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Zen and the Brain: Toward an Understanding of Meditation and Consciousness Reprint Edition

46 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0262511094
ISBN-10: 0262511096
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Editorial Reviews Review

Take a trip through the topography of the brain, and you're likely to get lost somewhere around the medulla oblongata. Zen can lose you before you've even pretzeled your legs into the lotus position. But a unique neurologist-Zen Buddhist has written a tome that is a map to all the mysteries of meditation and mind. Take breathing out, for example. We spend just over half of our breathing time exhaling. For meditating monks, it's a full three-quarters. EEGs show us that the act of exhaling helps physically quiet the brain. Many other causal connections can be found between Zen practices and the physiology of the brain, and James H. Austin lays them out one by one, drawing from his own Zen experiences and the latest in neurological research. So if you've ever wondered what the corpus callosum has to do with consciousness or how the limbic system contributes to enlightenment, Austin will get your brain racing and put your mind at ease. --Brian Bruya --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


This is a book written with passion and seriousness.

(Psychoanalytic Books)

In this monumental work, the author marshals the evidence fromneuroscience to help clarify which brain mechanisms underlie the subjectivestates of Zen, and employs Zen to 'illuminate' how the brain 'works' invarious states of consciousness. By 'monumental' I refer not merely to thesize but to the breadth and depth of coverage of the book.

(George Adelman, Editor of The Encyclopedia of Neuroscience)

... remarkable in its synthesis of the mystical point of view with the scientific.

(Bodhi Tree Book Review)

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 872 pages
  • Publisher: The MIT Press; Reprint edition (July 2, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0262511096
  • ISBN-13: 978-0262511094
  • Product Dimensions: 7 x 1.6 x 10 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 3.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (46 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #201,393 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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147 of 155 people found the following review helpful By Evelyn Uyemura VINE VOICE on November 24, 2002
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
James H. Austin M. an experimental neurologist who spent several sabbaticals in Japan doing things to cat brains and practicing Zen rather earnestly at the same time, and altogether probably spent 30 or so years sitting Zazen (not only in Japan but wherever he went), experiencing at least one odd physical event, one interesting internal absorption (trance-hallucination, maybe) and one lightning-strike of kensho or wisdom-insight. He does not seem to consider himself to have gotten as far as a state of on-going enlightenment, but he believes that such a state is the result of an accumulation of a series of such kensho experiences.
He says that he is not a dualist. But the interesting point is that his monism is purely materialistic. Perhaps not precisely "Matter alone is, nothing that is not matter is," but something more like "Physical states governed by physical laws alone are, nothing that is not subject to physical laws is." He is the classic man of science. And although he experienced and is describing what most would consider a spiritual insight, he seeks to explain it and value it in biological, physiological, neurological terms, as a rsult of predictable and understandable processes in the brain and nothing else. But his moment of kensho left him so awed that he was tempted to refer it to God. This temptation he overcomes.
The odd physical experience he had is recounted in chapter 94 (after a very long prelude!) He heads the chapter with famous lines by p'ang Chi-Shih:
How wonderous this, how mysterious!
I carry wood, I draw water.
And he has spent a lot of time explaining the Zen emphasis on the here and now. Then: One day after 25 minutes of Zazen, he goes in to shave. "Suddenly, for the first time ever, I really feel both hands.
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56 of 59 people found the following review helpful By kaioatey on March 4, 2002
Format: Paperback
A monk asked master Chi-Chen: "What is the way upward?" The master replied, "You will hit it by descending lower."
This is a valuable book written by a competent scientist/MD on a topic of great importance. Is it possible to change our experience of ourselves and the world through dedicated practice - in other words, is it possible to become a happy person? Buddhism and other religions have always claimed this is possible if one dedicated oneself to a thorough investigation of one's own perception and cognition. Modern science approaches these questions from another end - it has succeeded in elucidating many of the key biological mechanisms which underlie brain function (such as attention, perception, cognition and dreaming). This book combines insights obtained from both endeavours and thus provides a welcome bridge between the meditation methods sharpened through thousands of years of practice and modern neuroscience.
The book is composed of four parts: (1) an intro on physiological effects of meditation is a thoughtful compilation of evidence gathered from (mostly) TM and zen meditators. Austin describes the changes in brain physiology (coherence in EEG activity, changes in oxygen consumption, breathing patterns), cognition (changes in perception, attention) and the long-range positive changes in attitude that occur in serious meditators; this part also includes a very competent overview of the effects of psychedelics on both brain activity and behaviour (2) a compendium of brain anatomy/physiology/chemistry which is a bit confusing and way too detailed. probably too simplistic for an expert and way too complicated for a layman; many findings described here are likely to be already out of date or to become so within the next couple of years.
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33 of 34 people found the following review helpful By Zentao on December 19, 2000
Format: Paperback
One hardly knows where to start with Austin's book - with more than 900 pages and hundreds of chapters it is easy to spend months reading this book let alone trying to review it. And months are really required simply to get a grasp of the interrelated themes and ideas that Austin deftly weaves.
In the end I am very impressed with the level of scholarly attention that Austin has managed to mix in with personal observations and what many would term "new age" ideas. He links many aspects of meditation and its effects to observed physiological phenomenon in a style that is on par with what one would find in Scientific American. That is, someone with some biology background from upper high school should be able to grasp Austin's salient points.
Austin also compiles a number of other researchers' information in the book and, in conjunction with his work, finally links many aspects of Zen to other work such as Grof's holotropic studies.
Austin is primarily concerned with the brain in terms of the roles and interactions of the various large-scale structures such as the frontal lobe and brain stem. Most of this work is based on animal studies with some observations from humans who have suffered either selective damage or had special operations. As he states near the beginning, humankind owes the animal kingdom much for all the damage and pain we have caused to learn how complicated we are.
The basic lesson to be learned from the book is simply how incredibly complicated the brain is; for all our studies we only just seem to know enough now to say "wow, this is really complicated".
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