Sunday, November 09, 2008

Suzuki / Pirsig, an Interesting Comparison

Updated 9/10:
D.T. SUZUKI (on the original Mind / Prajna):
"....When we have an experience, for exmaple, of seeing a tree, all that takes place at the time is the percieving of something. We do not know whether this perception belongs to us, nor do we recognize the object which is percieved to be outside ourselves. The cognition of an external object already presupposes the distiction of outside and inside, subject and object, the perceiving and the perceived. When this seperation takes place, and is recognized as such, and clung to, the primary nature of the experience is forgotten, and from this an endless series of entanglements, intellectual and emotional, takes its rise.
The state of no-mind-ness refers to the time prior to the speration of mind and world, when there is yet no mind standing against an external world and receiving its impressions through the various sense-channels. Not only a mind, but a world, has not yet come into existence."

Later Susuki writes:
"Zen is always practical, and lives with the events of daily occurence. The past is gone and the present is here, but this present will also soon be gone, indeed it is gone; time is a succesion of these two contradicting ideas, and everything which takes place in this life of ours bestrides the past and the present. It cannot be said to belong to either of the two, for it cannot be cut in peices."

ROBERT PIRSIG (on Quality):
"...before an object can be distinguished, there must be a kind of nonintellectual awareness, which he [Phaedrus/Pirsig] called awareness of Quality. You can't be aware that you've seen a tree until after you've seen the tree, and between the instant of vision and instant of awareness there must be a time lag. We sometimes think of that time lag as unimportant, But there's no justification for thinking that the time lag is unimportant...none whatsoever.
The past exists only in our memories, the future only in our plans. The present is our only reality. The tree that you are aware of intellectually, because of that small time lag, is always in the past and therefore is always unreal. Any intellectually conceived object is always in the past and therefore unreal. Reality is always the moment of vision before the intellectualization takes place. There is no other reality."

The beauty of Pirsig is, even though the MOQ is simply repackaged Buddhism for the west, it doesn’t come off that way. We could say, Pirsig took the ideas of Buddhism, changed the words around and made millions. He even makes it a point to suggest that, while in India, he didn’t get anything out of the experience as if to down play the impact of eastern philosophy and make a case for his own originality. And clearly, as he references in ZMM a copy of the Tao Te Ching (which he copied himself) he is vary familiar with and fond of the philosophy.
NOTE: In ZMM Pirsig pulls out his copy of the Tao Te Ching, reads it, but replaces “Quality” with “Tao” and it fits all the way through. Pirsig, however, would have you believe this is mere coincidence, that he realized after the fact he was actually talking about the Tao even though (having copied it down) he would have been well aware of it before hand.

While in some sense Pirsig may not be completely original in meaning, he is original in his display. In the west, Buddhism has always had a sort of pop-religious existence, coming in and out of popularity like brand name jeans. Let’s face it, religion is religion (to the west). Pirsig, on the other hand, displays all the depth you typically find in philosophy and spins a tale with such finesse that you can’t help but be trapped in the idea of quality in the end. In other words, Pirsig’s MOQ does the job of not smelling like religion even though it really is. If your philosophy is ultimately ineffable, it’s definitely religion, or in the least mystical.

None the worse for Pirsig though. The first time I read Pirsig (many many moons ago) I had told my wife to pick the book up for me (in this case ZMM). After reading it, I went to pick up Lila so of course went right to the philosophy section; no luck. So, on to the fiction section; no luck again. Turns out it’s in the religion section under Buddhism, which of course, is where it belongs. I'm not sure whether Mr. Pirsig would see this as an insult or not as it's always seemed to me he wants the respect of a great philosopher. But in actuality, he's a theologian.

As an after thought, some time ago I came upon a site,, that’s dedicated to Pirsig’s philosophy (brand of Buddhist thought) and came to find there’s actually an individual (Anthony McWatt) who holds a PhD on the MOQ. Can you get a PhD in the Buddha-nature? Is this good news, or just more western intellectualizing and differentiation on the principles of Zen? And for that matter the undercurrent of every religion. Perhaps our understanding in the west of how we came to hold Dialectic above Excellence needs to be shown? Perhaps we need the intellect to purge out the old forms of Platonic idealism we have, and for this we need the university? Perhaps individuals like Pirsig are the bridge? Perhpas Pirsig's thought (in the west) is much more important then anybody knows? I don’t know? I’ll have to think about it for a while…..

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