Zen and the Brain: Toward an Understanding of Meditation and Consciousness.
James H. Austin.
Philosophy East & West
N.3 (July 2000)
2000 by University of Hawai'i Press
deal has been written by medical doctors on the functioning of the brain/ and
by mediators on the effects of meditation on the human personality. Medical
researchers/ who have attempted to bridge this gap through scientific studies
on the efficacy of meditation in bringing about physiological and mental
changes in the human personality, have been downright skeptical concerning
meditation's positive efficacy. However, serious meditators have
enthusiastically cited the history of the Eastern and Western meditation
tradition as a justification for their claims. One of the major hurdles in this
fascinating area of research has been the fact that very few medical
researchers have had any personal experience with meditation while the vast
majority of meditators have had no training in the neurology of the brain.
James Austin is
among a rare breed of scholars who/ as a trained neurologist, is thoroughly
knowledgeable about the anatomy, physiology, and chemistry of the brain, and as
a Zen practitioner he is fully familiar with the meditative experience. In his
book Zen and the Brain: Toward an Understanding of Meditation and Consciousness,
Austin makes a bold attempt at bringing together these two diverse disciplines,
the twain that are not supposed to meet. Austin attempts to accomplish two
major tasks in the eight parts of his book: (1) to describe in a clear fashion
the often confused topic of Zen and its close links to the brain, and (2) to
venture into the discussion of his personal encounters with the Zen masters,
zazen training, and the meditative experience.
"Starting to Point toward Zen," offers a brief outline of the history
of Zen and Zen's relationship to the brain, mysticism, religion, schizophrenia,
narcissism/ and depersonalization. Part 1, "Meditating,"
presents the physiological mechanisms of meditation including Zen meditative
techniques and skills/ zazen. kōans,
physiological changes during meditation, the effects of sensorimotor
deprivation, brain waves, and the meditative approach to the dissolution of the
self. Part 3, "Neurology," describes the most recent research on the
nature of the brain. Here Austin devotes more than 150 pages to the exploration
of the various lobes, higher functions, remembrances, attention, memories/ and
biological theories about the causes of mystical experiences.
"Exploring States of Consciousness/' delves into problems associated with
the word "mind," and describes in detail the ordinary and
extraordinary states of consciousness, sleep, dreams, conditioning, emotions, pain,
pleasure, and the relationship of the two hemispheres of the brain. Parts 5,
6, and 7, respectively titled
Absorptions," and "The Awakenings," investigate alternate states
of consciousness and "how, when and where they arise in the depth of the
brain." Discussion centers on the side effects of meditation, phantom
limbs, the roots of laughter, the effects of psychedelic drugs, near-death
experiences, the semantics of samādhi,
the construction and dissolution of time, the death of fear, emptiness,
absorption, and insight-wisdom.
Part 8, "Being
and Beyond: To the Stage of Ongoing Enlightenment," explores the permanent
stages of enlightenment. Here Austin offers a clear analysis of the nature of
the ultimate being, the power of silence, compassion, the aging of the brain,
and the celebration of nature. Austin concludes by describing the
still-evolving brain in the still-evolving societies and forecasts the positive
social consequences of the advanced stages of ongoing enlightenment.
Zen and the Brain is a
groundbreaking work that bridges the gap between the fields of religion and
science. The presentation of the typography of the brain here is rigorous and
comprehensive, and Austin's discussion of the intimate connection between
meditation and the states of consciousness is clear and inviting. Austin's work
belongs to a unique class of books that demand a special kind of training and
discipline from the author- Austin understands this challenge and states:
"in the future, whoever writes such a book should be a fully enlightened
Japanese master, fluent in English; a person who has both a doctorate degree in
neurophysiology, hands-on experience in psychophysiological research, years of
intercultural teaching experience; and a physician whose training in both
neurology and psychiatry has been doubly certified."
Zen and the Brain will
appeal to both undergraduate and graduate students as well as to scholars in
the areas of comparative philosophy, religion, and science. The book's
attraction is due to its being a rare kind of "clinical
autobiography," which started as an excursion into the mysterious world of
Zen but changed into the account of a Western-educated neurologist who became
the subject of his own investigation. The book is long, running to 844 pages,
but each page is clearly written and fully engages the reader with an
exposition that is both simple and profound. Once you start reading it, you
will find it hard to put down.