Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Illusion and Reality

I am, at long last, back from my road trip. While I was on the road, I was reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintainence. It's been on my bookshelf since college, but I don't think I had actually read the whole book before. The narrator is on a road trip following a similar path to mine, but in the opposite direction, so it seemed like it would be a good read.

There were three passages in the book that I'd like to explore more here in my blog. The first one is somewhat tangential to the meaning of the book, and my exploration here may leave anyone who's read the book with the impression that I didn't get it. I'm willing to take that chance.

The narrator is talking about the experiences of Phaedrus studying Eastern spirituality in India. This is what happened:
But one day in the classroom, the professor of philosophy was blindly expounding on the illusory nature of the world for what seemed like the fiftieth time and Phaedrus raised his hand and asked coldly if it was believed that the atomic bombs that had been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were illusory. The professor smiled ans said yes. That was the end of the exchange.

Within the traditions of Indian philosophy that answer may have been correct, but for Phaedrus and for anyone else who reads newspapers regularly and is concerned with such things as mass destruction of human beings that answer was hopelessly inadequate. He left the classroom, left India and gave up.

This captures what I think is one of the greatest strengths of the Judeo-Christian tradition, though Christianity flirts with throwing it aside all too often, namely an acceptance and even embrace of reality as we find it, a concern for the world.

Since finishing ZATAOMM, I've started reading Evelyn Underhill's The Spiritual Life, and she stresses this same point. Christian spirituality isn't something separate from the pratical world of everyday life. It's a recognition that the practical world of everyday life is part of the reality of God.

Pirsig never directly picks up this thread of Phaedrus' reaction to the idea of the illusory nature of reality, though it clearly has implication for his later thoughts on the reality of what he calls Quality and equates with the Tao, which I as a Christian would connect with God. Reality, he claims, is created by our experience of Quality.

I don't know enough about Zen Buddhism or other Eastern religions to know what they ultimately do with thing like Hiroshima, but within the realm of Christian spirituality, I find some merit in not just acknowledging the reality of Hiroshima, but in recognizing it as a part of the reality of God and of finding God in my response to that reality.

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