Robert M. Pirsig has written a very interesting encore to Zen
and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance called
Lila; An Inquiry into
Morals in which he outlines his
philosophy called the Metaphysics of
Quality. When I first began this paper, I thought perhaps to contrast
Metaphysics of Quality to zen teachings, especially
in the way Dynamic Quality
is represented as an unknowable something.
The more I thought about it though, the more I realized that I know
nothing at all of zen and have never really studied it, and
besides, I see many others have written about
that connection already...I wanted something new, a different angle.
And while re reading Lila I came across this passage:
Phaedrus thought that this lapse in logic magically fitted
he had started with: that the American personality had two components,
European and Indian...even the language was changing from European
Here there seemed to be an angle that few had explored yet. I
remembered reading about the brujo and searched through
Lila for just what it was I remembered:
If you had asked the brujo what ethical principles he was
following, he probably wouldn't have been able to tell you. He
was just following some vague sense of 'betterment' that he couldn't
have defined even if he wanted to.
This passage had never set right with me the first time I read it,
and it still didn't. Suddenly I saw
Tales of Power
by Carlos Castaneda on my bookself and a
flash of inspiration occurred! Here was
the real brujo Pirsig was talking about!
And not only that, I am very familar with Castaneda's
work, having read most of his books multiple times. This is something
I could write about!
Now I knew why that passage always bothered me...it was an incorrect
assumption on Pirsig's part as to what constitutes a brujo.
The brujo described in Lila was: ...said
to have been peering through a window from outside, and this is a
sure mark of a witch. At any rate, he got drunk one day and boasted
that they could not kill him.
Now I began to wonder if the man described as a Zuni brujo
was merely a sham, a wannabe brujo, who nevertheless was in touch
with something very Dynamic. A more powerful brujo would
revealed himself to be what he was in the first place and of course
would have slipped through the anthropological cracks. Sure enough,
my suspicion was confirmed when I found this passage of Castaneda's:
"No one can sneak up on a brujo, even if he is old",
Benigno said with authority. "They can gang up on him when he's
asleep, though. Thats what happened to a man named Cevias."
Carlos Castaneda first met don Juan in a bus depot where they were
introduced by a mutual aquaintance. Castaneda was interested in
learning about medicinal herbs in the region and intentionally
represented himself as knowing far more about plants than was
Does don Juan explain his 'ethical principles'?
After they had been aquainted for some time, Castaneda writes:
"Who are you, really?," I asked. He seemed surprised. He opened his
eyes to an enormous size and blinked like a bird, closing his eyelids
as if they were a shutter. They came down and went up again and his
eyes remained in focus. His maneuver startled me and I recoiled, and
he laughed with child-like abandon. "For you I am Juan Matus, and I
am at your service..."
"Why are you doing this to me?" I asked. There was no belligerence
in my question. I was only curious as to why it was me in particular.
"You asked me to tell you about plants", he said. I noticed a twinge
of sarcasm in his voice. He sounded like as if he were humoring me.
"But what you have told me so far has nothing to do with plants," I
protested. His reply was that it took time to learn.
"What is wrong
with you when I saw you, and what is wrong with you now, is that
you don't take responsibility for what you do," don Juan said. "When
you were telling me those things in the bus depot you were aware
that they were lies. Why were you lying?" I explained my objective
was to find a 'key informant' for my work. Don Juan smiled and
began humming a Mexican tune.
"When a man decides to do something he must go all the way," he said,
"but he must take responsibility for what he does. No matter what he
does, he must know first why he is doing it, and then he must proceed
with his actions without having doubts or remorse about them." (Journey
to Ixtlan, Pg. 38)
I have looked in vain in Lila for anything resembling the
ethical principles as powerful as these. This IS the morality of the
universe! And so it became increasing
clear to me that what Pirsig uses as an example of a brujo in
and what a brujo really is could be likened to
the difference between
a layperson and a Buddhist master in zen.
There is a powerful point of interaction between these two
philosophies. Castaneda writes:
...[don Juan] explained that every human
being had two
sides, two separate entities, two counterparts which became operative
at the time of birth. one was called the 'tonal' and the other
the 'naugal'...He smiled and winked at me. "I am using your own
words now," he said. "The tonal is the social person...
the tonal is, rightfully so, a protector, a guardian- a
guardian that most of the time turns into a guard...The tonal
is the organizer of the world, perhaps the best way of describing
its monumental work is to say that on its shoulders rests the task
of setting the chaos of the world in order...The tonal is everything
that we are; name it! Anything we have a word for is the tonal."
"The tonal is an island...the tonal is like the top of this
table. There is a personal tonal for each of us, and there
is a collective one for all of us at any given time...
"The nagual on the other hand is the part of us which we do
not deal with at all...the nagual is the part of us for
is no description- no words, no names, no feelings, no knowledge...I
have named the tonal and the nagual as a true pair.
That is all I have done."
Tales of Power Pg. 128
It is clear that don Juan divides reality into what is perceived,
and what is not perceived and never can be, the nagual.
After many months of thinking about it, he [Phaedrus] was left
with a reward
of two terms: Dynamic good and static good, which became the basic
division of his emerging Metaphysics of Quality.
With the identification of static and Dynamic Quality as the
fundamental division of the world, Phaedrus felt that some kind of
goal had been reached...He saw that much can be learned about
Dynamic Quality by studying what it is not rather than
futilely trying to define what it is.
Static quality patterns are dead when they are exclusive, when
they demand blind obedience and suppress Dynamic change. But
static patterns, nevertheless, provide a necessary stabilizing force
to protect Dynamic progress from degeneration. Although Dynamic Quality,
the Quality of freedom, creates this world in which we live, these
patterns of static quality, the quality of order, perserve our world.
Neither static nor Dynamic Quality can survive without the other.
Pirsig says: Dynamic Quality is not structured and yet it is not
chaotic. It is value that cannot be contained by static patterns.
The beauty of that old Indian, Phaedrus thought, is that he seemed
to have understood this.
Pirsig's Dynamic Quality can only be described through analogies.
Its essence is undefinable, for once it is defined, it is no longer
Dynamic Quality, but something else. Castaneda takes a somewhat more
mystical approach to Dynamic Quality, yet there can be no doubt
both authors are describing the same 'thing'.
It is clear that the brujo don Juan is describing an
elementary division of
reality exactly where Pirsig places his division. Different words
are used, tonal in place of static quality and nagual
in place of Dynamic Quality. Yet there is certainly no mistake that
they are both desribing the same underlying Quality and dividing it
between what is experienced and and what is not.
There is a remarkable similarity between
Pirsig' Dynamic Quality
and Castaneda's nagual. Both are equally difficult to get
a handle on and impossible to understand...unobjectifiable in other
I also find it extremely interesting that don Juan calls the tonal
the social person. For those unfamilar with don Juan Matus, he was
a Yaqui Indian who referred to himself as a brujo or a
sorcerer, and he spent
ten years teaching Castaneda his philosophy. Don Juan encouraged
Castaneda's writings even though he himself thought it was a useless
exercise and in fact encouraged him to publish his manuscripts.
Castaneda asks don Juan:
"Are the nagual and the tonal
within ourselves?" and don Juan answers: "Very difficult question...
you yourself would say that they are within ourselves. I myself would
say they are not, but neither of us would be right. The tonal
of your time calls for you to maintain that everything dealing with
your feelings and thoughts take place within yourself. The
sorcerer's tonal says the opposite, everything is outside.
Who's right? No one. Inside, outide, it doesn't really matter."
Tales of Power
There is no doubt that Don Juan is describing the subject/object
decides it doesn't really matter. And Pirsig writes:
"If the world
consists of only patterns of mind and patterns of matter, what is
the relationship between the two? If you read the hundreds of
volumns of philosophy available on this matter you may conclude
that nobody knows...In a value-centered Metaphysics of Quality
the four sets of static patterns are not isolated into separate
compartments of mind and matter. Matter is just a name for
certain inorganic value patterns."
The subject/object split doesn't matter in Pirsig's
Metaphysics of Quality either...what matters
is Quality. In a Quality-centered universe, mind and matter, or
subject and object, lose their significant meaning we have learned to
assign to them.
Don Juan speaks of something he calls "a sorcerer's controlled folly",
Pirsig would seem to use controlled folly when he decides to
write his Metaphysics
of Quality, although he doesn't delve into just what he is doing as
deeply as don Juan:
What made all this so formidable to Phaedrus was that he himself
had insisted in his book that Quality cannot be defined. Yet here he
was about to define it. Was this some kind of sell-out? His mind
went over this many times. A part of it said, "Don't do it. You'll
get into nothing but trouble."
The trouble was, this was only one part of himself talking. There
was another part that kept saying, "Ahh, do it anyway, its interesting."
This was the intellectual part that didn't like undefined things,
and telling it not to define Quality is like telling a fat man to
stay out of the refrigerator, or the alcoholic to stay out of bars.
Pirsig decides that the alternative to writing about Quality is
ultimately a degeneracy into avoidance and decides to write about
Quality simply because to not write about it would be folly. Without
using the words, Pirsig is using 'controlled folly'.
"I wonder if you could tell me more about your controlled folly,"
I said. "What do you want to know about it?" "Please tell me don Juan,
what exactly is controlled folly?" Don Juan laughed loudly and made
a smacking sound by slapping his thigh with the hollow of his hand.
"That is controlled folly!" he said, and laughed and slapped his
"What do you mean...?" "I am happy you have finally asked me about
my controlled folly after so many years and yet it wouldn't have
mattered to me in the least if you had never asked. Yet I have chosen
to feel happy, as if I cared, that you asked, as if it would matter
that I care. That is controlled folly!"
Perhaps its easier to see what Pirsig's motivations were now, and
how his use of controlled folly resulted in his writing Lila.
There is a deep undercurrent of zen-like teachings running through
Castaneda's books. Perhaps this is why the philosophy of don Juan
and Pirsig's Metaphysics of Quality have such striking similarities.
Throughout Castaneda's books, don Juan speaks of
a path with heart which sounds very much like the notion
of arete that Pirsig discusses:
Digging back into ancient Greek history, to the time when this
mythos-to-logos transition was taking place, Phaedrus noticed that
the ancient rhetoricians of Greece, the Sophists, had taught what they
called arete, which was a synonym for Quality.
Castaneda asks don Juan: "But how do you know when a path has no
heart?" don Juan replies, "Before you embark on it, you ask the
question: does this path have heart? If the answer is no, you will
know it, and then you must choose another path."
"But how will I know for sure if a path has heart or not?" I asked.
"Anyone would know that", replied don Juan. "The trouble is nobody
asks the question;
and when a man finally realizes that he has taken a path without
heart, the path is ready to kill him. At that point, very few men
can stop deliberately and leave the path...a path without heart
is never enjoyable. You have to work hard even to take it. On the
other hand, a path with heart is easy; it does not make you
work at liking it."
The Teachings of don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge
Pirsig writes: Good is a noun. That was it. That was what
Phaedrus had been looking for. That was the homer over the fence
that ended the ballgame. Good as a noun rather than an adjective is
all the Metaphysics of Quality is about. Of course, the ultimate
Quality isn't a noun or an adjective, but if you had to reduce
the Metaphysics of Quality to one sentence, that would be it.
Good is a noun. That seems like a path with heart to me.