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Car Zen: the art of mechanical meditation


If a mint-condition, 1958 Silver Cloud Rolls Royce cruising down a Rochester street isn't enough to turn your head, then its license plate --- "One Zen" --- is going to grab your attention. The car's owner, Doug Seibert, is a retired heating and air-conditioning contractor who started repairing bicycles as a kid and now spends his time restoring classic Rolls and Bentleys for himself and other collectors. His 1958 Silver Cloud has won more prizes from the Rolls Royce Owners' Club than any other Silver Cloud in the world.

            Seibert's also a practicing Zen Buddhist who believes in spreading the dharma while driving. City Newspaper sat with Seibert to talk about the connection between his meditation and mechanical abilities.

City: Do you remember the first time you saw a Rolls or a Bentley?

            Seibert: Probably the first time I was aware of one, I was watching TV. They had a Bentley convertible on. I was 11 or 12 years old.

            City: What'd you think?

            Seibert: This is the car I want.

            City: Why?

            Seibert: Because of the body lines. It seemed stylish, fast, powerful.

            City: Why are you drawn to working on cars?

            Seibert: I have a knack for it. I used to repair bicycles that were thrown out, or I'd buy very inexpensively and fix them up a little bit, paint them. I was always interested in mechanical gadgetry of different sorts. The more complex, the better I liked it. I guess the Rolls Royce cars are the most complex cars there are. I had a '58 Chevrolet for a while, and in the parts book it shows about 33,000 pieces. In the '58 Rolls Royce, there are about 88,000 pieces.

            When I was a young kid, I was interested primarily in the Ford cars; those were what kids would soup up or make a hotrod out of. I'd only seen a few Rolls Royce cars. It wasn't something that was in my neighborhood, but I'd always heard about them, that they were the best car in the world and they went these huge amounts of mileage without a breakdown. It just seemed fascinating that they were somewhat different than American cars.

City: Where do you get your satisfaction --- working on the car or seeing the end product?

            Seibert: I really think the most satisfaction is from the work, the hands-on part. Tradespeople think they can make good money doing whatever they're doing, but deep down the thing that drives them is the doing it. People can go wrong because as more customers seek them out, they get distracted, have to hire people; they lose touch with the work. They forget they're craftsmen, not businessmen.

            City: What's the pleasure of working on a car?

            Seibert: Knowing that it came in with some sort of ailment and being able to diagnose the ailment and fix it and have it go away running smooth and quiet. From the Buddhist perspective, we've got walking meditation and dishwashing meditation and gardening meditation. Rolls Royce repair is like Rolls Royce meditation.

            When you have the components apart and on the bench and hundreds of little roller bearings and needles and washers and adjusting pieces and tiny springs and you're trying to put the whole thing together, it's just 100 percent total focus, no sense of time. All of a sudden, the bell rings or something and you think you've been monkeying around for five minutes and you glance at the clock and it's three hours. No sense of time at all. There's just a total immersion in the task. Oftentimes, when it's complex, I actually take the phone off the hook, lock the door, just have total focus. Sometimes you miss lunch, don't realize it's lunchtime until you feel hungry.

City: Your car has a license plate, "One Zen." What's that mean?

            Seibert: I debated hard whether to get it or not, because I anticipated it being a little controversial. Some might like it, some might find it offensive, but it certainly stimulates conversation. People ask me, "What's that mean?" It gives me an opportunity to explain a little bit what Zen is.

            City: Most people think of Buddhists as poor monks, yet you're working on cars that may cost more than $100,000.

            Seibert: Some people who are practicing are doing it in a monastic manner and some are not. I guess what we're practicing in the West here is kind of an engaged Buddhism. Many of us are married, have wives, kids, mortgage payments, all the things that everybody else is involved in. We're more like our neighbors than unlike them. I haven't fully resolved the issue in my mind, I guess. The other car I have has a plate that says "1 Buddha 1" and that certainly stimulates conversation.

            City: You enter competitions with your car that are really demanding; every last item has to be exactly right, in mint condition; it's a tremendous amount of work. Why do it?

            Seibert: Personally, I was competitive, desirous of winning. But I haven't shown in a few years. Part of it is preserving the car. As Buddhists, we know that nothing lasts forever, but we try to preserve the car, the history. There's no cash involved, just a plaque and a chiseled name on some award at the Rolls Royce Owners' Club headquarters.

            Why does someone restore a piece of furniture? A painting? It's for future generations. Or maybe I ain't got no sense at all. It's difficult to understand why. Out of 8,500 members, only a few hundred compete. Most aren't into that high degree of perfection.

            City: Do you think people who do this type of restoration are looking for a type of perfection they can't find in everyday life?

            Seibert: I'd say so. They heard that this is the best car in the world, that it epitomizes perfection.