Zen and the art of great American road novels

It passes in a flash.
It passes in a flash.
Image: Reuters/Joe Skipper
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At least two classic American novels illuminate Buddhism via the highway. Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance both travel through the US with eastern influences. But Kerouac’s work represents Zen in action and Pirsig’s is more like a guide with Buddhist tips on life tinkering.

In retrospect, each book looks a bit like its writer’s existence. Pirsig died on April 24 at age 88, and his most famous work, like his life, was longish and laborious—essentially an instruction manual released in 1974 and read continually to this day. It is a practical but gloomy two-wheeled sequel to Kerouac’s short, poetic burst, On the Road, published in 1957.

Kerouac wasn’t trained monastically but he did study and apply Buddhism to his writing. He didn’t write about Zen so much as he wrote Zen. Like a master calligrapher or archer, Kerouac executed the novel in a single, certain swoop, one shot timed just right. It was poetic prose, a new style that was slightly jarring and perspective-shifting. It was feverish, energetic and short-lived, like its writer—On the Road was scribbled in three weeks on one scroll in 1951 when Kerouac was 29; he died 18 years later, before turning 50.

He wrote:

In no time at all we were back on the main highway and that night I saw the entire state of Nebraska unroll before my eyes. A hundred and ten miles an hour straight through an arrow road, sleeping towns, no traffic, and the Union Pacific Steamliner falling behind us in the moonlight. I wasn’t frightened at all that night…It was a magnificent car; it could hold the road like a boat holds water.

Kerouac’s novel about wandering cross-country in a car with friends, the dharma bums who’d become international literary icons, works abstractly. It’s not explicitly instructive; it’s more of a stylish flash, an example of a Zen expression, rather than a manual on Buddhism in western life, like Pirsig’s writing. Zen, on the other hand, is more professorial; slower and steadier, in for the long haul:

I can see by my watch, without taking my hand from the left grip of the cycle, that it is 8:30 in the morning. The wind, even at 60 miles an hour, is warm and humid. When it’s this hot and muggy at 8:30, I’m wondering what it’s going to be like in the afternoon.

Though not exactly a master stylist, Pirsig was formally instructed in Zen, and his work had substance. He led his son Chris, and readers, along a philosophical journey in the guise of a ride on a motorcycle that needed constant maintenance. On the way we learned the sorts of lessons a Zen master conveys to aspirants: the need for patience, preparation, and flexibility; the ability to adapt to the ever-changing conditions of the road and existence.

Pirsig’s motorcycle tinkering teaches how to deal with the sort of long life that most of his readers (and he himself) are bound to live. In his world, some problems can be averted with advance care and the right tools and attitude, but emergencies can’t be eliminated. Readers of Zen learn to keep calm as things fall apart, consoled by the fact that the stuff needed to keep it all together is freely available.

Pirsig emphasized persistence and perspective, and the postscript to his book proved his point: in an afterword stuck in after the book had become an international best-seller, the writer revealed it was rejected 122 times before publication. This is perhaps the most poignant lesson in Zen: the road is unknowable for everyone and always unfurling underneath us. It looks different depending where you stand, and the traveler looking back will always tell a different tale than he would while wandering, as Pirsig showed in his postscript. At the end of Zen, he’s eating apples alone in a rented room wondering what the future will bring. Just a few pages (and many years and rejections later) he’s an international literary success.

Kerouac’s story is ultimately not as neat. Like Pirsig, he at first had trouble finding a publisher for his first-person road-trip novel, and later became a major success. His writing is still considered stylistically innovative and important. But he died young, from complications due to liver damage caused by his drinking. A dharma bum through and through, and not in a good way.

You just never know. The Zen approach is to comfortably occupy not-knowing. Pirsig’s story, not as wild or stylish a journey as Kerouac’s, provided instruction on doing that.