The brightly colored slide projected on the screen shows a PET (positron emission tomography) scan of the brain of someone in a deeply relaxed meditative state. It’s a safe bet that few of the nearly 100 people gathered in the adobe zendo at Santa Fe’s Upaya Zen Center fully understand what they’re seeing, but they’re rapt nevertheless. The speaker, a distinguished-looking silver-haired man wearing gray samue—Zen work clothes—uses a laser pointer to highlight the pattern of heightened activity on the brain’s right side. He waits a beat before delivering the punch line: “This is an image of the speaker’s brain from two decades ago.”
Everyone laughs appreciatively. But the revelation should come as no surprise for many who have come to hear Dr. James H. Austin, a retired academic neurologist and longtime Zen practitioner. Austin has been building a bridge between his two loves for years, investigating the neural correlates of Zen experience. In 1998 he published Zen and the Brain: Toward an Understanding of Meditation and Consciousness, an 868-page tour de force of explanatory neurology interlaced with personal accounts from his own decades of Zen training. The book was a hit for the MIT Press, selling close to 40,000 copies, and was followed in 2006 by Zen-Brain Reflections, noticeably slimmer at 614 pages. Now Austin is back with Selfless Insight: Zen and the Meditative Transformations of Consciousness, published last March: it specifically examines the Zen experience of no-self in a mere 352 pages.
Even without his other publications, including a book on creativity, it’s a prodigious output for an 84-year-old who dictates his manuscripts or writes them out longhand, eschews email, and does all his online research in a university library near his home in Columbia, Missouri. (He’s an emeritus professor of neurology at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver.) Boundlessly curious, Austin continually trolls the latest neurological research to test his theories of how brain function translates into Zen experience. With the field expanding exponentially, it’s getting harder and harder to keep up with the literature, he finds. But as scientists gain a better understanding of how the brain works, Austin’s own insight into the neurology of Zen is deepening. “The answers are starting to cohere,” he says.
Austin has come to Santa Fe on this bright, chilly January weekend to participate in a program called “Zen Brain: Open Presence, Selflessness, and Compassion— Perspectives from Buddhism, Neuroscience, and Complexity Theory.” The all-star panel includes Upaya’s head teacher, Roshi Joan Halifax, and University of Wisconsin-Madison neuroscientist Richard Davidson, who carried out pioneering functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies of meditating Tibetan monks, as well as Evan Thompson, professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto, and neuropsychologist Alfred Kaszniak from the University of Arizona.
During a break in the program, Austin and I sit down in a quiet corner of the dining hall to talk about his work. He picks his words carefully while maintaining a steady, blue-eyed gaze.
It all began, Austin says, in 1974, when he took a sabbatical from the University of Colorado medical school to do research at Kyoto University in Japan. A friend had given him a copy of Eugen Herrigel’s Zen in the Art of Archery, which he read on the long trans-Pacific flight. Austin asked a Japanese colleague where he might learn more about Zen and was directed to Ryokoin, a sub-temple of Daitoku-ji, a 14th-century Rinzai Zen monastery whose abbot, Kobori Nanrei Sohaku, was fluent in English. Kobori Roshi allowed Austin to become a lay student. “My first experience with a thought-free mode of awareness, which occurred several weeks after I started, was a real eye-opener,” Austin says, “because I had never really been without thoughts before.”
Later that year, he had an arresting experience of meditative absorption during his first Rohatsu sesshin, a rigorous seven-day silent retreat. A vivid vision of a red maple leaf arose, then abruptly disappeared into a deep, silent void in which there seemed to be no witness at the center. “Looking back, it wasn’t the leaf that impressed me,” Austin recalls. “It was all the other things that had dropped out. The fact that I could be hyperaware of looking out into a space that was blacker than black in a world of absolute silence, without any perceptual self at the center of this experience, was, in retrospect, quite an awesome experience for a neurologist, because we don’t see this in our patients, let alone in ourselves.”
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