Sunday, April 30, 2017

Of ‘Zen,’ Gumption, and Conversion

"His name was Mu-nan, the man who never turned back."

Somewhere in the diffuse literary swamp that is our home library there’s my beat-up purple paperback of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance – or not. Who knows? The chances are pretty good that I passed it on to somebody long ago, but I went searching for it in the stacks anyway.

I was hoping to track it down because I’d heard on NPR that the author, Robert Pirsig, was dead, and I had had a vivid flashback: There I was, in the student union at Seattle Pacific, sitting in a booth by myself, captivated by this exotic, exhilarating novel/travelogue/testament. Consequently, I wanted to find my copy of Zen to maybe conjure up a bit more of what’d been on my mind back there in Seattle. Not to re-read it, mind you, but just to hold it in my hands again. To see if I’d scrawled anything in the margins, perhaps, or underlined anything.

No such luck – oh, well. 

When I read Zen in Seattle, I was an unsettled student of theology wrestling with doubt and anxiety – about my faith, about my direction in life, about my transition to adulthood, oh, and lots of things. I was searching for something – something…different, I suppose, different than what I was accustomed to. I’m not sure how I came upon Pirsig’s book, but I latched onto it because it was plenty different – bizarre even, a “metaphysical meditation on everything from East Asian philosophy to the author's own struggles with mental illness,” as NPR’s David Greene put it. I couldn’t make heads or tails of it, but there’s no question that it shook me up but good.

For one thing, there was the Zen stuff – which was in itself a huge departure for me, and even a bit risqué for an evangelical. Was it OK to be delving into Pirsig’s Buddhist-inspired constructs, despite my ability to comprehend it all? Was it dangerous? Allowed?

Like I said, I didn’t understand it much, but at some level I could grasp the book’s fundamental juxtaposition of the Western, classic approach to life (objectivity and rationality, mechanics) and the Eastern, more experiential approach (romantic orientation, subjectivity, Zen). Pirsig drew on something he called the Metaphysics of Quality to reconcile the two, but that was way beyond me. Instead, what I remember appreciating was simply the opportunity to consider reality and the human condition from an entirely foreign vantage point. That was pretty new to me, and I found it provocative and totally rejuvenating.

Another dimension of Pirsig’s book that I relished was its implicit rejection of navel-gazing. I wasn’t very good at philosophizing anyway, and Pirsig in a sense gave me permission to let it go. Instead, as James Hagerty pointed out in his WSJ obituary, Pirsig “proposed a revival of ‘gumption,’” which, in the book, is represented by he and his son taking to the road. Here’s how Pirsig himself summed up the word in Zen:

A person filled with gumption doesn't sit around dissipating and stewing about things. He's at the front of the train of his own awareness, watching to see what's up the track and meeting it when it comes. That's gumption.

Two things can derail us from a gumptious trajectory according to Pirsig. Either exogenous, outside set-backs, or endogenous, interior hang-ups. Both are essentially obstacles that get in the way of momentum, and it’s momentum that keeps us on fire for what matters.

And what matters? Here again, I’d have to say that Pirsig lost me. I was ill equipped as an undergraduate religion major to comprehend the author’s philosophical abstractions. What I was able to glean from Pirsig was a passion for searching, along with a determination to push aside obstacles that might dissuade or discourage.

It wasn’t long after I read Pirsig’s Zen that I began toying with the idea of becoming a Catholic. That took a willingness to consider a radically different worldview on its own terms, and the gumption to stick with it even when external and internal voices were advising otherwise. Although I read Pirsig’s masterpiece with an eye toward flirtation with Eastern religion, it ended up being a subtle preparation for my subsequent Catholic conversion. Zen wasn't a major influence, but it surely played a role. That might sound strange, especially given Pirsig's rejection of organized religion as "delusion." Even so, we know from Scripture that God is the master jury-rigger, and there are virtually no limits to what (or whom) he will draw on in the order of grace. Whatever it takes.

Thanks for the eye-opener, Mr. Pirsig. Rest in peace.


  1. Short(er) version of first comment which apparently vaporized...

    As a fundamentalist kid seeing the phoniness of most church attendees, and the contradictions in its article of faith, i looked elsewhere, including reading Mr Persig's strange book back in the 70s.

    Not much Zen to it, but it led me to study intensively Eastern thought, which made plenty of sense, especially Zen, except the heartless void part.

    Also, any Westerner would always come up short in understanding nuances of language and meaning, not steeped in that culture from earliest age of learning, and found innate phoniness in westerners dressing as, and speaking in, Japanese terms. So, also, found no suprise in the schisming of various sects established in the USA.

    I mourned no common sense Christian approach to experiencing the living God, suchlike as Zen offered attaining satori.

    Then i read very early Christian works on contemplative prayer, which led me to explore the Church in which such wisdom could exist, and needing to admit if Christianity true at all, then there must exist one true surviving Church, or it all a farce.

    And found that one true Church in the Catholic Church which managed to stand firm when all others fell to heresy, even if it stood on the brink, always, it seemed, true Divine Intervention saved it.

    And in contemplative prayer, no void in which to cast one's self, but instead an ocean of pre-existing Love, which even became one of us in order to prove that Love and save us for the joy and returned love for which we were always destined, to share in the eternal Love which upholds all creation. Who gave us his Church and Sacraments and all other tools needed to turn back, and learn to return that love.

    So, thank you Mr Persig, for your part in God's plan to draw me back from the brink, and i hope as you graduated from this school, that you too acknowledged that Love and desired only to share in it, no matter what other paths your life might have taken.

    1. Sorry for the name typo, Walter...i KNOW it's Pirsig.

    2. stupid smart phone...ROBERT, not Walter....

  2. Thanks for a most interesting commentary, Bob. It's consoling, in a way, to know that somebody else struggles with these rotten texting apps. (Don't worry; Walter/Robert strikes me as a decent sort.)

    1. I am have thesis which seems as obvious as the thesis that most humans have a nose. It regards the failures of the organized/hierarchal Church from times ancient until current times, and even to this very present crisis in the Western Church.

      That being, zero teaching of authentic spiritual practices inevitably leads to collapse. By way of more recent illustration, i would ask anyone to read of a saint who did not have a confessor who acted as spiritual director. Now, anyone reading this raise their hand if they have a spiritual director......see what i mean?

      The Church did fine in earlier catechesis where folk were educated in spiritual principles before being brought into the Church, suchlike the Jerusalem Catechesis makes plain, or, St Augustines Confessions make plain.

      But when it got instead into the raw pagan numbers game of baptising and confirming to simply bring numbers into the Church, cement political alliances, or whatever, then the wheels always come off a generation or two down the road.

      You are seeing a great exodus of Westerners from the Church over the last couple of generations because all they are taught from youth are rote prayer and pious practices that do not provide the answers or experience when their baby dies, or their mother has cancer.

      And what little spiritual instruction offered today is sadly shallow and quite New Age, a two-day parish prayer "workshop" same as any workshop at work with handouts/breakout sessions/business model blather, and if you check schedules suchlike at Jesuit retreat centers, you will find what?....Zen/Quietism/centering prayer workshops, all heresy....why? because the Ignatian method is meditation (active, mental, all self generated), and they are not taught contemplation where God is the active principal and we the clay on the wheel being shaped by Love.

      And really nothing easily found between those extremes of heresy or nothing. And why so many lost Catholics drifting away. The Church, the very Sacraments, were given to us as "tools" to bring us to that surrender to that Love, to return that love, which is what we were created to do...know/experience, love/share-give-all, serve/be so Christlike that he acts in and thru us.....this is everything Jesus the first two commandments he quoted....when we love God totally, THEN we can love our neighbor as ourselves, and not before, as otherwise it contaminated with self-love.

      The Church has everything one needs for joy and happiness into all eternity. A pity that the majority within knows nothing of it, top to bottom, is incapable of passing on what it does not know, and looks elsewhere. And this situation is exactly the phariseeism which Jesus mourned.