MD Foreward to Zen Environment

From: Matt the Enraged Endorphin (
Date: Sun Sep 08 2002 - 23:21:07 BST


If you are anything like me, then you constantly search through indexes of
books and search engines of Book stores and libraries for any mention, any
whatsoever, of Pirsig. My obsession has paid off twice now. Once I was in
a bookstore looking through the literary criticism section. Christopher
Norris' excellent book, Deconstruction: Theory and Practice, contains a
very interesting discussion of ZMM and compares it to some of Nietzsche's
work (which may be good or bad, depending on where Nietzsche fits into your
narrative). My second success occurred a couple of days ago at my local
University library. Having never seen any extra mention of Pirsig at (which is fairly comprehensive most of the time), I was suprised
to find an entry for Zen Environment by Marian Mountain. Apparently,
Pirsig wrote the Foreward for it. Naturally, I rushed to find it, wishing
to soak up any uttereance of his that has ever come forth (especially those
longer than his praise for Buddhism: Plain and Simple).

I was quite happy with what I found. And because the book is so old, and
nobody probably has ever read it or, rather, Pirsig's little part in it (or
has, at least, mentioned it), and because its so short, I re-type it for
all to enjoy (followed, of course, by my own brief commentary):

        Zen literature seems at times to divide into two groups of works: those
that are about zen; and those that are zen itself, talking. The first
group is often precise, authoritative, and highly pedigreed but lacks a
certain warmth and settledness. The second is often inaccurate, poorly
composed, vague at times but has a special sound which you can recognize as
the real thing. It is the sound of someone singing a song he himself has
composed and which no one else can ever quite imitate. That is what we
have here.
        Zen is nothing other than what happens to individual people, and zen
accounts which stay close to personal circumstances are truer than those
which generalize. When Marian keeps her accounting close to what she sees
and remembers, she avoids the academic objectification of zen which becomes
controversial and misleading.
        My own academic, English teacher's narrow mind always bridles at rambling
zen disquisitions of this sort, but if you want to read real zen you have
to put up with it. The best of zen masters ramble on and on without any
apparent central point. This is caused by the slippery nature of what they
are trying to convey. You can't read a zen discourse the way you read a
detective story, trying to figure out the plot. There isn't any. You have
to read this book like a giant catalog, line by line, looking for items to
buy and keeping the rest on hand in case you might want to buy them later.
When you finish this book, you can start right in again on the first
chapter and discover much more than you saw the first time.
        That, after all, is how one learns about life itself.
                                                        --Robert M. Pirsig

Besides being strong praise for the book in question, it is also a very
poingant interpretation of zen. It provides a good account for the
rambling nature of Pirsig's two books (particularly the first). Even more,
this is Pirsig at his best and most edifying. The Foreward is best seen as
consistent with the Early Pirsig, the one who concentrates on rhetoric and
narrative (as contrasted with the Late Pirsig, the one who concentrates on
systematic metaphysics and logical argumentation).

In particular, I would focus on the line, "You have to read this book like
a giant catalog, line by line, looking for items to buy and keeping the
rest on hand in case you might want to buy them later." This is an
excellent analogy for the ironist's quest for alternative vocabularies, new
metaphors to add to, breathe new life in, and change one's final vocabulary.


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