'When you live in the shadow of insanity, the appearance of another mind that thinks and talks as yours does is something close to a blessed event. Like Robinson Crusoe's footprints on the sand
— Robert M. Persig
ONE OF the most remarkable books of the last decade is 'Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance' by Robert M. Persig. It is about his experiences and reflections on a long motorcycle ride over America's Western plains and mountains with his young son, Chris. Although he denies that it is not about Zen and the art of Mountain climbing; ('there are no motorcycles on the tops of mountains, and in my opinion very little Zen',) the fact is that he brought as much Zen with him up the mountains as he carried in the plains. 'Zen is the spirit of the valley not the mountain top. The only Zen you find on the tops of the mountains is the Zen you bring up there.' Precisely mountaineers spend most of their time in the valleys, and on the way to the top. So there is ample time to bring up more than equipment, and some at least may have a touch of the daftness of Zen.
This article is for those who, Robinson Crusoe-like, may find a blessed event when they meet the appearance of another mind, which speaks as theirs does. (Those who climb primarily for the 'gloire' of height above sea-level, another 'eight-thousander' of the blurb 'bagged peaks' and photographs of themselves and their national flags on summits, may stop reading right here. This is for dafter ones with other ideas.) It is meant to be a commentary and an interpretation of Persig's story. At one level, Persig is like anyone else, a motorcycle rider absorbed in his machine; a father travelling with his son and friends observing Nature's physical phenomena of plain and mountain. At another, he is Phaedras, the teacher, the philosopher, for whom motorcycle, mountain, and plain are more than physical phenomena; they are mental phenomena, objects reflected in the waters of the mind. He is then absorbed in ways of looking at things. The objective is turned on the subjective, and is then concerned with the 'Quality' of things and minds. So Persig travels like most of us, but thinks deeper as Phaedras in a duel role with a Zen mind through the 'mountains of the spirit'.
Many may not know that what began as 'Gyan' (higher knowr ledge or awareness) in the sub-Himalayan region two arid a. half millenia ago with the Buddha/became 'Chan* in China, and '2Jen' when it reached Japan. Now Zen has gone around the worlcl, and one wonders how far it may have affected the mountaineering community. There's sanity, and sense in it, and a corrective to brash mountain madness.
Persig and his son, Chris are riding a steep road up the Rockies at a hi£h altitude in very cold weather. The road rises among the pines. Tne rocks are dark and volcanic. Later they climbed on foot. Chris was too young for rope and piton, but not too young to ask relevant questions. Then Chris asks the eternal question: 'Dad? Why are we doing this?' 'What?' 'Just riding all the time.'
'Just to see the country. Vacation.'
The answer doesn't seem to satisfy him. But he can't seem to say what's wrong with it. It's right on the surface, but even a child can sense something deeper missing.
So it is with the question, Why climb, and all the articulated answers to it, including Mallbry's much worn one about Everest, j 'Because it's there'. Then, in 1953, when Everest was climbed, i Shipton thought, 'Now we can get on with mountaineering.' What he meant was obvious. The unarticulated seemed clearer than the articulated, either by Persig or by Shipton. It had something to do < With the quality of the relationship between Men and Mountains. To that extent, it partook of Zeri. The mountains of the spirit are no less real than physical mountains, and the meeting of the two makes that special mountain experience.
But what has been that experience since $hipton spoke in 1953? Many national expeditions to high mountains seemed to have been adventures of chauvinism and personal ambition with juvenile flag-sticking. Nationalism has trespassed beyond its legitimate sphere of the political, and, in the process lost both the purpose i of the early founders of the sport and the limitlessness of the new space age. Chauvinism is like a rbaring animal trapped in a cage of its own making. Latter-day Blimps, if only they could see themselves as such. The less said about many international ones the better. In one, a colleague was left suspended on the rope to freeze ; to death. In another there was more wrangling than climbing. The mountains of the spirit were far away. And as for the pursuit of the last Eight Thousanders, no Mosaic tablets oame down from their summits. 'Heaven above' fades from meaning when space-age consciousness asks, Where is 'above'?
Is there something meaningful* missing at the roof, in the very i process of mountain training? Technical training is very important, in fact, indispensable for safety, and for progress on tough pitches when liands and feet are insufficfent. But can we go beyond super-ficials and externals? We see examples of rock training without an understanding of the nature and history of rocks. We see a speedy dashing to and beyond the snow-line, without much appreciation of wild flowers, landscapes, and the lives of mountain people So intent are we on the publicity criteria of external success, we even fail to see what mountaineers, tourists and others are doing to damage the ecological health of mountains, their life-support systems. In this context Persig writes: 'Grades really cover up failure to teach. A bad instructor can go through an entire quarter leaving absolutely nothing memorable in the minds of his class. But if the grades are removed, the class is forced to wonder each day what is it really learning. What's being taught? What is the goal? . . . The removal of grades exposes a huge and frightening vacuum. And that is the vacuum of what Persig calls Quality, of which more later.
It leads straight to the most important question, how mountains should be climbed. In the Himalaya, we have come a long way from Abruzzi's and Younghusband's lumbering baggage trains rightly called expeditions; from the siege tactics of the Germans on Nanga Parbat and Kangchenjunga; from the military plans of Hunt on Everest; to the lone summiters like Hermann Buhl and Reinhold Messner. And now 'to Alpine it', as Doug Scott said before he went out to tackle K2 in Alpine style. 'No oxygen, no porters, no succession of camps: just a pair of blokes with a couple of ropes . . . moving fast up the mountain, making bivouacs at night and getting down again fast, before hitting any weather trouble.' It is less tedious, cheaper, and is the least disturbance to the mountain. Man is then closer to his mountain experience.
Persig, no high Alpinist, has some pertinent things to say about the all-important how. He says mountains should be climbed 'with as little effort as possible and without desire*. We are all up in arms at that shocker. But hold it, and get the spirit of it, not its literal meaning. Consider this profound injunction: 'The reality of your own nature should determine your speed. You climb the mountain in an equilibrium between restlessness and exhaustion. Then, when you are no longer thinking ahead, each footstep isn't just a means to an end, but a unique event in itself. This leaf has a certain quality; that rock spire is fascinating, the cloud above is a messenger of weather. He goes on: 'It's the sides of the mountain which sustain life, not the top.' 'Whether you climb for scenery, as Douglas Freshfield did; or science, as de Saussure and Finch did; the sides of the mountain are more important than the top. We forget the climbing is there.'
At one stage young Chris was tired, stumbling, angry. Persig thought some blame for it could be put on the YMCA camp (cf. mountain schools). 'From what he told me they made a big ego thing out of the outdoor experience. A proof-of-manhood thing . . . rather disgraceful . . . Then lie was allowed to prove himself.' And we all know what sort of chaps they are who go through life having something to prove to themselves and to others. Persig: 'Any effort which has self glorification as its final end point is bound to end in disaster. Now we are paying the price. When you climb a mountain to prove how big you are, you almost never make it. And even if you do it's a hollow victory.' Words like victory and conquest were dropped by that mountaineer par excellence, Mallory so long ago spell bound before Everest: 'What have we come to conquer? Only ourselves.' But the ego climbers persist in assaults and conquests and the inappropriate pargon of military minds. But where the hell is the enemy?
Then he describes the difference between ego-climbing and selfless climbing, not often apparent 'to the untrained eye Both kinds of climbers put one foot before the other, both breathe harder the higher they go. Both stop when tired. And go forward when rested. But there is a difference. 'The ego climber is like an instrument which is out of adjustment.' His speed is not in that 'equilibrium'. He's forever talking about somewhere else, something else. He's here, but he's not here, . . . wants to be further up the trail, but when he gets there will be just as unhappy because then it will be 'here'. Every step's an effort, both physically and spiritually, because he imagines his goal to be external and distant . . . That seems to be Chris's problem now, 'The ego-climber has the double problem of doing things and protecting his image. He lives in the present, is bent on a future goal, and does not know how to make the most of the present. 'The past exists only in memories, the future in our plans,' We are reminded. The present is the living moment, for endeavour, for companionship, for enjoyment.
Perhaps, at this stage, it may be necessary to introduce Persig's speculations about that desirable, indefinable, and elusive concept, Quality, as seen through his Zen eyes. The underlying thing we have been implying all this while. As a teacher of composition, Persig found that, although the idea was hard to define, Tiis students could recognize quality when they saw it.
So one may say it is a recognizable way of seeing and experiencing things which appear to be good and satisfying. But how to get it? One can single out aspects of Quality — authenticity, sincerity, unity, simplicity, beauty, efficiency, clarity, economy, precision, depth, and so on. But there seemed to be no principle, no theory to it. Those who could find it found it was a beautiful whole. 'It was that mysterious, individual, internal goal of each creative person;' on mountains as anywhere else. Mountains may help in the appreciation and integration of that whole in a deep closeness with nature and the elemental. When that closeness with great shapes in the vast silences is felt, Quality is achieved.
Quality, Persig (i.e. Phaedras) found was not classic, nor romantic; not objective, nor subjective. It is not just an object out there, nor just an impression in the mind. 'It is a third entity which is independent of the two.' And that seemed to break new ground.
A climber seems to live in two intense worlds, the objective one of the physical, technical, and weather problems of the climb; and the subjective one of his whole emotional experience. Yet that duality is only a post-facto expression. The reality of experience at the time is one, fused, whole, interacting, with no clear boundaries. The resolution of the apparent duality is through action, through living that life to the full.
Persig's third entity seems anticipated in that most emphatic poet, D. H. Lawrence's 'The Third Thing*.
'Water is H20, hydrogen two parts, oxygen one,
but there is also a third thing, that makes it water
and nobody knows what that is.
The atom locks up two energies
but it is a third thing present which makes it an atom.'
Meanwhile, Persig and Chris keep climbing towards the top leaving the under-brush behind. Chris shouts 'When are we going to the top?'
'Probably quite a way yet/ his father replies.
'Will we see a lot?'
'I think so. Look for blue skies between the trees.'
The forest silence improves their earlier tempers.
Phaedras continues: Quality is not a thing. It is an event. 'Quality is the event at which awareness of both subjects and objects is made possible;' object's creation of subject's awareness.
Here was a culmination of thought.
'Blue skies!' shouts Chris in joy. There it is way above them, a narrow pitch of blue. They move faster. When the summit is about fifty yards away, Persig says, 'Let's go,' and they make a dash for it. He gives it all he's got, but he's weighed down with his own load, and Chris's. Chris overtakes him, giggling. He makes it first.
He raises his arms and shouts, 'Winner!'
'Egoist' thinks Persig.
But those last moments were good for both. Quality is also a response to the environment. 'To discover a metaphysical relationship of Quality and the Buddha at some mountaintop of personal experience is very spectacular. What is important is the relevance of such a discovery to all the valleys of this world, and all the dull dreary jobs and monotonous years that await all of us in them.' When they saw tourists and others in lower places, it seemed like a 'funeral procession'. Moving rows of dull, weary faces behind steering wheels, endless miles of them. The task now, the author says, is to get back to that procession with a wider kind of understanding than exists there now.
Then there are the problems of going down. It is steep and precarious with rock-slides, Chris is reluctant and peevish. 'Those damn heights get eerie after a while. I want to go down; far, far down.' This is the denoument of the mountain experience. What 'wider kind of understanding' do we take down into that other world when the silences are left behind? When, later, one recollects in tranquillity, one finds with Persig, romantic reality is 'the cutting edge of experience'; if we have known it up there or down here.
'Gumption' may be associated with mountain climbing. Persig likes the word and associates it with someone who connects with Quality. It is a homely word. Its ingredient is enthusiasm, the Greek 'enthousiasmos', which means, literally, 'filled with theos' or God or Quality. A person filled with gumption does not sit around dissipating. He's out there 'at the front of the train of his own awareness', watching what's up the track and meeting it when it comes. The gumption-filling process occurs 'when one is quiet long enough to see and hear and feel the whole universe, not just one's own stale opinions about it.' It is a quiet welling up of the spirit. The stuff that went into Chariots of Fire.
He catalogues the 'gumption traps' he has learnt from experience; some are external, for example, those in maintaining a motor cycle in good running order; and others — equally important, even to mountaineers — internal ones.
The first internal trap is of the ego. The higher the ego — self-evaluation — the lower the ability to recognize new facts, whether on a machine gone wrong or a mountain going badly. The more the ego, the more those 'stale opinions' of oneself and one's situation. Consider a pig-headed leader of an expedition, or an ego-centric summiter; or the Chairman of an expedition-promotion committee who, sitting in a distant city, sets himself up against the leader of an expedition on the spot, as the one primarily responsible for the lives of men on a mountain with unreliable equipment. — None of these is fictitious. 'There's no way to bullshit your way into looking good', writes Persig; nor looking authoritative with real, recognizable authority. Even the machine responds to one's personality, a personality which genuinely sees one's responsibility and reasons and acts; 'rather than any false blown-up personality images your ego can conjure up.'
Anxiety and impatience are Persig's next gumption traps. You are not sure of yourself, you fuss, you can't delegate. You fix things which don't need fixing, you chase imaginary worries. You lose peace of mind, the ultimate objective of a climb or of life. That 'peace produces right values, right values produce right thoughts. Right thoughts produce right actions, and right actions produce work which will be a material reflection for others of the serenity at the centre of it all'. Mallory and Haston seemed to climb that way, because they seemed right inside themselves; an inner senerity going with an outer competence. Such Zen for leadership, especially. The best answers for anxiety, impatience and its consequences, is to get the realistic measure of the problem; to ask oneself am I solving a problem, or am I becoming a part of it. That leads to the right mix of detachment and application.
30. Pauhunri, North Sikkim. Note 2
31. Koa Rong. Note 12 Photo: Lipika Ghosh
32. The west face of Kailash from Mani Mahashlake. Note 13 Photo : Dhiren Toolsidas
The next for Persig is a truth trap, those truths that don't lend themselves to simple yes, no, this, that answers. The world is not dualistic and certain, it is pluralistic and uncertain; as are climbers poised at a base camp, or the weather on a mountain. A bunch of climbers are usually a mixed bag of excellent, good, or average material. Choices have to be made under stress between the 'innards' and capabilities of such men, and a range of unforeseeable weather conditions, even when the technicalities of a climb are fairly well known. |5o when there are no clear yes or no answers, 'unmask the question' in a wider context. It's what Buddhists call the 'Mu' answer. When the Zen monk Joshu was asked whether a dog had a Buddha nature, he said 'Mu', meaning if he answered either way he was answering incorrectly. A significant 'Mu' aspect of high mountains is what happens on the mountain itself to the well-laid plans of leaders in the planning stage; and how they adopt to change with equilibrium and gumption.
The last of Persig's gumption traps are inadequate tools, and a lack of feel for the tools, which 'comes from a deep inner Kinesthetic feeling for the elasticity of materials.' In a climbing context the choice of reliable and good 'tools' is vital. Any mechanic knows a good second-hand tool is better than an unreliable new one. Irvine, who called himself an oxygen mechanic, displayed that 'Kinesthetic feel' for his materials with primitive, faulty equipment on Everest, 1924, and performed superbly. Nothing is so demoralising, especially in high or remote places, as 'a tool hang-up'; the torment of a boot, the perversity of a stove, the freezing up of an oxygen mask. That 'Kinesthetic feel' is as important with people and situations, as with tools. Intuition, if you will. Something beyond rationality, and the irritations of its failure.
One may ask, 'Well, if I get around all these gumption traps, then will I have the thing licked?' Persig's answer is 'No, you've got to live right too'. If you haven't got yourself right, nothing will be right. Again, witness Mallory and Haston. 'The real cycle you are working on is yourself. The machine (or mountain) that appears to be "out there", and the person who appears to be "in here" are not two separate things. They grow toward Quality or fall away from Quality together.'
Persig informs us that the Greek word 'arete' means excellence, not only a sharp ridge on a mountain. 'Arete implies a respect for the wholeness or oneness of life', and an all-roundness, not narrow specialization or narrow aims. So for him it leads to Quality, Dharma. It's all in the mind, those right attitudes, not just 'out there' external to us. Start from 'one's -own heart and head and hands and work outward'. At the end of the day, the stress of the cliff or the serenity of the cave, it's what we make of it 'in there', when we look back on the travail of our days.
If it does not click down here, try reading this up there. The mountains of the spirit may be more alive in high places where air and mind are clearer; where the cutting edge of experience is sharper.
The Dharma of Persig's Zen Quality must surely be the highest «nd of mountain climbing.