Great Throughts Treasury

A database of quotes

Robert M. Pirsig

American Writer and Philosopher best known for his book "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values" and "Lila: An Inquiry into Morals"

"The truth knocks on the door and you say, "Go away, I'm looking for the truth," and so it goes away. Puzzling."

"The truths Phaedrus began to pursue were lateral truths; no longer the frontal truths of science, those toward which the discipline pointed, but the kind of truth you see laterally, out of the corner of your eye. In a laboratory situation, when your whole procedure goes haywire, when everything goes wrong or is indeterminate or is so screwed up by unexpected results you can't make head or tail out of anything, you start looking laterally. That's a word he later used to describe a growth of knowledge that doesn't move forward like an arrow in flight, but expands sideways, like an arrow enlarging in flight, or like the archer, discovering that although he has hit the bull's-eye and won the prize, his head is on a pillow and the sun is coming in the window. Lateral knowledge is knowledge that's from a wholly unexpected direction, from a direction that's not even understood as a direction until the knowledge forces itself upon one. Lateral truths point to the falseness of axioms and postulates underlying one's existing system of getting at truth."

"The TV scientist who mutters sadly, The experiment is a failure; we have failed to achieve what we had hoped for, is suffering mainly from a bad script writer. An experiment is never a failure solely because it fails to achieve predicted results. An experiment is a failure only when it also fails adequately to test the hypothesis in question, when the data it produces don't prove anything one way or another."

"The way to see what looks good and understand the reasons it looks good, and to be at one with this goodness as the work proceeds, is to cultivate an inner quietness, a peace of mind so that goodness can shine through."

"The way to solve the conflict between human values and technological needs is not to run away from technology. That?s impossible. The way to resolve the conflict is to break down the barrier of dualistic thought that prevent a real understanding of what technology is ? not an exploitation of nature, but a fusion of nature and the human spirit into a new kind of creation that transcends both. When this transcendence occurs in such events as the first airplane flight across the ocean or the first footsteps on the moon, a kind of public recognition of the transcendent nature of technology occurs. But this transcendence should also occur at the individual level, on a personal basis, in one's own life, in a less dramatic way."

"The world comes to us in an endless stream of puzzle pieces that we would like to think all fit together somehow, but that in fact never do."

"The world has no existence whatsoever outside the human imagination. It's all a ghost, and in antiquity was so recognized as a ghost, the whole blessed world we live in. It's run by ghosts. We see what we see because these ghosts show it to us, ghosts of Moses and Christ and the Buddha, and Plato, and Descartes, and Rousseau and Jefferson and Lincoln, on and on and on. Isaac Newton is a very good ghost. One of the best. Your common sense is nothing more than the voices of thousands and thousands of these ghosts from the past. Ghosts and more ghosts. Ghosts trying to find their place among the living."

"The world of underlying form is an unusual object of discussion because it is actually a mode of discussion itself. You discuss things in terms of their immediate appearance or you discuss them in terms of their underlying form, and when you try to discuss these modes of discussion you get involved in what could be called a platform problem. You have no platform from which to discuss them other than the modes themselves."

"There is a perennial classical question that asks which part of the motorcycle, which grain of sand in which pile, is the Buddha. Obviously to ask that question is to look in the wrong direction, for the Buddha is everywhere. But just as obviously to ask the question is to look in the right direction, for the Buddha is everywhere."

"There is a Swedish word, kulturb„rer, which can be translated as "culture-bearer" but still doesn't mean much. It's not a concept that has much American use, although it should have."

"There is an evil tendency underlying all our technology - the tendency to do what is reasonable even when it isn't any good."

"There is mountain air in this room. It's cool and moist and almost fragrant. One deep breath makes me ready for the next one and then the next one and with each deep breath I feel a little readier until I jump out of bed and pull up the shade and let all that sunlight in - brilliant, cool, bright, sharp and clear."

"There is only one kind of person who accepts or rejects the mythos in which he lives. And the definition of that person, when he has rejected the mythos is ?insane?. To go outside the mythos is to become insane."

"There is only one kind of person, Ph‘drus said, who accepts or rejects the mythos in which he lives. And the definition of that person, when he has rejected the mythos, Ph‘drus said, is "insane." To go outside the mythos is to become insane."

"There's this primary America of freeways and jet flights and TV and movie spectaculars, and people caught up in this primary America seem to go through huge portions of their lives without much consciousness of what immediately surrounds them. The media have convinced them that what's right around them is unimportant. And that's why they're lonely."

"These can be left alone for a while. There's a place for them but they've got to be built on a foundation of Quality within the individuals involved."

"These shapes are all out of someone's mind. That's important to see. The steel? Hell, even the steel is out of someone's mind. There's no steel in nature. Anyone from the Bronze Age could have told you that. All nature has is a potential for steel. There's nothing else there. But what's "potential"? That's also in someone's mind!"

"They had made the mistake of thinking of a personality as some sort of possession, like a suit of clothes, which a person wears. But apart from a personality what is there? Some bones and flesh. A collection of legal statistics, perhaps, but surely no person. The bones and flesh and legal statistics are the garments worn by the personality, not the other way around."

"This condemnation of technology is ingratitude, that's what it is. Blind alley, though. If someone's ungrateful and you tell him he's ungrateful, okay, you've called him a name. You haven't solved anything."

"This inner peace of mind occurs on three levels of understanding. Physical quietness seems the easiest to achieve, although there are levels and levels of this too, as attested by the ability of Hindu mystics to live buried alive for many days. Mental quietness, in which one has no wandering thoughts at all, seems more difficult, but can be achieved. But value quietness, in which one has no wandering desires at all but simply performs the acts of his life without desire; that seems the hardest."

"This is the hardest stuff in the world to photograph. You need a three-hundred-and-sixty-degree lens, or something. You see it, and then you look down in the ground glass and it's just nothing. As soon as you put a border on it, it's gone."

"To all appearances he was just drifting. In actuality he was just drifting."

"To an experienced Zen Buddhist, asking if one believes in Zen or one believes in the Buddha, sounds a little ludicrous, like asking if one believes in air or water. Similarly Quality is not something you believe in, Quality is something you experience."

"To arrive in the Rocky Mountains by plane would be to see them in one kind of context, as pretty scenery. But to arrive after days of hard travel across the prairies would be to see them in another way, as a goal, a promised land."

"To discover a metaphysical relationship between Quality and the Buddha at some mountaintop of personal experience is very spectacular. And very unimportant. If that were all this Chautauqua was about I should be dismissed. What?s important is the relevance of such a discovery to all the valleys of this world, and all the dull, dreary jobs and monotonous years that await all of us in them."

"To live only for some future goal is shallow. It?s the sides of the mountain that sustains life, not the top."

"To reach him you have to back up and back up, and the further back you go, the further back you see you have to go, until what looked like a small problem of communication turns into a major philosophic inquiry."

"To the untrained eye ego-climbing and selfless climbing may appear identical. Both kinds of climbers place one foot in front of the other. Both breathe in and out at the same rate. Both stop when tired. Both go forward when rested. But what a difference! The ego-climber is like an instrument that?s out of adjustment. He puts his foot down an instant too soon or too late. He?s likely to miss a beautiful passage of sunlight trough the trees. He goes on when the sloppiness of his step shows he?s tired. He rests at odd times. He looks up the trail trying to see what?s ahead even when he knows what?s ahead because he just looked a second before. He goes too fast or too slow for the conditions and when he talks his talk is forever about somewhere else, something else. He?s here but he?s not here. He reject the here, is unhappy with it, wants to be farther up the trail but when he gets there he will be just as unhappy because then it will be here. What he?s looking for, what he wants, is all around him, but he doesn?t want that because it is all around him. Every step?s an effort, both physically and spiritually, because he imagines his goal to be external and distant."

"To travel, sometimes, is better than to arrive."

"Traditional scientific method has always been at the very best 20-20 hindsight. It?s good for seeing where you?ve been. It?s good for testing the truth of what you think you know, but it can?t tell you where you ought to go."

"Trials never end, of course. Unhappiness and misfortune are bound to occur as long as people live, but there is a feeling now, that was not here before, and is not just on the surface of things, but penetrates all the way through: We've won it. It's going to get better now. You can sort of tell these things."

"Uncle Tom's Cabin was no literary masterpiece but it was a culture-bearing book. It came at a time when the entire culture was about to reject slavery. People seized upon it as a portrayal of their own new values and it became an overwhelming success."

"Under Aristotle the "Reader," whose knowledge of Trojan aret‚ seems conspicuously absent, forms and substances dominate all. The Good is a relatively minor branch of knowledge called ethics; reason, logic, knowledge are his primary concerns. Aret‚ is dead and science, logic and the University as we know it today have been given their founding charter: to find and invent an endless proliferation of forms about the substantive elements of the world and call these forms knowledge, and transmit these forms to future generations. As "the system.""

"Unless you?re fond of hollering you don?t make great conversations on a running cycle. Instead you spend your time being aware of things and meditating on them. On sights and sounds, on the mood of the weather and things remembered, on the machine and the countryside you?re in, thinking about things at great leisure and length without being hurried and without feeling you?re losing time."

"We always condemn most in others that which we most fear in ourselves."

"We are at the classic-romantic barrier now, where on one side we see a cycle as it appears immediately... and this is an important way of seeing it... and where on the other side we can begin to see it as a mechanic does in terms of underlying form... and this is an important way of seeing things too. These tools for example... this wrench... has a certain romantic beauty to it, but its purpose is always purely classical. It's designed to change the underlying form of the machine."

"We do need a return to individual integrity? My personal feeling is that this is how any further improvement of the world will be done: by individuals making Quality decisions and that?s all. God, I don?t want to have any more enthusiasm for big programs full of social planning for big masses of people that leave individual Quality out. These can be left alone for a while. There?s a place for them but they?ve got to be built on a foundation of Quality within the individuals involved. We?ve had that individual Quality in the past, exploited it as a natural resource without knowing it, and now it?s just about depleted. Everyone?s just about out of gumption. And I think it?s about time to return to the rebuilding of this American resource?individual worth. There are political reactionaries who?ve been saying something close to this for years. I?m not one of them, but to the extent they?re talking about real individual worth and not just an excuse for giving more money to the rich, they?re right. We do need a return to individual integrity, self-reliance and old-fashioned gumption. We really do."

"We have artists with no scientific knowledge and scientists with no artistic knowledge and both with no spiritual sense of gravity at all, and the result is not just bad, it is ghastly."

"We keep passing unseen through little moments of other people's lives."

"We see much more of this loneliness now. It's paradoxical that that where people are the most closely crowded in the big coastal cities in the East and West, the loneliness is greatest. Back where people are so spread out in Western Oregon and Idaho and Montana and the Dakotas you'd think the loneliness would have been greater, but we didn't see it so much. The explanation, I suppose, is that the physical distance between people has nothing to do with loneliness. It's the psychic distance, and in Montana and Idaho the physical distances are long but the psychic distances between people are small, and here, in primary America, it's reversed."

"We take a handful of sand from the endless landscape of awareness around us and call that handful of sand the world."

"We want to make good time, but for us now this is measured with emphasis on "good" rather than "time" and when you make that shift in emphasis the whole approach changes."

"We?re in such a hurry most of the time we never get much chance to talk. The result is a kind of endless day-to-day shallowness, a monotony that leaves a person wondering years later where all the time went and sorry that it?s all gone."

"We've had that individual Quality in the past, exploited it as a natural resource without knowing it, and now it's just about depleted."

"What follows is based on actual occurrences. Although much has been changed for rhetorical purposes, it must be regarded in its essence as fact. However, it should in no way be associated with that great body of factual information relating to orthodox Zen Buddhist practice. It's not very factual on motorcycles, either."

"What is essential to understand at this point is that until now there was no such thing as mind and matter, subject and object, form and substance. Those divisions are just dialectical inventions that came later. The modern mind sometimes tends to balk at the thought of these dichotomies being inventions and says, "Well, the divisions were there for the Greeks to discover," and you have to say, "Where were they? Point to them!" And the modern mind gets a little confused and wonders what this is all about anyway, and still believes the divisions were there. But they weren't, as Ph‘drus said. They are just ghosts, immortal gods of the modern mythos which appear to us to be real because we are in that mythos. But in reality they are just as much an artistic creation as the anthropomorphic Gods they replaced."

"What is in mind is a sort of Chautauqua...that's the only name I can think of for it...like the traveling tent-show Chautauquas that used to move across America, this America, the one that we are now in, an old-time series of popular talks intended to edify and entertain, improve the mind and bring culture and enlightenment to the ears and thoughts of the hearer. The Chautauquas were pushed aside by faster-paced radio, movies and TV, and it seems to me the change was not entirely an improvement. Perhaps because of these changes the stream of national consciousness moves faster now, and is broader, but it seems to run less deep. The old channels cannot contain it and in its search for new ones there seems to be growing havoc and destruction along its banks. In this Chautauqua I would like not to cut any new channels of consciousness but simply dig deeper into old ones that have become silted in with the debris of thoughts grown stale and platitudes too often repeated. What's new? is an interesting and broadening eternal question, but one which, if pursued exclusively, results only in an endless parade of trivia and fashion, the silt of tomorrow. I would like, instead, to be concerned with the question What is best?, a question which cuts deeply rather than broadly, a question whose answers tend to move the silt downstream. There are eras of human history in which the channels of thought have been too deeply cut and no change was possible, and nothing new ever happened, and best was a matter of dogma, but that is not the situation now. Now the stream of our common consciousness seems to be obliterating its own banks, losing its central direction and purpose, flooding the lowlands, disconnecting and isolating the highlands and to no particular purpose other than the wasteful fulfillment of its own internal momentum. Some channel deepening seems called for."

"What is seen now so much more clearly is that although the names keep changing and the bodies keep changing, the larger pattern that holds us all together goes on and on."

"What keeps the world from reverting to the Neanderthal with each generation is the continuing, ongoing mythos... the huge body of common knowledge that unites our minds as cells are united in the body of man."

"What makes his world so hard to see clearly is not its strangeness but its usualness. Familiarity can blind you too."