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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 overstimulated 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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
1998 Gary Schouborg.
Copyright 1998 Journal of Consciousness Studies.
Schouborg is a partner of Performance
Consulting, which improves developmental processes
for both individuals and organizations. He received
his Ph.D. in philosophical psychology from the University
of Texas at Austin in 1978 and is currently constructing
a naturalistic, developmental theory of enlightenment.