Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

| Posted in Books, Work |



Every time I pick up this book for a read, I end up going through it with the same enthusiasm I felt when I read it for the first time. Despite being a recurring book in my bookshelf for more than a dozen years, this book retains a freshness. The kind of freshness one feels when plunging into reading a new, interesting book. I am not a big fan of philosophical books. Dreary arguments are not the reason I pick it up to read.

There is more to it.

Reading a book is often termed by enthusiastic readers as a journey. This book is actually about a journey. In fact, about two journeys. The physical motorcycle journey and the mental one. I feel that I am rejoining and reliving the trip with the author. I simply relish this aspect of the reading.

Over the years, like an experienced traveler in the realms of this book, I have, quite unintentionally developed a mental map. This leads me to check certain parts of the book first. I think most people do this when they read their favorite books. This is most visible in children who insist on hearing the same parts of a story over and over again.

Let me point out a few of the parts that I go through in this book. I will leave the philosophy, raves, rants and evaluations for the philosophers, ravers, ranters and evaluators! I just read the book and like what it talks about.

The first interesting part (page 27) is where he talks about the spectator attitude which prevents from identifying and caring for the work we are doing. The sentences that I absolutely like are these.

“And it occurred to me there is no manual that deals with the real business of motorcycle maintenance, the most important aspect of all. Caring about what you are doing is considered either unimportant or taken for granted.”

Deep down, I think that all of us should wear a mental badge or cap to do something well. That cap would say what we are. I am a mechanic, I am a writer and so on. This mental identification is not as simple or childish as it sounds, The level of awareness required to do this is very difficult to maintain.

The next part I like reading is a quirky little spot (p46) where  he talks about his moldy old gloves. This whole page is interesting to read. It talks about the quirkiness of machines and their personality changes over a period of time. I can relate to that and extrapolate it not only to motorcycles but to all kinds of machines, devices, software and websites.

The groovy dimension (p57) is something I can identify with. This part of the journey is all about identifying what the other person means. Why do communications break down? Why do we look at the same thing and yet see so differently? Science and Art are ways to relate to reality.

Pages 77 to 79 is about the romantic and classical modes of thinking. The fact that both these modes have their strengths and weaknesses and much is to be gained by balancing the approach is poignantly brought home.

“These tools for example…this wrench…has a certain romantic beauty to it, but its purpose is always purely classical. It’s designed to change the underlying form of the machine.”

These words (p97) must have inspired the covers for the book. The idea of looking at work from both the classical(scientific) and romantic(artistic) mode and using this to engage with the work at hand is a powerful mantra.

Every system, every process can be systematically examined and understood. The motorcycle as a large system of concepts in someone’s mind is described beautifully in page 101.

The infallibility of relentless, unstoppable deductive and inductive logic for trouble shooting is described in pages 106 to 110. The power of the scientific method is something that is awe inspiring.

“Suppose a child is born devoid of all senses; he has no sight,no hearing, no touch, no smell, no taste…nothing. There’s no way whatsoever for him to receive any sensations from the outside world. And suppose this child is fed intravenously and otherwise attended to and kept alive for eighteen years in this state of existence. The question is then asked:Does this eighteen-year-old person have a thought in his head? If so, where does it come from? How does he get it?” (p130)

The apriori motorcycle of Kant makes an appearance in page 134. This is a favourite place for me in the book. It reminds me of the famous “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (This is not a pipe!) painting by René Magritte.

“Assembly of Japanese bicycle require great peace of mind.”

This small line appears as quote which begins one of my favourite parts in the book.

“It’s an unconventional concept,” I say, “but conventional reason bears it out. The material object of observation, the bicycle or rotisserie, can’t be right or wrong. Molecules are molecules. They don’t have any ethical codes to follow except those people give them. The test of the machine is the satisfaction it gives you. There isn’t any other test. If the machine produces tranquillity it’s right. If it disturbs you it’s wrong until either the machine or your mind is changed. The test of the machine’s always your own mind. There isn’t any other test.”

“Sometime look at a novice workman or a bad workman and compare his expression with that of a craftsman whose work you know is excellent and you’ll see the difference. The craftsman isn’t ever following a single line of instruction. He’s making decisions as he goes along. For that reason he’ll be absorbed and attentive to what he’s doing even though he doesn’t deliberately contrive this. His motions and the machine are in a kind of harmony. He isn’t following any set of written instructions because the nature of the material at hand determines his thoughts and motions, which simultaneously change the nature of the material at hand. The material and his thoughts are changing together in a progression of changes until his mind’s at rest at the same time the material’s right.”

“This divorce of art from technology is completely unnatural. It’s just that it’s gone on so long you have to be an archeologist to find out where the two separated. Rotisserie assembly is actually a long-lost branch of sculpture, so divorced from its roots by centuries of intellectual wrong turns that just to associate the two sounds ludicrous.”

It is these kind of nuggets that make me read this book again and again. Of course, there is a lot more ground to cover. I have only put together a small list of paragraphs to visit in the journey which the author take us through in the book.

The book touches some deep chord which resonates with my own desire to connect meaningfully with the work I engage in. This is perhaps the one main reason I find it a good read every time I pick it up.

“The place to improve the world is first in one’s own heart and head and hands, and then work outward from there. Other people can talk about how to expand the destiny of mankind. I just want to talk about how to fix a motorcycle. I think that what I have to say has more lasting value.”

And the message of this book has lasted quite well for more than three decades.

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