Not very factual on motorcycles

Robert M. Pirsig’s book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance begins with a disclaimer stating that the book “should in no way be associated with the great body of factual information relating to orthodox Zen Buddhist practice” and that it is “not very factual on motorcycles, either.” I was willing to believe the first part of the disclaimer, since the author shows no special knowledge of Zen, but I always kind of assumed that he really did know what he was talking about when it came to motorcycles.

So when my wife’s motorcycle wouldn’t start and we were wondering if it was because the battery was dead, I remembered an example Pirsig had used to illustrate deduction and hypothesis testing. If “the mechanic knows the horn of the cycle is powered exclusively from the battery, then he can logically infer that if the battery is dead the horn will not work. That is deduction” (pp. 92-93). He can then try to honk the horn as a way of testing the hypothesis that the battery is dead.

I honked the horn, and it worked fine, so I confidently announced to my wife that the problem was definitely not the battery. Probably the spark plug. And then, since I’m not Robert M. Pirsig, I walked the motorcycle to a nearby mechanic’s shop to have it fixed.

He told me it was the battery. I tooted the horn for him and told him he was wrong. He looked at me like I was an idiot, replaced the battery, which was ancient and badly corroded, and sent me on my way with a perfectly good motorcycle.


It seems like there ought to be some deep “Chautauqua” lesson to be learned from this. Always believe disclaimers, I suppose, even when they appear to have been written in jest.


Filed under Anecdotes, Oddities

3 responses to “Not very factual on motorcycles

  1. Assuming that in the bike in question, the horn was indeed powered by the battery, yet was still working – I infer that the battery was not strictly *dead* but very weak, and retained sufficient power to work the horn, but not to start the engine…?

    However, point taken.

    I think Pirsig did know quite a bit about Zen – at least, he was responsible for getting a Zen master to the place he lived in Minnesota – although this may have been just after ZAMM was published. His son, Chris, had just been at the Zen centre when he was murdered.

  2. Pirsig very likely did know something about Zen, but there is little evidence of that knowledge in ZAMM, which deals with Zen in a rather perfunctory manner. I would certainly never think of it as being primarily a book about Zen were it not for the title. Western philosophy receives far more attention in the book than Eastern, and when Eastern philosophy is engaged, it is more often Taoism than Buddhism. He uses the term Buddha in a very odd way, which is confusing until you realize that what he actually means is the Tao. One gets the impression that he decided his title would be a play on Zen in the Art of Archery and then did some superficial editing to make the book seem more Zenny.

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