Review of Zen and the Brain by James H. Austin

Zen and the Brain  by James H. Austin, 1998, MIT Press 844 pp, ISBN 0 262 01164 6

This is the original version. An edited version was published as “Art of letting go. Review of Zen and the Brain by J.Austin”, Times Higher Education Supplement, May 7, 30 1999

“Zen training means brain training”. That is the premise of this vast book which interweaves personal stories of Zen practice with details of functional neuroanatomy and experiments on the effects of meditation.

The personal stories are engagingly written. We learn of an intellectual, wordy, Westerner, who encounters a Zen Buddhist teacher in Japan and finds himself unprepared for the deep non-intellectual inquiry demanded of him. Yet he perseveres. The ancient Zen methods are beautifully explained through the telling of the story, from the painful and boring effects of long hours of silent sitting, through years of working on seemingly unanswerable koans, to moments of true insight.

Austin was given his first koan in a formal Zen interview – “When all things return to the one, where is the one returned to?”. He describes his bewilderment, anger, and intellectual struggle, until finally he began to sit more and talk less. The koan turns out not to be a question to be answered, but a procedure for exploring life’s deepest issues. Koans are not solved but realised, by working with the ‘great doubt’ they stir up. This may seem, to Western scientists, a peculiar (even pointless) way of going about things, but I think the great doubt of the serious Zen practitioner is the same doubt that drives the true scientist – a stubborn determination to keep questioning the mysteries of the universe.

Zen is difficult to explain. Right at its heart lie ideas that seem to contradict the most basic of human assumptions. For example, we easily assume the existence of a real and powerful self that persists through our lifetime and makes us who we are, but Zen demands that we overthrow this pernicious illusion. According to Zen, there is no persistent self – though there is a self of sorts. Ask what sort and you will be told to go and find out – not by thinking, reading or theorising, but by sitting on your cushion and paying attention.

Austin describes how, after months or years of meditation, the trainee finds that thoughts drop out, the bodily self fades, and the perceiving self begins to dissolve. The old assumption that you can’t have an experience unless an “I” is there to have it, now seems laughable.

Something must be changing in the trainee’s brain, but what?  The hundreds of studies Austin reviews give no clear answers.  Changes in brain waves are inconsistent.  Transcendental meditation may have different effects from open-eyed Zen meditation.  Simple relaxation can be as effective as meditation.  Austin uses the confusing evidence so far to suggest new methods and testable hypotheses for the future.

This way of amassing information is familiar to us educated thinkers. Yet, Zen knowledge is not like this. Making progress in Zen is more like throwing away knowledge than gaining it. Zen is about awakening from illusion, and that awakening is not achieved by grasping, wanting or succeeding at anything. For if you want to succeed then you are promoting the very self-centred view that is the illusion from which you are supposed to escape. The famous “Heart Sutra” (given a nice new shortened translation here) says that there is no path, no wisdom, and nothing to attain. What then is to be done?

Austin handles all this very well. He suggests that, if there is an aim to Zen practice, it is “to learn the art of letting go while paying attention”. Now we can see one of the major connections with brain science. For paying attention is very much a brain function, and one that scientists already know quite a lot about. This knowledge is put to good use, with descriptions of EEG studies, the psychology and physiology of arousal, studies of sensory deprivation, the effects of breath control, and altered states of consciousness. It turns out that both adepts and beginners can spend a good deal of their meditation time either actually asleep or in the borderland between waking and sleeping. Critics might, on this basis, dismiss meditation altogether, but Austin argues for the creative potential of learning to hover between various states of consciousness. He concludes that meditation means teaching a person how to reach, and hold onto, one of several abilities to attend.

But meditation is not just about entering different states of consciousness, and this is where I had problems. Austin describes the profound changes in outlook and experience that years of meditation can bring about, and his own insight shines through. Yet he often seems to confuse insight with altered states of consciousness, and changes in experience with changes in the brain.

With an uncritical slippage from experience-speak to brain-speak, Austin suggests the temporal lobes “erect thin conceptual barriers at the self/other interface”. Flashes of profound insight occur at “deeper physiological levels”. Koans resolve themselves “In those deeper brain circuitries which have suddenly become unconditioned.” And in mindfulness “the brain finally seems emptied”.  But surely only the weakest of analogies can equate deep insights with deep brain structures.

Austin assumes that insight must come from the brain, because the brain is the organ of the mind. Not so controversial – you might think! But from a Zen perspective the relationship between brain and experience is very controversial. Zen is deeply non-dualist. Indeed, many Zen practices are aimed at breaking through our usual distinctions of self-other, objective-subjective, real-imaginary. Austin sees this, from his Zen experience, but seems to forget it when he writes about brain and mind.

Here lurks the “hard problem” that plagues many scientists and philosophers at the end of the twentieth century. This is the question of how subjective experience arises from the workings of objective brain cells. My own view is that this problem will never be solved. Rather, like a Zen koan, it will simply dissolve when our understanding improves. I suspect that Zen can give us that better understanding, and that is one reason why I like this book.  Yet Austin does not really face up to the hard problem.

Zen and the Brain is too long – far too long. This is particularly ironic when Zen teaches that “less is more”, and that a completely empty book could contain all the teachings. It is also not ideal as a research resource. Thousands of studies are mentioned but references are given in complicated end-notes, with no complete bibliography, and the index is not thorough or detailed enough for a book on this scale. So I suspect I will be frustrated when I want to use Zen and the Brain to check references or find research results.

Nevertheless there is something grand about Austin’s achievement. He has taken his own long training in both science and Zen and tried to bring them together, laying the foundations for an “experiential neurology” that will include insight and wisdom among its aims. There are growing numbers of scientists who practise Zen but still only a few who bring these two parts of their life together. I am sure that this book will encourage more, and this will in turn benefit both science and Zen.