). The fictionalized autobiography stands today as a key philosophical text for the generation that came too late for the youth uprising in 1968, and too early for Punk and the later countercultures that followed.

The book can be read in several ways. It is a description of a motorcycle trip that stretches over several months, with the narrator and his son riding through the United States. The story is also a study of the mind, the senses and has its focus on the analysis of values and society. Important to the text are the concepts that in Buddhist thinking are called relative and absolute truth. However, it is not necessary for the reader to be familiar with Buddhist thinking in order to relate to the motorcycle ride and the narrator’s investigations.

No room for error

I have read the book several times over the last 30 years. I still think it is exciting and interesting. However, I have always disliked the contrasts that the book is filled with. I understand and acknowledge that Pirsig constructs these contradictions to illustrate the phenomena and describe the underlying considerations. But these tales make the book stink: It stinks of zen. This is not an expression that I have invented, but is a well-described phenomenon, when a Buddhist practitioner talks too much about zen. The Buddhist may feel as if approaching enlightenment, but in reality, he or she creates noise which prevents the journey towards insight. However, this book would hardly have gained such popularity without the stench of zen. In this way, the smell of the book is a necessary collateral damage.

Pirsig uses the motorcycle as a tool for an analysis of the self, the mind and sensory experiences. The analyses are based on a detailed dissection of the individual parts of the motorcycle, the way they interact, and the energy transfer of the parts. But it is also about the rider, the rider’s experience of the motorcycle and the road. Could the narrator not illustrate the same considerations if the topic was a car or a cuckoo clock? No. The motorcycle is not a random choice. Riding a motorcycle has some qualities that create a space where it is possible to navigate between the topics that Pirsig and the book’s narrator are engaged in. Riding a motorcycle is in itself a contrast-filled, and in many ways unique activity, which at the same time contains elements of power, control and vulnerability.

Power. The motorcycle is superb when it comes to performance in relation to weight. A modern motorcycle has, in comparison with a brand-new electric supercar, double the performance and traction when the power is calculated per kilogram. Anyone who has ridden a motorcycle with a certain engine size has experienced this power. Especially when the traffic light changes from red to green.

 Control. Moving a vehicle with as much power as a motorcycle creates a space for a unique experience of control. There is great variation in how riders experience this. Personally, it makes me sing very loudly (and falsely) in my helmet while driving. I have no particular explanation for this. It just happens. Most people will probably regard my experience of control and the resulting reaction as childish.

Vulnerability. There is a short distance between control and the loss thereof. When riding a motorcycle, there is no room for error. A split-second of inattention can result in lifelong physical disability or sudden death. Most riders have thought about these risks. Like the main character in Pirsig’s book, many riders have had near-death experiences on the road. This makes a motorcycle ride something special. Driving a car is completely different. In a car, the driver is well-balanced on four wheels, sits in a closed cabin and looks at the world through a window. The car provides a shielding effect – both in relation to the body and the mind. Regardless of speed, an accident on a motorcycle will almost always result in close contact with the road or other vehicles. This vulnerability changes the perceptions of control. A general advice to new riders is never to twist the throttle with your ego. In this way, we are somehow back to the Buddhistic fixation on the ego and the perception that the ego is merely an illusionary projection of the mind.

Survival not guaranteed

Still, after many years on two wheels, upon returning home, I enter our driveway with the uplifting realization that I also survived this latest ride. This does not mean that riders generally possess a death wish – on the contrary. It is another link to the philosophical framework in Pirsig’s book. In Buddhist practice, one works every single day to strengthen the realization that one must die, to reach the awareness that death is now, tomorrow or later. Hang on to your handlebar!

The motorcyclist travels in a space created by a combination of power, control and vulnerability. The combination provides a unique experience of the landscape in which one travels, and as previously mentioned, the journey can often appear more attractive than the destination. On the other hand: Upon arrival, the realization awaits that one is still alive.

Therefore, I argue that Robert Pirsig had several meaningful reasons for choosing the motorcycle as a tool in his study of values and reality. Personally, I have no doubt that they are the same reasons that for more than a century have made the motorcycle an iconic symbol in different countercultures.

Rock and rebellion

After World War II, returning American soldiers formed their own motorcycle clubs. Some of these soldiers returned home with war trauma and found themselves alienated from society and the values they had fought for. In the clubs, they found like-minded buddies, and together they created new values and rules. This played out again after the Vietnam War.

In the UK of the post-war period, the café-racing culture of the rockers flourished, as a counterculture to British main-stream society. In several ways, the young people of the 1950s had difficulty identifying with their parents› generation. For the first generation of rockers, it was about stripping, rebuilding and riding British motorcycles, as well as listening to rock music in the cafés. In the wake of the British rocker or café-racer culture, the mods (modernists) emerged as a new counterculture, which stood in contrast with the rockers and their leather jackets, heavy leather boots and the raw muscle power of the British motorcycles. Mods typically rode Italian scooters, and the men were often dressed in white shirts, black narrow ties, duffel coats and neat leather shoes – a somewhat skewed variant of the classic British business dress code. One of the most important movies from that era is The Wild One (1953).

From the 1960s, biker culture became more widespread globally. Many clubs were founded, inspired by American biker culture and by movies which portrayed bikers as free-moving spirits. The movie Easy Rider (1969) played a major role in the spread of biker culture. The new motorcycle clubs in Europe, Canada, Australia and New Zealand were either offsprings of the original clubs in the US, or emerged as entirely local initiatives. Generally, there were many similarities between the clubs in terms of types of motorcycles, attire, symbols, rhetoric and organizational structure.

Over the last 20 years, the British café-racing style has made a visible come-back and is now thriving all over the world. Today, there is a neo-café-racing scene in almost all of the world’s major cities, including Asia, Africa and South America. In contrast to the more homogeneous expression of the classic biker clubs with their internal rules and regulations, the new café racer wave reflects the more progressive parts of society. Regardless of age, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, favorite motorcycle and style, one is welcome. If there is a mantra, it is anything goes!

In this way, the motorcycle continues to function as a strong symbol in the ever-changing series of countercultures. Whether one likes the stench of zen or not, it was no coincidence that Robert Pirsig chose a motorcycle and not a cuckoo clock to analyze the self, the mind, and the world in which we live, suffer, and die. Robert Pirsig died in 2017. Live long and ride!

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