Sep 062013


Today is the birthday (1928) of Robert Maynard Pirsig, U.S. writer and philosopher, and the author of the philosophical novels Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values (1974) and Lila: An Inquiry into Morals (1991). In these books he introduces a theory of reality, the Metaphysics of Quality, that incorporates facets of East Asian philosophy, Pragmatism, the work of F. S. C. Northrop, and Native American beliefs. Pirsig argues that his Metaphysics of Quality is a better lens through which to view reality than the traditional dualism of the West which divides knowledge into the objective and subjective. His musings have had considerable influence on my own research and teaching.

The Metaphysics of Quality originated with Pirsig’s college studies as a biochemistry student at the University of Minnesota. In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance he notes that as he studied, he found that the number of rational hypotheses for any given phenomenon appeared to be unlimited. It seemed to him that this fact should seriously undermine the validity of the scientific method. His studies began to suffer as he pondered the question, and eventually he was expelled from the university.

After spending some time in Korea as a soldier, Pirsig concluded that Oriental philosophy was a better place to search for ultimate answers to the question of the nature of reality than western science or philosophy. On his return home from Korea, he read F. S. C. Northrop’s book The Meeting of East and West which related Western culture to the culture of East Asia in a systematic way. In 1950, Pirsig continued his philosophical studies at Banaras Hindu University, where he came across the Sanskrit doctrine of Tat tvam asi – in his words, “Thou art that, which asserts that everything you think you are (Subjective), and everything you think you perceive (Objective), are undivided. To fully realize this lack of division is to become enlightened.”


In the late 1950s, Pirsig taught rhetoric at Montana State University and, with the encouragement of an older colleague, decided to explore the concept of “Quality.” He made this quest the central topic of discussion in several of his classes. This joint exploration, coupled with a Native American Church peyote ceremony he attended with an anthropologist friend, James Verne Dusenberry, led Pirsig into what he called “a mushroom cloud of thought.” For me this fairly sums up Pirsig’s “method” such as it is. He explores abstract concepts from all manner of angles creating a dense cloud of meaning to muddle around in.

Pirsig suffered a mental breakdown in 1961 and spent time in and out of psychiatric hospitals for two years. He was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and clinical depression, and was treated with electroconvulsive therapy on numerous occasions. He discusses the process and its effects (one of them being severe memory loss with flashbacks) at length in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.


Pirsig’s philosophy is a bit too densely packed to go into in a post of this sort.  Instead I present a series of quotes, taken from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance which are both thought provoking and inspiring. I am not convinced that many of the components of Pirsig’s philosophy are especially original, and in places I do not always follow his train of thought (if there is one), especially in Lila. I think of these quotes as little nuggets to initiate reflection:


“The past cannot remember the past. The future cannot generate the future. The cutting edge of this instant right here and now is always nothing less than the totality of everything there is.”

“You are never dedicated to something you have complete confidence in. No one is fanatically shouting that the sun is going to rise tomorrow. They know it’s going to rise tomorrow. When people are fanatically dedicated to political or religious faiths or any other kinds of dogmas or goals, it’s always because these dogmas or goals are in doubt.”

“If someone’s ungrateful and you tell him he’s ungrateful, okay, you’ve called him a name. You haven’t solved anything.”

“The only Zen you find on tops of mountains is the Zen you bring there.”

“To live only for some future goal is shallow. It’s the sides of the mountain that sustain life, not the top.”

“Is it hard?  Not if you have the right attitudes. Its having the right attitudes that’s hard.”

“(What makes this world so hard to see clearly is not its strangeness but its usualness).Familiarity can blind you too.”

I like to treat Pirsig’s sayings of this sort like zen koans that challenge us to move outside the logic of rational thought. I find that getting lost in such contemplations rarely resolves anything for me, but the journey is worth the effort. I’d say that’s true of Pirsig’s work as a whole for me: a trip inside mind and soul that provokes, stimulates, and alters one’s being.

It would be a tad pitiful at this point to simply find a nice zen recipe to go with this day’s celebration given the nature of what we are celebrating.  So instead I am going to give you my reflections on cooking as a zen art. Maybe it will inspire you to create a recipe of your own. Think of this as my “mushroom cloud.” If you don’t want to read this I’d suggest making a nice omelet of mixed mushrooms. Or, you can follow my pictures for braised duck with fig glaze.

Zen and the Art of Cooking

In thinking about Pirsig and zen in relation to cooking, I realize that the zen goal to “be one with everything” applies to what I do (at least in a small way), and I would like to try to explain what I mean by that. Words will fail me, as well they should; they are blunt instruments in this endeavor.  When I cook I am completely absorbed by the process to the exclusion of everything around me.  For years I could not tolerate having anyone near me when I cooked because it broke that mood of “oneness with the process.” I’ve softened a bit over the years, but not much. As it happens, I live alone now and I cook alone.  Here is a typical day of cooking for me.

The process begins soon after I wake. I rise early by many people’s standards – 4:30 to 5 am – and begin the day in contemplation of a variety of things. Included are such things as, Am I hungry? If so, what am I hungry for? Am I thirsty? How much energy do I have?  What is the weather like? . . . and so on. It’s not really as conscious or as obvious as I am making out, of course. The question “what am I hungry for?” is a critical one. It’s not just a question of what I fancy; it’s more like asking “what does my physical system want right now?” Many people (most?) follow patterns without stopping to think what their physical systems want. Some people eat because it is dinner time, not because they are hungry; some people eat eggs for breakfast because eggs are “breakfast food;” some people eat everything that is on their plate because it’s there; some people grab the first thing they can find when they are hungry.  I can’t do that. If I don’t eat what my physical system wants I’ll continue to be hungry.  Years ago I learnt it was much better to get it right the first time. Eating mindlessly is a great waste.

Being retired with no family I have the great luxury of eating what I want, when I want, and in the quantities I want. I am liberated from conventional routines.  But even people who have to be on the 7:20 Monday to Friday can break some of the chains.  Breakfast can be whatever you want it to be. Curry for breakfast is fine with me if that’s what I want. Figuring out what I want, rather than grabbing the first thing that is to hand, is vital to my wellbeing. I’m pretty good at it now.


After breakfast I take a walk to one or more of the markets in my neighborhood.  Fortunately Buenos Aires is an old fashioned city when it comes to food shopping.  Within a three block radius of my apartment I have a classic butcher, three fruit and vegetable markets, a mini-market, and a supermarket. Slightly farther afield I have a fresh fish market, and a bulk whole foods store. There is no point in me deciding ahead of time what I want to cook, except in the most general sense (sweet, savory, protein, veggies . . .).  This is because, unlike stores in other parts of the world where you can get more or less what you want at any time of year, in Argentina you can only get what is seasonal and for the most part it is produced within Argentina.  You can hanker for spinach or strawberries all you want, but if they are not in season you are out of luck.


Eating seasonally, and eating locally produced foods has always been important to me.  It’s essential for the sense of being at one with the world around me.  That’s why travel is also so important to me.  It’s more than just nostalgia that makes me think lovingly of the bowl of tripes à la mode de Caen I had in Caen, the steamed spiny lobster I had on Easter Island, or the sashimi I had at a counter in Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market. Some foods I could eat all year round but would not dream of it.  English pancakes with lemon and sugar are for Shrove Tuesday (Mardi Gras) only. To eat them on any other day would be sacrilege.


On my walk to the markets I make a decision as to where I want to shop for ingredients based on what I am in the mood for. Usually I will need to make at least two stops.  The first issue is the centerpiece, then I work from there. The decision is based on what I see that meshes with what I am in the mood for.  There’s no telling until I look around and something clicks. It might be a bunch of leeks or a leg of lamb.  Once I have the centerpiece I then cast around for the ingredients to complement it, bearing in mind the current limitations of my kitchen.  I move a fair bit, and my kitchens vary.  Right now I have two burners, a microwave, and a few pots.  I can do a lot more than you might think with so little, but I have to be creative. For me this challenge is an important part of the game.


When I am ready to cook I have a general idea of what I want to do. I NEVER use recipes for main courses. I read cookbooks and recipes all the time, but not when I am cooking.  Reading them is much like reading a series of short stories: a diversion for idle moments. Techniques, ingredient combinations, unusual flavorings, and so forth, all go into memory.  By the time I am ready to cook, memory, experience, utensils, and ingredients all come together.  I really can’t tell you how it all works. My point is that it is the opposite of a mechanical process. It is simply organic. I can’t ever recreate my dishes in exactly the same way twice. I heat a pot or skillet and get to work with what I have.  The most important aspect of this process for me is my interaction with the dish as it develops.  The question “what else does it need?” is my main guide.  This is the moment of alchemy. I find it helps simply to be open to the possibility of a new ingredient or a switch in cooking technique.  It’s rare, for example, for me to find ingredients that cannot go together somehow. Powdered cloves and sautéed lambs’ kidneys are wonderful, freshly ground pepper can go with a surprising number of poached fruit.  More often than not I start with olive oil heating in a skillet and go from there, adding ingredients as I see fit. I taste and change, and taste and change.  The dish is finished when I feel that it is.


There’s more, obviously, but this is my nuts and bolts description of my process which can be summed up in these principles of zen cooking:

• know yourself
• know your skills
• know your ingredients
• know your kitchen
• know your methods