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Zen-Brain Horizons

Zen-Brain Horizons: Toward a Living Zen

James H. Austin
Copyright Date: 2014
Published by: MIT Press
Pages: 296
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  • Book Info
    Zen-Brain Horizons
    Book Description:

    InZen-Brain Horizons, James Austin draws on his decades of experience as a neurologist and Zen practitioner to clarify the benefits of meditative training. Austin integrates classical Buddhist literature with modern brain research, exploring the horizons of a living, neural Zen.When viewed in the light of today, the timeless wisdom of some Zen masters seems almost to have anticipated recent research in the neurosciences. The keen attentiveness and awareness that we cultivate during meditative practices becomes the leading edge of our subsequent mental processing. Austin explains how our covert, involuntary functions can make crucial contributions to the subtle ways we learn, intuit, and engage in creative activities. Austin begins by looking back at ancient Buddhist narratives. He then weaves together the major themes of self, attention, emotion, language, and insight. He goes on to examine Zen and psychology as cultural developments, including recent information about how a clear, calm awareness can change the meditating brain. He considers the pathways through which intuitions develop on their way to becoming realized, exploring the phenomena of the spontaneous color imagery that arises during meditation. Looking out even further into the future, Austin discusses the universal themes of creativity, happiness, openness, and selflessness. Along the way, he bows in homage to William James, explores "Buddhist Botany" and "Avian Zen," demonstrates why living Zen means much more than sitting quietly indoors on a cushion, and provides simplified advice that helps guide readers to the most important points.

    eISBN: 978-0-262-32115-0
    Subjects: Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. Preface
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
  5. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xvii-xviii)
  6. By Way of a Personal Introduction
    (pp. xix-xxii)

    This is the fifth book of words by a neurologist who has been on a decades-long quest to understand Zen at first hand. Direct personal experiences influence this account. The first occurred at Daitoku-ji in Kyoto in 1974. Following several weeks of meditation, I was astonished to discover how clear my awareness became after my intrusive word-thoughts stopped. Another experience happened months later, again while I was meditating. As I dropped into a state of deep internal absorption, myphysicalsense of Self completely vanished into a vast black, silent space. The major event happened seven and a half years...

  7. Part I Looking Far Back into the Distant Past

    • 1 Two Old Men Consult the Buddha
      (pp. 3-11)

      People often asked the Buddha, “What is the best way for me to proceed on the spiritual Path?” On separate occasions, he gave similar advice to each of two elderly men. Each man was driven by a sense of urgency. Each understood that his sands of time were fast running out.

      After sizing the men up, the Buddha chose to give them a brief strategic answer. Two simple words stand out in his reply. They remain relevant today not only for Buddhist practitioners of any age but also for readers in general and for contemplative neuroscientists as well.

      One sutra...

    • 2 Neuropsychological Aspects of the Attentive Self
      (pp. 12-22)

      Only after Zen-brain relationships are oversimplified do they become easier to understand. So, we begin by weaving the threads of five simpler themes into the contents of this book: Self, attention, emotion, language, and insight. This chapter continues to address a major topic: the Self and the ways it attends to the space that surrounds it. This Self is more than an abstraction. Note the tall capitalS. It is there to remind us that we have all been conditioned to protect our precious Self. Expect turbulence when any part of your cherished investment feels threatened.

      The Greeks had two...

    • 3 Neural Correlations of Meditating Selflessly
      (pp. 22-33)

      What else does the phrase “no you” imply in the old Pali sutras?

      We observed how “no you” begins. It assigns, as a target for daily practice, every overemotionalized function that had served to reinforce our dominant sense of a personal Self. That’s the hard part. Next, the good news. It predicts that we will stop suffering when we drop these maladaptive limbic attachments from our usual repertoire.

      What is the simplest way to conceptualize this personal sense of Self?

      The previous chapter identified its dual aspects. Starting with our tangible physical body, we observed that this somatic Self was...

    • 4 Buddhist Botany 101
      (pp. 33-48)

      Religions thrive when they find expression in metaphors and iconographic symbols. Sudden comprehensions arise in outdoor settings. Early Buddhist teachings shared a rich, earthy relationship with native trees, plants, and flowers.

      People everywhere appreciate that all life hinges on Earth’s fertility. Just as April finds us celebrating the bounty of Mother Earth on Earth Day, so was it customary long ago for people living in southern Nepal to honor their vital affinities with the Earth. How did they emphasize the ennobling virtue of hard farm work out in the field? In that era, ca. 550 B.C.E., they reserved a special...

  8. Part II Looking Back into Earlier Centuries of the Common Era

    • 5 A Glimpse of “Just This” in Tang Dynasty China (618–907)
      (pp. 51-52)

      As the two men part, his young disciple says, When someone asks me to describe my master’s truth, how shall I answer?

      Master Yunyan pauses, then finally says, “Just this is it.”¹

      This disciple is Dongshan Liangjie (807–869). He is important because he later co-founded a major school of Ch’an called Caodong in China and Soto in Japan. However, young Dongshan remained perplexed for a long time after he and his master parted. What had Master Yunyan meant when he said, “Just this is it”? The monk could never understand.

      But then one day Dongshan happened to be crossing...

    • 6 Avian Zen
      (pp. 52-64)

      Birds capture our attention. Pivotal avian moments are embedded in the world of literature and in the lore of Zen Buddhism. What happens to us when we heardeeplyand resonate with the call of a bird? The next pages sample centuries of evidence that a bird call can trigger openings into awakened states of consciousness. They present a plausible physiological explanation for this phenomenon. They also suggest why our hearing and seeing attentively in the outdoors is such an excellent meditative practice.

      In his later years, Ikkyu Sojun (1394–1481) would become a legendary Rinzai master in Kyoto. While...

    • 7 Homage to William James
      (pp. 65-70)

      William James was quoted in the introduction in relation to attention. Chapter 6 mentioned him twice in the context of the nightingale metaphor. This chapter reviews some of his ideas on the competence of our subconscious mechanisms. In the century since he died, no one has surpassed him in the prescience with which he anticipated themes now within the larger scope of neuropsychology. James’s words live on in a centenary edition,The Heart of William James. It suggests countless ways that his far-sighted perspectives have illuminated our contemporary discourse.

      This centenary edition collects 17 of his essays from the definitive...

  9. Part III Sampling Recent Reports

    • 8 Recent Clinical Information
      (pp. 73-75)

      A neurologist’s job is to stop brain damage. Why did the case reports cited in an article and book by Kapur present so counterintuitive a view?² Because under certain circumstances, damage to the nervous system can actuallyimprovebehavioral functions. [SI: 180–186] This result, called paradoxical facilitation, is uncommon. However, in some instances a patient’s brain functions can be enhanced to levelsabovenormal.

      In this regard, a common theme links several chapters in this book: we are all patients, suffering from Self-inflicted wounds to the psyche. Sooner or later, most of us start to realize that it is...

    • 9 Mindfulness Starts as Present-Moment Awareness
      (pp. 75-89)

      Caroline Rhys Davids (1857–1922) was a pioneer scholar in the Pali language. When she came to translate the old Pali wordsati, “mindfulness” seemed to be its nearest single-word equivalent in English. However, the original meaning of the Pali termsatiwas much more elastic. Why couldn’t all of its aspects be described as just being aware of thepresentmoment? Because the original meaning ofsatialso included its broad overview function: to “facilitate and enable one’smemory.” [MS: 92–97] Memory recalls past moments.

      How does our memory operate normally? At the near end of each stimulus...

    • 10 Subconscious Background Qualities That Can Infuse Awareness
      (pp. 89-96)

      These two statements, eight centuries apart, emphasize that long-term meditative training cultivatesintuitiveskills. This chapter continues to explore how some background attitudes that infuse the form and content of our awareness could evolve in ways that slowly contribute to states of awakening.

      To begin with, when we sense that some small insight rings true for us, the connections in our association networks are likely to have joined up in a special way (see appendix B). [ZB: 386–387] Many of these meaningful neural links that lend an impression of certainty will tap into ordinary varieties of our temporal lobe...

  10. Part IV Looking Out into the Distance above the Horizon

    • 11 Reprocessing Emotionally Traumatic Imagery While Elevating the Gaze
      (pp. 99-123)

      The treble clef signifies the upper registers of a musical score. This chapter also involves lookingup, this time into our superior visual fields. It begins with a story about two adult women. At a young age, each had undergone a major episode of emotional trauma. Later, as a mature adult, each woman in her own unique way stumbled into an empirical approach, one that would dissolve the emotional distress attached to her earlier traumatic event. First she revisualized this old disturbing memory. Then she projected the sceneuptoward hersuperior visual fields and out into the distance.


    • 12 Spontaneous Color Imagery during Meditation
      (pp. 124-143)

      Colors were an early interest in my childhood. Not until I was 49 did I begin to practice formal Zen meditation in Kyoto, Japan. Soon, like other novices, I noticed that a soft play of colors could enter my central field of vision. If such “deeds of light” commonly occur in meditators, why consider them now?

      Distinctive color and luminosity phenomena can emerge during meditation. It is time to describe them in greater detail and give them an appropriate name.

      Not until 2009, when I was 84, did I notice that these colors tended to shift into myleftvisual...

    • 13 A Way Out of the Grand Delusion
      (pp. 143-152)

      This imbalance begins with an actual physical separation: our skin’s outer layer serves to separate Self from other. This defines the first,somatic, boundary of ourI-Me-Mineoperations (see chapter 3). However, our major troubles arise from much deeper levels. They are rooted in subconsciouspsychiclongings and loathings. Limbic networks do more than attach the anxieties of our psyche to every Self-centered physical frame of reference. Limbic habit energies also keep driving us to see that other world outside only through a lens warped by our own emotional biases. [SI: 49–83; 85–121] Therefore, each time our intrusive...

  11. Part V Peering into the Future

    • 14 New Research Horizons
      (pp. 155-170)

      This chapter serves as a reminder: thoughts are an integral part of daily life. Thoughts are as natural as clouds in the sky. However, excessive thoughts distract from the clarity of awareness. From its inception, the Path of Buddhism has sought the balance of a Middle Way.

      We had not met before. This preliminary interview took place before the retreat started. The two of us had just sat down in facing chairs. The Zen Roshi spoke first. “Remember this,” he said. His next six words supplied the essence of the mental attitude I would need during the week-long Zen retreat:...

    • 15 Resources of Enduring Happiness; Opening to “Just This”
      (pp. 170-182)

      Howdoesone become familiar with this new way of experiencing the world? We have been swept up into an era when it might seem possible to condense meditative training during a quick fix. Item: People who practice a kind of integrative body-mind training (IBMT) for only three to eleven hours can improve their executive attention and change some Self-control networks in corresponding regions of their brain.³ [SI: 42–43] Zen maintains a longitudinal perspective. This chapter gives added weight to the first-person reports by seasoned professionals who have meditated for decades.

      Matthieu Ricard, Ph.D., is preeminent in this respect....

  12. In Closing
    (pp. 183-185)

    D. T. Suzuki authored 26 books in English on Zen and allied topics. Given how much they contain, he may reasonably be considered to have been practicing a longitudinally ripened form of Living Zen before he died at the age of almost ninety-six.² His first attempts to meditate in a Zen setting were discouraging. Lucky for us, he persisted.

    If you have been meditating for a while, try to remember how strange it seemed when you first sat down to practice. Chapter 4 could serve as a reminder: Siddhartha was only a beginner when he first sat under a rose-apple...

  13. Appendix A The Forest as a Sanctuary for Re-creation
    (pp. 186-189)
  14. Appendix B Potentially Useful Words and Phrases
    (pp. 190-196)
  15. Appendix C Common Acronyms Used in Brain Research
    (pp. 197-198)
  16. Appendix D Elephants in the Living Room
    (pp. 199-200)
  17. References and Notes
    (pp. 201-249)
  18. Index
    (pp. 250-274)
  19. Color plates
    (pp. None)