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Zen and the Brain: Toward an Understanding of Meditation and Consciousness [Paperback]

by James H. Austin
4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (44 customer reviews)

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Book Description

July 2, 1999 0262511096 978-0262511094 Reprint

Winner of the Scientific and Medical Network Book Prize for 1998

Aldous Huxley called humankind's basic trend toward spiritual growth the "perennial philosophy." In the view of James Austin, the trend implies a "perennial psychophysiology" -- because awakening, or enlightenment, occurs only when the human brain undergoes substantial changes. What are the peak experiences of enlightenment? How could these states profoundly enhance, and yet simplify, the workings of the brain? Zen and the Brain presents the latest evidence. In this book Zen Buddhism becomes the opening wedge for an extraordinarily wide-ranging exploration of consciousness. In order to understand which brain mechanisms produce Zen states, one needs some understanding of the anatomy, physiology, and chemistry of the brain. Austin, both a neurologist and a Zen practitioner, interweaves the most recent brain research with the personal narrative of his Zen experiences. The science is both inclusive and rigorous; the Zen sections are clear and evocative. Along the way, Austin examines such topics as similar states in other disciplines and religions, sleep and dreams, mental illness, consciousness-altering drugs, and the social consequences of the advanced stage of ongoing enlightenment.

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Zen and the Brain: Toward an Understanding of Meditation and Consciousness + Zen-Brain Reflections + Selfless Insight: Zen and the Meditative Transformations of Consciousness
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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com 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)

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: 10 x 7 x 1.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 3.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (44 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #113,826 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
137 of 144 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Zen Paradox November 24, 2002
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
James H. Austin M. D.is 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
5.0 out of 5 stars rewarding March 4, 2002
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
4.0 out of 5 stars A huge amount of information... December 19, 2000
By Zentao
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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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars A unique book with practical insights
It is a book written out of author's own practical and theoretical knowledge, not a usual mish-mash of concepts from here and there that you are likely to find in a book of similar... Read more
Published 3 days ago by LA
5.0 out of 5 stars Tour de force
This book is a real tour de force. To unite deep scholarship in the field of neuroscience with profound insights into the nature of meditation and Zen training based not on hearsay... Read more
Published 5 months ago by vokitok
5.0 out of 5 stars excellent review on the topic
This was a very good encyclopedic work on the topics of meditation and contemporary theories on the functioning of the mind. I really enjoy reading it...
Published 6 months ago by Areg Tadevosyan
3.0 out of 5 stars Not done reading yet, but
I have been practicing Zen for about 3.5 years now and am also an engineer with an interest in science. So this book looked intriguing. Read more
Published 13 months ago by History and Science Craig
5.0 out of 5 stars teacher use!
I am a teacher who found this book most helpful in understanding how to better create lesson plans using ideas from this book. I keep it on my desk at school.
Published 16 months ago by Tina Bodenheimer
4.0 out of 5 stars Not necessarily for Zennists only
I very much wanted to like this book as a Zennist friend of mine highly recommended it. Well, now I know why. Read more
Published 17 months ago by Laurence Chalem
1.0 out of 5 stars Kindle edtion is expensive and has no pictures.
Avoid the kindle edition. For the price they charge they should include the damn pictures that are supposed to come with the book. Read more
Published 22 months ago by Michael A. Orendorf
4.0 out of 5 stars Mysticism Explained [Almost]
More than most people want to know about the brain, but I was fascinated. Unfortunately, the illustrations are far short of what's needed to follow the text. Read more
Published on July 18, 2011 by Hidden Wisdom
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent
James Austin took subjects like Zen, Meditation, Neurology and Consciousness, and explained them and their interconnectedness thoroughly. Read more
Published on January 20, 2011 by Siku
4.0 out of 5 stars Blow your mind
This is a not-so-concise overview of connecting the physiology of the brain and zen. The breadth of this book is not a drawback but a wonderful addition to any personal library... Read more
Published on November 18, 2010 by Luke Marney
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