Dharma and a 1966 Honda Super Hawk


Thomas Bush IV: Montana, United States, 2021 (Unsplash)

From The New Yorker:

Every writer I know has memories they return to in their work over and over again. There is rarely much logic to the choices, nor do such memories tend to align with the sorts of significant events that traditionally make up the time line of one’s life. My point of fixation, one that’s appeared a few times in my writing, occurred during a solo cross-country road trip I took at the age of nineteen. I was driving to Seattle, where I knew nobody, and was planning to stop for the night in Billings, Montana. It was already late, and I had been keeping myself awake with a non-stop chain of cigarettes and vending-machine coffee I’d dutifully bought at every rest stop along the way. I had a pile of books on tape on the passenger’s seat. About an hour outside of Billings, I put in “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” which, coincidentally, starts out on a road trip to Montana. The first line—“I can see by my watch, without taking my hand from the left grip of the cycle, that it is eight-thirty in the morning”—had a hypnotic effect on me. I blew through Billings that night, and for the next six hours I listened to Robert M. Pirsig’s barely fictional meditation on fatherhood, Chautauquas, Zen, tools, and the idea that quality—the main conceptual preoccupation of Pirsig’s life—lay in the repetition of right actions.

Map of Pirsig’s Road Trip

I am not particularly self-aware, nor do I have much memory for the person I was at the time. So I can’t really explain to you why “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” had such a hold on me. Even back then, I knew that the book was considered a bit gauche—a manual for the type of seekers who plumb out all the parts of Eastern religions that justify their own selfish behavior, who spend their days walking the earth in a fog of patchouli oil and immense self-regard. But I was also captivated by the idea that dharma demanded a sense of conscientious and careful action, whether maintaining a 1966 Honda Super Hawk, shooting free throws, or writing. I was, and I suppose still am, deeply suspicious of the life of the mind, and wanted to believe that enlightenment existed elsewhere.

Over time, I distilled my particular reading of Pirsig down to a line from “I am I be,” a song by De La Soul in which Posdnuos raps, “If I was a rug cleaner / Bet you Pos’d have the cleanest rugs.” The point, as far as I could tell at that young age, wasn’t the competition for the cleanest rugs but, rather, that the dedication to expertly cleaning a rug would yield moments in which the body would fall away from the mind, and you could touch the outer edges of enlightenment.

“Returning, Again, to Robert M. Pirsig”, Jay Caspian Kang, The New Yorker

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