James H. Austin

Zen and the Brain

Review by Georgia Gojmerac-Leiner, 2008

James H. Austin, M.D. Zen and the Brain: Toward and Understanding of Meditation and Consciousness. Cambridge, Massachusetts, The MIT Press, 1999. 844p.

Zen and the Brain weighs in at three pounds and 844 pages. The interested reader will find everything here, from the history of Buddhism beginning with Siddhartha Gautama 2500 years ago, to Buddhism’s migration to China and later Japan, to instructions for sitting. The author translates the vocabulary of Zen meditation and provides a glossary of terms at the back of the book, and of course, he explains how the brain works. Dr. Austin spent several sabbaticals in Japan and studied Zen Buddhism. Though perplexed by it, he grew in appreciation of the Way of Zen. The VIII sections of his book mimic Zen’s “eight-fold path.” Three “Question and Answers” sections resemble Zen teacher talks. Several sutras are also provided in the Appendices. Austin tackles numerous contemporary concerns, including at the closure of the book what the future holds for our world. It is interesting indeed to have so much to say about a practice that has no words, no mind and eschews intellect.

The author answered his question whether neuroscience bears “any constructive relationship with mysticism, religion, or Zen” (15) in the affirmative but articulated that Zen “beholds the highest universal principle” to be the “Great Self” rather than God (18). He noted that Andrew Greeley’s research shows that 48% of respondents reported having had mystical experiences. But Austin leaves mysticism behind and goes on to write about many other things. The book has 155 chapters, and one criticism of the book is that it rambles and at times seems repetitious. Austin “teaches” about Zen for the first 32 chapters. With part III, chapter 33, “Neurologizing,” he begins the study of the brain, “the center of our being” (149), for the next several hundred pages. Many conclusions can be drawn based on his observations and reports and in this way he contributes greatly to the discussion of meditation and neuroscience. Austin illustrates the regions of the brain through some twenty Tables, and explains that “the basic function units within each of the brain regions…are the nerve cells, the neurons.” (152) Austin describes the intricate way our brains work through neurons, receptors, transmitters, chemical messengers. We have as many nerve cells as there are stars in the Milky Way. (154). The human brain has such curious receptors as “nicotinic receptors” which explain how smoking can become an addiction. In his altruistic way Austin hopes to contribute to alleviating human suffering, which is a noble thing.

Indeed, Zen and the Brain is not just about the relationship implied by the title. It is also about Zen and well- being. The author declares, “Throughout this book, our quest will be to discover how the human brain creates—and relieves—its self-inflicted sorrows and sufferings” (173).

The bulk of Austin’s neuroscience explains the brain and which parts and their maladies have what affect on certain states of mind. For instance, amygdala controls fear and hippocampus is responsible for the memory. “Hippocampal lesions prevent humans from thinking about the ongoing present and the recent past,” and our hypothalamus receives norephrine and serotonin; gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA) is involved in synapses and holds aggressive behavior in check. As the author continues to explain the brain he also continues to raise the question, what does this mean for Zen? The answer seems to be: Zen meditation. It is the practice of Zen meditation that can alleviate stress, sorrows and sufferings, and may play a role in what chemicals are released into the brain and how they affect us. It is not clear what Zen meditation could do for Alzheimer’s disease however, or how Zen practice could prevent “lesions” from forming since we cannot ethically choose our biology. He explains in the chapter called “Etchings,” that acids can “etch out” or damage the brain and its nerve cells. He wants to know how we can protect the brain from its own acids and “etching” they might cause. (650) Austin often ends his chapters by saying that more research needs to be done into the topics he raised.

There is a fairly good balance between writing about the enjoyment of Zen practice and research into the brain, but the ideal of Zen is just so impossibly different from the culture we live in and not everyone is suited to practice it. Austin wrote, “Zen is not for everyone, probably not for most.” (678) But for those who do practice it, Zen meditation can be an antidote to pain and suffering. The sage sayings of Zen masters and western creative geniuses at the beginning of each chapter and throughout, add a richness to the narrative. In the end, Dr. Austin might have given us almost too much of a good thing all at once, but we thank him.