The Underlying Message Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is not specifically about orthodox Zen Buddhist practice nor does if specifically teaches how to repair a motorcycle. It does, however, dig into the inner structure of the thought process to form a foundation to support any form of logic. This is accomplished by means of a trek through the author's mind as he recounts his past in attempt to rediscover who he once was. As the author comes to term with his duality, the reader is conditioned to understand the author's philosophical ideas, which are the underlying beams of his value system.
Pirsig presents his message through lectures to the reader. These lectures are comprised of history, philosophy, and common sense. The author purposely uses the term chautauqua to define these lectures. He describes a chautauqua as "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" (p. 17).
Throughout the story Pirsig breaks from his incomplete lecture to focus on the current situation of his motorcycle trip. As the story continues, some nonspecific aspect triggers the author's mind to restart a new lecture, and eventually, they all tie together. The most common reoccurring lecture themes include the purpose of institutions, the search for quality and the need of balance between two extremes. These are interesting highlights of the book, but it is not the author's intention to convert his audience to his value system. Rather, it is Pirsig's goal to present how he created his value system as an example to show how to tackle such a complex and abstract subject. In fact, the reoccurring themes themselves are complex and abstract subjects, and Pirsig breaks each of them apart to analyze the system, just how one would tear down an engine to understand how a motorcycle functions.
Institutions and their role obviously weighed heavily upon the author's mind. He explored the system from the whole down to its most minute parts. First, he chose one type of institution, education. From past experience as a student and professor, Pirsig naturally had formed an opinion on the matter. He observed that students are taught to imitate, and the result is a drone modeled after the instructor. This is done to please the instructor so a higher grade can be received.
The next step was to dig down deeper and to focus on the aspect of grades. This raises more questions about to purpose of grades. Are they really needed to judge a student's progress, or do they just blind the student from the true objective of learning? To answer the question an experiment was conducted which in return raised more questions and experiments.
The focus went from the class' reaction to a particular student and from the student to an assignment. Ultimately, the assignment, an essay about the town where the student resided, focused upon a single brick in a single building of the town. From the preceding episode Pirsig demonstrated how a complex problem could be solved systematically. More importantly, he also showed how one must be led to understanding and that it cannot be merely preached. In the case of the individual student, she could not write a rhetorical paper until the subject was simple enough for her to understand. Granted, Phaedrus continued to tell his student what to write about, but once she could see how for herself, she no longer needed to be dictated.
Working back up and putting the pieces of the problem back together, the students then were in position to decide for themselves what is the importance of grades. Half the class was not in accordance with the instructor's opinion, but that was not the intention, or he would have just told them what is the purpose of the grading system according to his own opinion. The author is careful to point out that this divide and conquer method does not always work on a general scale but only on an individual one. Phaedrus' downfall was caused by using the scientific method to define quality, which is indefinable. The method raises more questions than it answers so you never hit the "brick" that you understand and can start your way back to the head question. Pirsig takes some interesting stabs at defining quality as a standard definition for all, but it is impossible.
I personally define quality as being content, but someone else may disagree and claim that is the definition of mediocre. It is all a matter of opinion, and Pirsig knew it. He had his own personal definition of quality, but could not tell us. It would be very hypocritical of him to do so after accusing his fellow instructors of processing minds in place or provoking intelligent thought.
The attempt to define quality made an interesting discussion, but more importantly it was the search that divided Phaedrus and the narrator. It created the duality that Pirsig was trying to understand and pull back together. Since the beginning of the novel there existed the notion of classical thinking versus romantic thinking. The narrator was a technical writer and criticized John for not seeing the world as he did. Phaedrus was the opposite. He was a rhetoric and fought against time honored systems like universities.
Pirsig again tore both of these personages apart as the narrator searched for his former self. The book switched back and forth favoring each side. Phaedrus almost won the struggle at the mountain hike, but the narrator turned back. In the climatic end the narrator nearly admitted defeat and wanted to send Chris home in fear that he may harm him. The narrator did not understand who he was until he saw that Chris finally realized it. "I knew it" (p. 370).
Phaedrus let go and submitted in the mental hospital for the love of his son. The narrator was abandoning Chris for the same reason. It was not until both identities had racked themselves apart that they could be brought back together, and the quality of their lives change. Suddenly the introduction seems fitting.
"And what is good, Phaedrus, And what is not good- Need we ask anyone to tell us these thing?" Pirsig did not want to mold our minds. Instead, he showed us the way. He taught his audience how to think and to learn. That was the author's hidden intent all along, and if he were to just come out and say it, it would lose its meaning.
The reader has to tear himself apart to find out what makes him tick. What is the driving force that is the basis for his actions? What does the reader hold important and why? What values should he possess and when should they hold?
Once we do understand ourselves, we can understand our surroundings, and our quality of life increases.