Thursday, 7 December 2017

My comments about the cult book: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig

Recently I made some comments on social media elsewhere about the cult book: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. This post is based on those comments of mine.

Some extracts from the wiki page of the book:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zen_and_the_Art_of_Motorcycle_Maintenance are given below:

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values (ZAMM), by Robert M. Pirsig, is a book that was first published in 1974. It is a work of fictionalized autobiography, and is the first of Pirsig's texts in which he explores his Metaphysics of Quality.

The title is an apparent play on the title of the book Zen in the Art of Archery by Eugen Herrigel. In its introduction, Pirsig explains that, despite its title, "it 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."

Initially, the book sold at least 5 million copies worldwide.
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Now about my comments on the book. The book (Zen and the art ...) was a cult book among software techies, especially in the West. So I dutifully read it during my software techie days, sometime in my late twenties I think.

I did not find the book to be a great enlightening book but I put that down to my lack of knowledge about Zen and limited knowledge about Greek philosophy and about Western philosophy in general. Perhaps I did not devote enough time to read the book well. Perhaps I browse-read parts that I felt were not making much sense to me/seemed too heavy for me.

If I recall correctly, one thing that struck me in the book was about being in the moment. I dimly recall something about the author while driving the bike being focused on the bike and the road and getting a sort-of spiritual high from that way of driving the bike.

Overall, I got the feeling that I had less intellectual and philosophical ability than the super software techies who viewed this cult book as something very deep spiritually. I mean, I thought that these super software techies could get it but that I could not get it due to my limitations.

Some years later I became somewhat more confident about my understanding of spirituality, and more willing to question validity of Greek and Western philosophy arguments that I could not get/understand. But I don't think I re-read this book and so could not get a second view/opinion of it.
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I just read the book's wiki page which states that Robert Pirsig used to author computer manuals as his job while he was writing the book! Hmm. So there is some computer techie association there too.
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I don't know about any psychological problems that Pirsig may have had. But during that time the computer - hardware and software - fields had some extraordinarily brilliant people who were creating astonishing innovation. Bell Labs was one such place of astonishing innovation in computer field but as these innovators, as far as I know, were not into converting their super intellects into big money, they are not so well known to the public as figures like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs who were business founders/co-founders and made huge money.

Names of people like Dennis Ritchie of Bell Labs were legendary as brilliant brains combined with goodness and wanting to help the world through innovation without a strong desire to become a millionaire or billionaire.

Pirsig may have been a brilliant man who along with some other brilliant techies was trying to figure out the big questions of life and existence. But such quests, especially when pursued from a mainly or solely intellectual point of view, have typically not led to enlightenment as one understands enlightenment of spiritual mystics. However, I think they had a sincerity to such intellectual or mainly intellectual attempts they made (as against monastic penance and prayer/spiritual sadhana) and they tried to find a balance between their material life quests and spiritual quests.

Perhaps if I read Pirsig's book again, I would be very respectful of his sincerity in trying to understand the big questions of life or rather attempting to answer these big questions of life.
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After some refreshing of my mind about Pirsig's book through the wiki pages of the book and of Pirsig, I do have some rather dim recollection about an emphasis on good quality in the book with that being elevated to a spiritual enlightenment kind of status. I think the book may have involved such good quality in the context of material world scientific and technological achievements too. But I am not sure.

I think I then appreciated (and still appreciate) the importance of good quality in scientific and technological fields, but I don't think I was willing to elevate that good quality in scientific and technological fields to a spiritual enlightenment status comparable to what spiritually accomplished mystics had claimed to have acquired and had written about.
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Robert Pirsig's wiki page, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_M._Pirsig, states, to my surprise, that in the 1950s he "attended Banaras Hindu University in India, to study Eastern philosophy and culture".
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I would also like to say something more about the reverence I have for Dennis Ritchie and other great innovators for their contributions to computer hardware and sofware development. I have great respect for the business entrepreneur contributions as well as technical contributions in that context, by Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. I also have great respect for the philanthropic work done by Bill Gates now.

But in my software techie days of 1980s and 1990s I had, and even today I have, much more than great respect for people like Dennis Ritchie, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dennis_Ritchie, and other innovators in places like Bell Labs, Palo Alto Research Centre, University of California Berkeley and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (all in the USA). The work they did paved the way for some of the wonderful technological innovations that have greatly improved our lives now, including the smartphone (which is a hand-held computer) and the Internet. A lot of the work they did was of open source kind where they shared their innovations freely with the rest of the world which enabled others to work on software and hardware adaptations and higher-level add ons.

So I have far more than just great respect for Dennis Ritchie and other great innovators of the places mentioned earlier. I have reverence for them due to their direct and indirect contributions to improving the lives of millions, perhaps billions of people the world over, including my own life.

BTW here is a small post I wrote (using the pen-name of Eklavya Sai) as a small tribute to Dennis Ritchie when he passed away in 2011: http://eklavyasai.blogspot.in/2011/10/dennis-ritchie-truly-great-software-guy.html.
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[I thank wikipedia and have presumed that they will not have any objections to me sharing the above extracts from their website on this post which is freely viewable by all, and does not have any financial profit motive whatsoever.]

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