The 4th Humour
uninfluential words from an uninfluenced man
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Sunday, November 23, 2003
The Tao of Quality

I recently stumbled upon an old Hindu proverb:

There is nothing noble in being superior to some other person. The true nobility is in being superior to your previous self.

In other words, forget about cooperation and competition and pride and honor, and simply improve the Quality of your works. The rest will take care of itself.

This reminded me of my recent blog entries, so I flipped through my old copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig. I'd forgotten how dead on this book is (well, aside from the title, since the author admits the book isn't very factual on either Zen or motorcycles). In it, the narrator (through Phaedrus) tries to define quality and finds it impossible, which is strange; if you remove quality from the world, the world changes, so it must exist. Nobody can say what it is, and yet everyone knows what it is. It suddenly strikes him to substitute the word "quality" for "Tao" in the Tae Te Ching by Lao Tzu, resulting in an enlightenment experience. Here are a few sample lines:

The quality that can be defined is not the Absolute Quality.
The names that can be given it are not absolute names.
Quality [romantic Quality] and its manifestations [classic Quality] are in their nature the same. It is given different names [subjects and objects] when it becomes clasically manifest.

The third line is what struck me as Zen-like. Subject and object. "I" and "not-I". Quality is best achieved when subject and object do not exist--when one is in the Zone.

So I've basically arrived where people arrived millennia ago. That's okay. I guess I had to do it the hard way, as even Phaedrus did. However, if this Quality meme has existed for so long in different cultures, why is it so absent or warped in today's society? Has the constant attempt to define Quality in terms of, say, profit margins or school grades degenerated its worth, made it a weaker manifestation of the Absolute Quality? Sure. Is Quality wrongly being combined with defection and pride to distort its value? Quite definitely.

In an interview I read with Pirsig, he mentions the site as a good forum site with people who actually understand his writings. In fact, it seems the 70-year old author participates on it. I checked it out briefly, and it looks like there's some good stuff. My first read will be on the Economics of Want and Greed, which I'm hoping will jive with my (as-of-yet-mentioned) theses on economy.

Oh, by the way, it seems Pirsig has my shut up meme. When asked why he hasn't written in the past couple decades, he responds by saying that since he has nothing to say, he doesn't write; a virtue of Zen is that it encourages silence. It seems he once had the same "shut up" dream that I do, as taken from the book:

The thought of [removing Quality from the world] completely thrilled him. It was like discovering a cancer cure. No more explanations of what art is. No more wonderful critical schools of experts to determine rationally where each composer had succeeded or failed. All of them, every last one of those know-it-alls, would finally have to shut up. This was no longer just an interesting idea. This was a dream.

(emphasis mine) I'd like to point out, however, that he wasn't actually advocating removing Quality from the world, as it would then become a rather boring place. My counterargument to that, however, is that that would be just fine, because an enlightened person doesn't need an exciting world to be happy.

I apologize for the lack of Quality in this entry.