Zen and the Art of Sailboat Maintenance
"At Sea with Robert Pirsig"

Interview by Ed Zuckerman

Published in Mother Jones
May 1977

(Return to Pirsig Timeline or Psybertron WebLog)

It is EARLY Labor Day morning, bright and clear and sunny, and I am sitting on a 32 foot sailboat Boston Harbor with Robert Pirsig. A light offshore breeze is blowing, and the boat, named the Aręte after a pre-Socratic Greek word for excellence, is rocking lightly over small waves. We are about to sail down the Massachusetts coast. Nancy Pirsig is below, cleaning up the dishes from breakfast. I am on deck, worrying about getting seasick. And Robert Pirsig is next to me, staring at a bolt on a track called a "traveler."

The boom of the mainsail is attached to a pulley on this traveler, and that pulley is supposed to slide along the track! That's why it's called a traveler. But now this bolt is stuck, and nothing on the traveler is traveling anywhere. We're not going to travel anywhere, either, until it's fixed.

Pirsig pulls on the bolt and prods it with his fingers. It doesn't move. Pirsig says, "Goddam!" He fetches a spray can of lubricant and squirts it at the bolt, but the bolt is still stuck. I want to suggest pounding the damn thing with a hammer - but Pirsig is calmer. He backs off and says, "Well, it looks like we have our first repair job."

I am not surprised by Pirsig's calm attitude toward this stuck bolt. He has, after all, become a national cult figure as a result, in part, of his calm attitude toward stuck bolts. In his-best-selling essay/novel/autobiography, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, he devoted several chapters to the problem of stuckness.

"In traditional maintenance," he wrote, "this is the worst of' all moments . . . . This is the zero moment of consciousness. Stuck. No answer. Honked. Kaput . . . . You think about it, and the more you think about it the more you're inclined to take the whole machine to a high bridge and drop it off."

But, Pirsig wrote, "Let's consider a reevaluation of the situation in which we assume that the stuckness now occurring, the zero of consciousness, isn't the worst of all possible situations, but the best possible situation you could be in. After all, it's exactly this stuckness that Zen Buddhists go to so much trouble to induce through koans, deep breathing, sitting still and the like. . . . Stuckness shouldn't be avoided. It's the psychic predecessor of all real understanding."

I keep this in mind as I watch Pirsig address the problem of this stuck bolt. If he is relishing this as a Zen-like moment, the best possible situation he could be in, I see no indication of it. But I can't see inside his mind. All I see is a gray-bearded 48 year-old man dressed in worn tennis shoes, gray-wash pants and an old black sweater. He is lying on his side on the deck to get a closer look at the stuck bolt. He looks uncomfortable. His face is turning red. His glasses are sliding down the bridge of his nose.

"Hand me a screwdriver," he calls to his wife of 22 years.

She hands him one,

"Get me a brad awl," he says.

"What's a brad awl?" she asks.

"A little pickaxe," he replies. "Give me the long knife."

He attacks the stuck bolt with the-screwdriver, the brad awl, the long knife. I watch expectantly. Will I witness a breakthrough to Enlightenment?

Pirsig pokes and prods. "We'll have to try another way of sheeting the boom," he concedes after a minute. But just then, he tries the bolt one final time and it slides free.

He squirts some more lubricant on it for good measure, then smiles and holds up the can like a man in a commercial. "It's the greatest stuff in the world," he says. "I spray it on everything."

So Robert Pirsig apparently deals with a stuck bolt like anyone else. This stuck bolt, anyway. But it's worthy of note that the bolt is attached to a $60,000 sailboat. The boat is Pirsig's and he didn't get it by lubricating his mechanical problems away. He got it by thinking about technology and what it means to most people and what it could mean to them and then collecting his thoughts on the subject, and many other subjects in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. 

That he-would ever be able to buy a $60,000 sailboat with proceeds from the book was something that would never have been predicted by any of the 121 publishers who turned down a chance to publish it. Only one publisher, William Morrow & Company, Inc., decided they wanted it, and the spectacularly successful result has been one of the publishing surprises of the decade. More than 70,000 copies have been sold in the hardcover edition. More than one million paperbacks have been printed. Hundreds of college courses have adopted it as a text. The New York Times called it "profoundly important." The New Yorker compared it to Moby Dick. And dozens of individual fans of the book have journeyed to Bozeman, Montana, to see where it all began. We call them "Pirsig's Pilgrims," said Arthur Coffin, who chairs the English department at Montana State University, where Pirsig taught freshman composition in the late '50s. "Last summer the building where Pirsig taught was being remodeled. People went there and stood in the midst of falling plaster in a trance of reverence."

In relating Zen to motorcycles, Pirsig was reaching out to a new audience for Eastern philosophy. "One problem with Oriental thought," he says, "is that many people think it requires the abandonment of rational criteria for belief or disbelief. Some swami comes over from India and says, 'Your entire life is all an illusion.' That's one of the reasons I talk about motorcycle maintenance. It's the most materialistic activity you could get into; so I get away from the idea that spirituality is somehow divorced from the everyday world. When people talk about philosophy they always get off into abstractions that you can't quite follow, but if you apply them time after time to the repair of a motorcycle it gives both the motorcycle and the abstractions much greater power than they would have if they were discussed separately."

But Pirsig did not build his discussion around motorcycles only to attract materialists to spirituality; his purpose worked the other way as well. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is a calculated rebuttal of the anti-technological bias that runs through the artistic-intellectual side of American culture. That bias peaked during the 1960s, when anti-technologist became a tenet of the counter-culture, reflected generally in the environmental and rural commune movements and specifically in protests against the technology that supported the war in Vietnam. In Zen Pirsig describes his friends John and Sylvia, whose reluctance to learn how to maintain their motorcycle he at first finds inexplicable. Finally he understood:

"It's not the motorcycle maintenance. . . . It's all of technology they can't take. . . . They talk once in a while in as few pained words as possible about it'. . . . 'It' is a kind of force that gives rise to technology, something undefined but inhuman, mechanical, lifeless, a blind monster, a death force [that] keeps eating up land and polluting their air and lakes, and there is no way to strike back at it, and hardly any way to escape it."

Pirsig finds this attitude understandable, but he thinks it is wrong. He thinks it is anachronistic, limiting and, finally, hopeless. His book is largely designed to illuminate other ways of seeing technology, and therein lays the book's chief merit. Pirsig does not deal with the problems of the assembly-line worker, to whom the potential beauty of technology provides little solace; nor does he deal with the complexity of our economic system, which sustains and profits from the "eating" of the land, and fouling of the air and water. Instead, his approach is individualistic and spiritual; his eyes are on one man and his motorcycle, and "the Buddha the Godhead," who "resides quite as comfortably in the circuits of a digital computer or the gears of a cycle transmission as he does at the top of a mountain or in the petals of a flower."

The Buddha must also fit nicely in a mainsail boom. Just as a motorcycle trip provided the narrative frame for the intellectual quest of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, so the Pirsigs' sailing will provide the frame for Pirsig's second book, which he writes in the small focsle below deck, on mornings when the Aręte is staying in port.

But now we are sailing. Pirsig is keeping an eye on his chart and on the buoys that mark shallow water. A sudden gust catches us from the west. Pirsig exclaims, "The wind's really coming around!" The boat hikes to port, alarmingly so, it seems. But Pirsig assures me, "We've got 7,500 pounds of lead in the hull. We won't go over."

In the distance, we can see a great gray box - the nuclear power station at the outskirts of Plymouth. I point it out to Pirsig and mention that it has been the object of considerable concern.

"Opposition to nuclear power is kind of nutty," he says. "They'd be opposed to coal power too, or water power. I don't know what they want, maybe to go back to some kind of prehistoric society."

He is shaking his head. "One of the roots of the problem as I see it," he says, "is the great American moral guilt complex. It always needs some new moral issue to feed on. It goes way back to Puritan times, when there had to be sin and guilt around somewhere. I think there's need for change and a need for reform, but I don't know why it has to be put in the form of devil theory all the time. On this nuclear power thing, they're saying we've got real villains somewhere who are pushing it. This is the kind of shrillness I hear. Con Ed was a big one too, or they're after Bell Telephone, and Minneapolis Honeywell was full of villains for a while."

I remember that Honeywell was manufacturing anti-personnel bombs for Vietnam and I begin to protest, "But Honeywell was manufacturing. . . ."

Pirsig cuts me off. "Yeah, some weapon of some sort on a government contract. I don't know. I know the Honeywell people quite well personally. The president of it was one of my father's students at the University of Minnesota law school - a good guy, not the villain. "I was opposed to the war from day one, along with Don Fraser in the House and a lot of other people, and I was opposed all the way through. But as that war went on I noticed a fouler and fouler type of person attaching himself to the anti-war movement. People filled with guilt and looking for an easy way out will pick a noble cause and shit on everybody in the name of this noble cause. Exactly the same kind of person who will join the police force will join the anti-police force, and between the two of them they get a whipsaw going. They whipsaw everybody back and forth until they've got a real froth going, and nothing constructive takes place."

He returns his attention to his charts, and there follows a long silence.

Pirsig had first mentioned politics to me earlier that morning, as he described the genesis of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. In 1960, Pirsig had resigned as a teacher at Montana State University, where he had become obsessed with the ideas he later developed in his book. He enrolled as a graduate student at the University of Chicago, where he battled with his traditionalist professors and suffered a mental breakdown. Committed to a mental hospital, he was given 28 high-voltage electric shock treatments, which jolted him into a new personality and left him only sketchy memories of the old one.

In 1968, when he sat down to write his book, Pirsig's mental equilibrium had been restored, but his social standing was still impaired. "I was a broken-down technical writer at some company in a field that's becoming obsolescent," he said. "Just a broken-down ex-mental patient who they were kind enough to give a job to.

"When you come out of a mental hospital, it's very much like a convict coming out of prison. You're really at the bottom of the social heap. I must have applied for 50 jobs. As soon as I put on the record that I'd been in a mental hospital, that was the end of the interview. You can't interview for 50 jobs and be rejected for every one without feeling a deep sense of shame. Society makes you ashamed of yourself for not being able to work. These are cultural patterns, and I can say in some defensive way, 'Those are society's standards, those aren't my standards.' But they get to you.

"So I was feeling at the age of 40 - you'll feel it yourself, I promise you- there's a certain over-the-hill feeling and you realize that somehow the world has passed you by, that your big moment has gone. At that point I said, ' I'm not quite dead yet. You've underrated me!' And I started to write.

"One of my biggest problems was to avoid being vindictive in the book, to avoid saying, 'Those bastards did this to me.' And my guide here was, of all people, Hubert Humphrey. He's a good Minnesotan, really, a good guy, more so in his younger days than when he was Vice President. And he once said if you're going into politics, you've got to avoid the politics of vindication, because you'll find that nobody is really very interested in vindicating you. They've got other things to do."

That Robert Pirsig, campus idol, would express admiration for Humphrey was not surprising. For, while Pirsig mostly left politics out of Zen, that which appears marks him as no radical in any political sense.

"To speak of certain government and establishment institutions as 'the system' is to speak correctly," he wrote at one point, "since these organizations are founded upon the same structural conceptual relations as a motorcycle. . . . But to tear down a factory or to revolt against a government or to avoid repair of a motorcycle because it is a system is to attack effects rather than causes. . . . The true system, the real system, is our present construction of systematic thought itself, rationality itself. If a revolution destroys a systematic government, but the systematic patterns of thought that produced that government are left intact, then those patterns will repeat themselves in the succeeding government."

And elsewhere, "I think it's about time to return to the rebuilding of this American resource - individual worth. There are political reactionaries who've been saying something close to this for years. I'm not one of them, but to the extent they're talking about real individual worth and not just an excuse for giving more money to the rich, they're right. We do need a return to individual integrity, self-reliance and old-fashioned gumption."

For Pirsig, individual worth is manifested in - and the alternative to handed-down systematic rationality is - the pursuit of Quality. It's a topic he is pleased to expound on (almost any topic is a topic he is pleased to expound on) as we sail south.

"It's kind of funny to be telling people that they should be interested in Quality when they really are all the time anyway. As long as you have an economy of scarcity, then any philosophy that provides food, clothing and shelter is a good one. But if you have an economy of abundance, people say, 'Gee, now I've got food, clothing and shelter. Now what do I do? What's next?' And that was kind of the feeling of the '60s. Quality is next."

Pirsig returns and returns to the subject of Quality with a persistence that sometimes becomes tedious. In Zen, he defined Quality at one point as "pre-intellectual reality." Elsewhere Quality was "the Tao . . . the Buddha . . . scientific reality . . . the goal of art." And sometimes he spoke of it only as that which enables a good mechanic to repair a broken-down motorcycle.

"What I mean by Quality," Pirsig says, "is the central reality of Zen Buddhism, and what I like to do when I get into questions on the matter is kind of crib from the Zen Buddhists as fast as I can. They've been working on it for centuries and have a pretty good set of answers. However, they will tell you as I tell you that ultimately the dialectical answer that can be given is less than the answer that remains to be understood."

Unfortunately, most of the answers offered by Zen come in the form of riddles. In Introduction to Zen Buddhism, D.T. Suzuki raises the question "What is Zen?" and responds, "An ancient master, wishing to show what Zen is, lifted one of his fingers, another kicked a ball and a third slapped the face of his questioner." Asking "What is Quality?" leads to equally confusing, if less violent, responses. Clearly, however, Quality is not something one can vote for, or organize around, a point that Hubert Humphrey would surely appreciate.

The Zen aspect of Pirsig's book constitutes one reason for its popular success. "It's still selling at a phenomenal rate," an editor at Bantam Books told me. "What this book speaks to is the personal quest and discovery angle, which is very big right now."

Other books have ridden the same wave. The best-selling The Inner Game of Tennis, written by a follower of the Guru Maharaja Ji, popularizes the Zen techniques already known to Zen followers who are archery enthusiasts. Adam Smith, who played some inner tennis while researching his book Powers of Mind, has predicted the publication of Zen and Turning Your Strikes into Spares. There is nothing new about Zen Chic; it goes back to half-baked fans of Jack Kerouac, only then it was Zen and the Art of Getting Laid. One of the appeals of Zen Chic, of course, is that it doesn't threaten anyone politically: one enthusiastic reader of Pirsig's book, according to Esquire, was John Ehrlichman.

But Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is relatively free of the cultishness and cant that have been flooding the market. It owes its superiority to its weird structure - it is, after all, the journal of a motorcycle trip - and to Pirsig's quixotic personal history. One senses that he is genuinely surprised that his obsessive pursuit of Quality led him first to a mental institution and then to a $60,000 sailboat. He is the long-winded conversationalist at the cocktail party who suddenly finds himself on national Television. He is not about to play the guru; he just wants to tell you a few dozen things.

"I was the outsider," he told me. "And now the outsider is the number one insider. I'm used to having people regard what I say very skeptically and finally turn me off completely, and now I have to watch myself because I'll say things which I throw out just for the fun of it, and many people take them very seriously. It's a very unsettling experience. Just after all this happened a book came out called Ross and Tom about two authors who both committed suicide shortly after achieving a sudden over-whelming success, after lives of relative failure or unimportance. You can imagine how real it was to me."

Pirsig has found sailing a settling and stabilizing element in his new life. "I scraped the bottom," he said, "clean the deck, keep the boat up, and that seems like high Quality." He and Nancy were now heading south. They expected to wait out the cold months somewhere in the Caribbean. They didn't know where. "It's characteristic of sailing that everything is in a state of flux," Pirsig told me. "The weather is constantly changing. Your concerns are immediate. It's the next wave you want to worry about, not one ten days away."

When we finally prepared to sail into harbor for the night, Nancy Pirsig took the rudder while her husband pulled down the sails. We entered the narrow harbor channel. The Aręte had to be carefully steered between marker buoys to avoid ending up on the rocks, a prospect that seemed to destroy whatever meditative calm Pirsig had achieved during the trip. He watched the buoys going by and suddenly shouted, "Jesus Christ!" 

"What's the matter?" asked Nancy. "We're way the hell out of the channel. That's what's the matter!" He looked around again and added in a lower voice, "No, I guess we're all right." 

Another sailboat, heading out, approached, and Robert called to Nancy again, telling her to steer away from it. "It's crossing our path," he told her.

"No it's not!" she said.

"Yes it is!" he shouted. "Turn in!" She turned in, and the boats passed safely.

Entering the harbor brought no relief. The harbor was crowded and Robert dropped anchor directly in the channel. Nancy pointed out that we were blocking other boats and suggested anchoring by the yacht club. Pirsig pointed out that the boat would be grounded there at low tide. We finally motored over to a deep but congested area where Pirsig executed a Bahamian mooring, which involved dropping two anchors. He was still worried that the Aręte might drift into one of the boats nearby. "I don't like it," he said, but there was nowhere else to go.

The next morning at breakfast Pirsig told us he awoke at 3 a.m. He was worried about drifting into another boat.

For Robert Pirsig, like everyone else, tranquility comes and goes.

Ed Zuckerman writes regularly for Boston's The RealPaper