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Schouborg, Gary (1999). "Review: Zen and the Brain, by James H. Austin". Journal of Consciousness Studies, 6(1), 117-119; reprinted in (2000) Realization.org (online magazine), September 7.


James H. Austin, M.D. Zen and the Brain: Toward an Understanding of Meditation and Consciousness Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1998, xxiv + 844 pp., $40.00 [$28 from www.amazon.com], ISBN 0-262-01164-6 (hbk).


Those looking for whatever light Zen and neurophysiology might shed on each other will find this book a rich resource with few firm conclusions, but with a host of "working hypotheses" constrained by a wealth of neurophysiological facts and phenomenological analyses. No prior knowledge of either discipline is required.


Organization. Part I: Starting to Point toward Zen and Part II: Meditating together provide clear and nuanced explanations of Zen and of meditation. Part III: Neurologizing provides a general neurophysiology that, like a good detective story, creates background while scattering clues as to what Zen-brain relationships will come to light.


Part IV: Exploring States of Consciousness employs the distinction between altered and alternate states of consciousness, Austin's point being that states other than our ordinary waking one are not altered forms of the latter but alternate networking configurations of the brain. Austin here discusses the more usual alternate states – sleep, dreaming, conditioning, hibernation, changes due to biological clocks, emotions, positive feelings, pain, suffering, and the effects of brain laterality – postponing more exotic states until Parts V-VII. Focus throughout is on the unstable condition that occurs when the brain changes from any state (ordinary or alternate) to another, in order to find clues to how enlightenment arises.


Part V: Quickening discusses a smorgasbord of alternate states that can be experienced along the path to enlightenment or that might provide some clue as to the nature of that path – bright lights, blank vision, illusions, hallucinations, phantom limbs, changes in the sensation of touch, absorbed attention, gratitude and pure joy, seizures, religious experience, laughter, and the effects of nitrous oxide and psychedelic drugs.


Part VI: Turning In: The Absorptions explores absorbed attention, where there is no awareness of a personal self who is observing, only "[e]xtraordinarily clear perception . . . going on by itself, spontaneously, automatically". External absorption (of an external object), by jettisoning an awareness of self, prepares the way for internal absorption, where there is no proprioception, only warm affect.


Part VII: Turning Out: The Awakenings explores kensho or insight-wisdom, a wordless comprehension that "cuts off the conceptual and affective roots of the psychic self". Precisely because absorption is sensate and kensho is conceptual, only the latter produces long-term transformation, which enables enlightenment to affect daily living. Part VIII: Being and Beyond: To the Stage of Ongoing Enlightenment discusses the experience of enlightened daily activity and the brain mechanisms that cause it.


The book's organization is not as tidy as this summary makes it appear. Austin continually anticipates later parts of the book and recalls earlier ones, interweaving personal anecdotes with historical ones, firmly established facts with working hypotheses, phenomenology with ontology. The advantage of this approach is that it allows Austin to bring together materials that are interrelated in complex ways; the disadvantage is that it sometimes leaves the reader confused about the relevance of the material, feeling like he's rummaging through Austin's notes rather than reading a systematic theory of Zen and brain. For perspective, mondos (question-answer formats) serve as summaries at the ends of Parts V-VII.


Neurophysiology. Austin's distinctive contribution is linking Zen experiences and brain processes. (Though he espouses reductionism, he does not argue for it and his material does not require it.) The following excerpt provides a glimpse of Austin at work. Neophytes, be assured that he already explained the technical material before providing this summary.


How can an excessive activation far up in the cortex contribute to a marked reduction of vision, of hearing, and of other sensations from the head and the rest of the body? An over stimulated cortex goes on to excite the reticular nucleus of the thalamus. The reticular nucleus then blocks sensory impulses so that they can no longer be transmitted up through its underlying thalamic nuclei. This inhibitory "cap" prevents a further excessive excitation of the cortex.


But more recent controlled studies have found that sensory stimuli do cause the brain to generate evoked responses during "meditation," at least as meditation has been broadly defined. Why should future studies show otherwise? In fact, few studies have focused on those singular instances when ordinary levels of meditation suddenly drop off into the state of genuine deep internal absorption. These absorptions are rare. They need to be carefully studied, at the very moment they occur, using modern techniques.


Why are states of internal absorption and kensho so different, yet each so memorable? It is being proposed that many of their properties arise in association with extra firing activity, along different acetylcholine and glutamate pathways, involving different regions of the brain. For example, extra firing of cells along the perforant path could enhance long-term potentiation within the hippocampus. This could help to heighten the subject's ongoing memory of each event. Some peptides may also be released, as part of the basic mechanisms of these states. And peptides could also be triggered secondarily by the impact of the strikingly novel content of the new state per se. Chief among the peptides which could help further shape the differences between the states would be corticotropin-releasing factor, ACTH, and the three endogenous opioids: b-endorphin, enkephalins, and dynorphin. (518)


Enlightened insight. Austin's account of Zen leaves two crucial and related issues unresolved. The first concerns kensho or insight-wisdom, which he characterizes as non-dual, conceptual, wordless, providing ultimate and authentic meaning, deconditioning inappropriate learning, reprioritizing, and destroying all fear. These attributes derive from the perception of "suchness", reality as it is without presuppositions. Austin thus disagrees with Kant's thesis that we cannot know the thing in itself.


Austin could have avoided giving many readers heartburn had he heeded his own quote of Daisetz Suzuki: "Zen must be understood from the inside, not from the outside". Austin fails to see that Suzuki's crucial insight allows us to understand suchness phenomenologically (from the inside) – as a sensory experience with our higher associative processes blocked out – instead of ontologically (from the outside) – as objective reality. To say that in kensho we see an apple for what it is then becomes the phenomenological claim that we see it in its freshness, unobscured by conceptual habits – not the ontological claim that the apple we see is how it exists objectively, independently of our perception.


Enlightened daily living. The second crucial and unresolved issue concerns Austin's claim that kensho creates the capacity to be effectively involved in the world rather than withdrawn from it. Some characteristics that he claims for the Zen practitioner support this: improves concentration, accepts what one cannot change, unlearns inappropriate responses, and becomes psychologically flexible. Yet other attributes seem incompatible with daily living: makes no distinctions, dissolves our constructs of self and time, devalues the discursive intellect, is "truly goalless and selfless" and without fear. Austin neither identifies nor resolves these apparent contradictions.


Fortunately, the means of resolving Austin's needless confrontation with Kant also explains how Zen leads to effective involvement in the world. From a phenomenological perspective, kensho does not destroy the discursive intellect, but allows us to experience it relative to our direct and uncluttered sense perceptions, which emerge as affectively much richer. This greater richness liberates us from our usual preoccupations by resetting our priorities. We thus allow our discursive intellect to operate according to its own requirements, but as a prosthesis for making our way in the world, not a faculty of insight into ultimate reality. In short, kensho gives simple embodiment priority over conceptual complexity; it does not force us to choose between the two. Though its language is exotic, Zen is the essence of down to earth.


Gary Schouborg