What are the roots of the endless analogies to Eastern philosophy,

Etc. I don't see this in any other industry? When did this theme start and what kicked it off?

  • 45
    I've always assumed that Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was the influence for naming books this way, but it wouldn't have much to do with the form of the books.
    – user722
    Commented Oct 25, 2018 at 19:05
  • 3
    I as well assumed that it came from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. So +1 to Ross's comment.
    – Ken Gober
    Commented Oct 25, 2018 at 19:17
  • 2
    @lvd I don't see much of a problem. "Hardware, including peripherals and Software, including operating systems and applications are in scope." If software is specifically included, it is not a stretch to include books describing techniques for writing that software. More problematic is the relatively recent date of one of the books. But since the first book is clearly within the "retro" range, answering the question seems appropriate.
    – RichF
    Commented Oct 25, 2018 at 19:58
  • 3
    @lvd Pleeeeeease don't quote that! It's something that I threw together in half an hour (from some answers on Retrocomputing Meta) that literally nobody else has edited since; it's not representative of what actually is or isn't on-topic. Feel free to edit it - no, please edit it!
    – wizzwizz4
    Commented Oct 25, 2018 at 20:06
  • 2
    @wizzwizz4: That's something that should be brought up on meta. There literally isn't anywhere else to look to find out what is on topic, the help page is where everybody looks. Commented Oct 25, 2018 at 20:15

3 Answers 3


As Ross Ridge already mentioned, it's a stream of titles started with Robert Pirsig's book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance of 1974. This book was a rather unique mixture of fiction, autobiography and philosophy focusing on what quality might be, how it's defined and what it means to people.

It was quite influential to the generation that later founded IT development during the 1980s and 1990s. So no wonder that some took the freedom to tie their works with this iconic title.

And no, it's not so much about far eastern philosophy as it seems. Beside being a fiction, it centers around classic, western philosophy.

Somewhat OT:

I don't see this in any other industry?

Oh, don't hold your breath, there are zillions:

Just a few picks from music business and there's more from poker to table football. A great panopticon of writers who wanted to play in the same league as the original. Needless to say, only very few are worth mentioning in the same sentence as Mr. Pirsig.

  • 6
    It was even on the reading list of one of the CS or AI courses I took in the second half of the nineties! Commented Oct 25, 2018 at 20:47
  • 4
    Possibly coming through Danny Hillis's AI koans ftp.informatik.rwth-aachen.de/jargon/html/koans.html and don't forget "Zen and the art of the Macintosh" which popularized it again in 1986. Commented Oct 25, 2018 at 21:53
  • 3
    In Zen and the art of Motorcycle Maintenance, there is a chapter on the Gumption Trap. The Gumpton Trap is relevant to software debugging, and this was realized sometime n the 1970s. Commented Oct 27, 2018 at 2:32
  • 2
    @WalterMitty - the book also describes “Stuckness”, a state that every software developer has experienced
    – scruss
    Commented Oct 26, 2023 at 23:39

Pirsig's title (ZatAMM) is a quote from "Zen in the Art of Archery, by Herrigel, from 1948.

Many programmers, artists, and writers (myself included) find that their best work comes when they are in a state of complete un-self-consciousness, their mind fully engaged with the task. No ego, no id, just a mental model that goes from mind to hand. Surfacing, after hours in that state, is incredibly satisfying, just like meditation.

ZatAMM may well have been the source of the reference specifically for programming. But there was already a pivot to meditative practice, since the 60's, I'd suppose. Many in the west who either dabbled with eastern religion, or independently discovered the pleasure of perfect concentration in the egoless state, made the same association, thus "Zen and {mumble}".

  • 2
    The idea of egoless programming was laid out in a book, The Psychology of Computer Prograsmming, by Gerald Weinberg, in 1971. Commented Jan 22, 2021 at 20:15
  • @WalterMitty Weinberg was focused on ego in the context of pride and status; that code reviewees had to put aside their ego and listen to their peer's criticism with open mind. This is certainly true, but it was not Pirsig's focus, he was more interested in the meditative state where the mind is so absorbed in a task that self disappears, time disappears, the body disappears, except as an adjunct to the tasks, e.g. reading and typing.
    – Taryn
    Commented Mar 6, 2021 at 17:56

On a related note, I clearly remember The Tao of Programming making the rounds on BBS in the late 80's and early 90's. According to Wikipedia, it was written in 1987 as a bit of a spoof. A year later the same author wrote The Zen of Programming.


Thus spake the master programmer:

"Let the programmers be many and the managers few - then all will be productive."

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .