Book Review:
Zen and the Brain, by James H. Austin, M.D. reviewed by Gregory Ellison
A number of books in recent years have attempted to show how advances in
modern science are breaking down the barriers between "materialistic"
science and spirituality. Books like The Tao of Physics and The Dancing
Wu Li Masters, for example, explain how quantum physics describes a
universe in which human consciousness plays an active role in creating

In this regard, Zen and the Brain takes a radically different approach
to the relation between science and spirituality. Rather than
demonstrating that cognitive neuroscience and Zen meditation reach the
same conclusions about reality, it demonstrates how specific
neurological changes in brain activity during meditation can facilitate
the direct experience of higher states of conscious awareness.

Why is this important? Because it is practical information that shows
one how to change one's state of consciousness, rather than simply
understanding or believing a metaphysical concept of such spiritual

  As both a Professor Emeritus of Neurology at the University of Colorado
and a longtime Zen practitioner who has personally attained the state of
kensho (or "enlightenment"), James Austin is uniquely qualified to
discuss the topic, and this 844-page volume is both scientifically
rigorous and deeply spiritual.
The Spirit of Zen
Zen is often considered the sparsest form of Buddhism, focusing almost
entirely on the practice of meditation, with little emphasis on dogma,
ritual or belief. In accordance with Buddha's teachings, Zen seeks the
experience of enlightenment but has little to say about its metaphysical
reality. Metaphysical speculations and beliefs, it holds, are invariably
the product of the intellect and are thus inherently divisive and
limiting. Only the direct experience of enlightenment is the reality,
and that reality is beyond words and concepts.

There are, however, some things that can be said about the state of
enlightenment, and Austin does a remarkable job of expressing its
essence. He characterizes the state as non-dual, non-conceptual,
wordless, providing ultimate and authentic meaning, deconditioning
inappropriate learned responses and expectations, and destroying all
fear. All of these qualities derive from the perception of "suchness,"
reality as it is directly experienced without presuppositions or
interference from our analytic thought processes. As he describes it,
the chief characteristic seems to be a loss of the sense of "self" that
is central to human identity, and a corresponding feeling of union with
the outer world, including humanity as a whole and the living planet
that sustains us all.

At first blush, this may sound like a frightening proposition. After
all, with no sense of "self," we would be unable to survive in the
physical world … we could not even feed ourselves or tie our own
shoelaces if we were unaware of an "I" that needed to be fed or shod!
Further along, however, Austin clarifies this dilemma by explaining that
the ego-awareness of "I" is not truly lost, but rather that our
identification with it falls away. We do not lose our analytical
intelligence and its related abilities, but no longer identify with the
illusion that we ARE this limited "self." These faculties instead become
tools that we can use to make our way in the world, rather than the
reality of who we are.
Brain and Mind
>From a scientific viewpoint, the great contribution of Zen and the Brain
is in relating alternate states of reality to specific changes in the
neurological activity of the brain. Ever since the pioneering work of
William James, science has been aware that experiences of various
"altered states of consciousness" can and do occur naturally. Indeed,
some such altered states are so common that we take them for granted,
such as sleep, dreaming, conditioning, and emotional states such as
euphoria or pain and suffering. In all of these states, as well as the
more exotic states of religious visions or spiritual enlightenment, our
basic perceptions of reality and our relation to the world around us
differ from the perceptions of so-called "rational" or "objective"
consciousness, sometimes radically so.

In meticulous and fascinating detail, Austin describes what we know of
the changes in brain activity associated with such altered states. In so
doing, he arrives at the crucial insight that the brain is not "hard
wired" for ANY particular state of consciousness. Rather, the "ordinary"
state of waking consciousness is simply one pattern of brain activity
out of many possible configurations … one that is largely "learned"
by social conditioning and reinforcement during the process of growing
up in a social structure that enforces a "consensus" reality. The
important point he makes is that states other than our ordinary waking
one are not altered forms of consciousness but rather reflect alternate,
but equally valid, networking configurations of the brain.

Dedicated meditative discipline simply alters the habitual configuration
of the brain from one that focuses on the "I, me, mine" pattern of
so-called "objective" ego-centered consciousness, to one that identifies
with the whole of life rather than making "me" the center of the

Such a state of consciousness confers many benefits on the paractitioner
— and, it might also be inferred, on the world as a whole in which
we participate. In fact, kensho or Zen enlightenment creates the
capacity to be effectively involved in the world rather than withdrawn
from it. One who has attained such enlightenment, or is pursuing it in a
disciplined manner, has significantly improved powers of concentration,
able to focus on any task without distractions. The meditator is far
better able to gracefully accept what he cannot change, and becomes
psychologically flexible, tolerant, better able to adapt to changing
circumstances and to compassionately identify with others. She unlearns
inappropriate responses, and is no longer subject to the conditioned
responses and beliefs of the "herd mentality" that is so pervasively
forced upon us by advertising, propaganda, institutional norms and other
forms of social "behavioral conditioning." Perhaps most important from a
global perspective, the meditator's priorities shift from "what's in it
for me" to "what is good for humanity and life as a whole."

In this latter respect, the conscious and deliberate change of brain
organization, to allow this more holistic and life-centered perspective
to emerge as a basis for the conduct of daily life, can truly be called
conscious evolution in its most practical, profound and far-reaching

In summary, Zen and the Brain is a profound and original examination of
both the subjective experience of Zen meditation and the neurological
foundations of the physical brain that allow this unique experience to
emerge. Although more scholarly and detailed in its presentation of
brain function and neuroscience than will appeal to many, the book holds
great rewards for those prepared to wade through the science: it
presents a practical and comprehensible method of attaining
transcendental states of awareness that requires the acceptance of no
dogma or belief system, merely dedicated practice along clearly defined
lines. []

--- In, Chris Austin-Lane <ch...@...> wrote:
> I'm reading an interesting book, Zen and the Brain, by a Dr. Austin,
> who is a neuroscientist and a long-time Rinzai practitioner. It's 1/2
> "zen travel-stories in Japan with kensho story thrown in" and 1/2
> "Brain Science 201".
> The travel/meditation stories are easier going, but he ties the
> neurosciences in an interesting way.
> One great quote is along the lines of "It may be more valuable to have
> a faster response from an arousal reflex than to have a muted arousal
> reflex in the first place."
> Many interesting things about the various sides of the nervous system,
> and what might be going on
> --Chris

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