Sunday, June 22, 2008

Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance

Probably I am the millionth person to read this book and go ga-ga about it. This is my second attempt. First was in 1998 when I was in college a friend of mine ( who later turned out to be my wife :) ) - was reading the book and it piqued my interest - so got hold of it and started reading. Did not survive more than 2 chapters.

Now again I gave it a go and what a read it turned out to be. Here is some gist of what I felt reading it.

Things in no particular order :

* Robert Pirsig, the author, says about "gumption". What an idea - gumption is kind of an energy cum enthusiasm. You have to earn it by doing things - when you acquire gumption it gives a good feeling - kind of smug and happy feeling. I have felt it lot of times when I fix a problem or do some thing useful. The author says it in the context of fixing a motor bike - but you can feel it at lot of places - installing ubuntu on an old worn out computer. Now the trick is to watch out for the things which will drain gumption.

Ego is the biggest one. If I start doing the work to satisfy my ego it will drain all the gumption. For instance I say to myself alright here I am a linux geek. Now let me get this machine up and running with linux with some nifty hacks - thats a bad start. Now the simplest hurdle - lets say your CD got burnt with a bad sector and installation fails midway - or you cannot get the network up - will quickly drain the built up gumption. Because you started doing this work to satisfy your ego - not to reuse an old discarded machine to do things it was not destined to do when it was built. Now if the approach had all humility - alright let me have some fun in making this old guy see how 2008 looks like - and any small hurdles that come my way I can just hum and fix them - because my goal is not to satisfy my ego. I have felt it more than once - and I get frustrated and throw things away. Gotto watch out for this in future.

* Zen state: Zen, or chen or our own hindi word - dyan- means meditation. There are 3 ways of zenning - forgot the first 2 - something like you sit and meditate with no material thoughts. The 3rd one is the highest state - you do your work live your life and yet be aware of yourself and the outer world and you earn gumption living your life.

Also in another place he says how having a composed and calm mind helps create a great product. All you have to do is take a look at microsoft and ubuntu or OS X. Now microsoft has better developers, more PhDs than apple + linux GNU developers combined. But how can microsoft regularly dish out a sucky operating system - when compared with apple or linux volunteers. Its the state of mind. Microsoft employees have to put up with middle level managers who have to put up with high level managers who have to put up with a chair. Sad. The end result shows the turmoil of mind of the developers. The crazy volunteers blast music rippoed of bit torrent and create a rocking OS that is changing the world.

*Quality: What is quality. He starts by saying how quality splits classic view and romantic view. Oh I forgot to tell what is classic and romantic right. The parts of the motorcycle, the property, the science behind it - its the classic view. The beauty of the parts jelling together, the hum produced by the bike - just the joy of seeing a well built machine - its all the romantic view. Art vs hard facts. While reading it I got a feeling that perhaps I have not made much of an effort to appreciate the romantic side of things - trying to appreciate art, classical music - the right side brain of things. Perhaps with my educational background had always a classic bent on things.

Anyway, he first argues that quality is the entity that splits the world into classic and romantic - but then he dwells more into this hypothesis and comes with a brilliant analysis of how quality does not split the world but actually binds them and its the third entity. Kind of a trinity.

*Reference to Illiad : Now last december I read Illiad and there was a passage which Robert Pirsig had quoted in this book. Its about the villian ( but you will not get the feeling reading the book ) - Hector - going to his final battle where he will be killed by Achilles. His wife pleads him not to go and Hector speaks how heros speak with valour and pride. I was pleasantly surprised to see this passage getting quoted. Now the author brings this up to bash poor Aristotle. It seems till Aristotle came around the Greeks cherished such virtues - like how Hector speaks about destiny and living his full life and dying at war. Aristotle came and tried to define everything and there are things that cannot be defined - why will a man go to die or display his valour? - and that was the beginning of the end of romanticism in life. Everything has to be defined - else it does not exist according to Aristotle.

Now the author does not stop here - he goes on to make a connection between quality, virtue and dharma. - my brain just froze. You have to read this stretch to appreciate the philosophy.

*Mu : This was very interesting. Mu is a japanese word. Now a zen scholar was asked is there God in a dog. His answer was Mu. Its neither a yes or a no. It is one of the tri states - and in fact it means the question has too broad a context. Narrow your context or change your question. Pirsig in his onslaught of Aristotle explains this word - we cannot split everyting into two - and so on - we have to appreciate this fuzziness.