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Zen-Brain Horizons: Towards a Living Zen

by James H. Austin, M.D.
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2014
296 pp., illus. 15 b&w., 5 col. Trade, $27.95, £19.95
ISBN: 978-0-262-02756-4.

Reviewed by Jason Paul Stansbie
Transtechnology Research
University of Plymouth


As an individual with an interest in the philosophies of the East, I was excited greatly by the title of Austin’s work. The fact that he is a medical doctor with a background in Zen practice also intrigued me.  How does one bring the fields of the neuroscience and the qualia of enlightenment together sympathetically in a non-polarised, explorative fashion? Overall, I am pleased to say that I feel Austin has accomplished this well.

Comprised of five parts with 15
sub-sections, a short but excellent preface, a main body of literature numbering 182 pages, a short but healthy 23 page quartered appendix, an in-depth supportive notes and literature section comprising of 48 pages; the book also contains an extensive index.  The 273 page collective of this work is supported nicely by simple to understand and well thought out diagrams that aid instead of distract the reader from the concepts Austin makes throughout. Zen-Brain Horizons is a well thought out book meeting its overall aims.

Austin makes the following statement:

“Living Zen wasn’t just sitting quietly indoors on a cushion. In keeping with Suzuki’s [D. T. Suzuki – bringer of Zen to the west] often expressed views about Japanese love of nature, and how this deep appreciation entered into the Zen culture aesthetic, some of the chapters in this book emphasise outdoor topics. The themes of Avian Zen [and] Buddhist Botany.” (xiv)

Austin’s statement here sets the tone for the book: that there underlies a kinship with nature. During this preface Austin sets out the manifesto for the book, which aims for the reader to: “Consider this book an invitation to discover in this new millennium the extraordinary promise inherent in seemingly ordinary things” (xv).

To accomplish this, Austin breaks his work into five parts:

Part 1: Examines ancient historical narrative in preparation for the next leaps humanity will take into the twenty-first century

Part 2: Examines the themes surrounding Zen and psychology arising through the cultures that surrounded them

Part 3: Considers recent information about how the brain changes when attitudes expand in the background of an increasingly clear and calm awareness

Part 4: Examines perspectives inherent in those dimensions of visual space above our usual eye-level

Part 5: Explores fresh perspectives on creativity, happiness, openness and selflessness

Austin opens his short but succinct introduction section, ‘By Way of a Personal Introduction’, with the following statement: “[T]his is the fifth book of words by a neurologist who has been on a decade-long quest to understand Zen at first hand” (xix).

The reader is, therefore, well advised to take note of Austin’s ending paragraph located on page xv, where the author includes a referential code found throughout the book, referring to his four (4) previous books on related matters and subjects surrounding Zen and the brain, as well as the notation used to sharpen the discussion (xv).

Engaging with Austin’s text, I found an excellent blend of mythology, stories and tales related to Zen philosophy and neuroscience, and thought provoking quotes drawn from various sources. This is seen in the first section proper, where the author beautifully relates conversations held between the Buddha and monks Malunkya and Bahiya. Section 2 and 3 steps into the realm of neuroscience, guiding the reader through a discussion surrounding brain functionality and physiology before returning beautifully to discuss Buddhist botany and the salient role that trees and flowers occupy within the stories of the Buddha, such as the Rose-Apple tree, Banyan tree, Pipal tree, the Bodhi and of course the Lotus flower.

Overall, Austin weaves together neuroscience, brain functionality and Buddhist philosophy with skill and, I feel, achieves the overall aim of the book well. Austin’s work will appeal to students following the disciplines of both Buddhism and science, each finding in the others subject, something fascinating and worthwhile to ponder when approached with an open mind.

Last Updated 29th August 2014

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