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BOOK REVIEW: Zen and the Brain by James H. Austin

Zen and the BrainZen and the Brain by James H. Austin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Dr. Austin’s 900-page book looks at what the brain does during (and as a result of) the practice of Zen, and is a great resource for those interested in the science of meditative practices. It’s easy to sum up the strength and weakness of this book. With respect to the book’s greatest strength, it’s that the author—like the book—straddles two widely divergent worlds. He is at once a scientist and a practitioner of Zen. This gives him rare insight into both halves of the equation. This isn’t one of those books written by a spiritual seeker who uses the word “science” and “scientific” very loosely (and in a manner that shows a lack of understanding of the central premise of science.) On the other hand, it’s not one of those books by a scientist who got all of his understanding of meditation from other books.

As for the weakness, it’s that the book was written in the late 1990’s. Ordinarily, I would say that wouldn’t matter much, but concerning our understanding of the brain, it might as well have been the Stone Age—hyperbole duly noted. One doesn’t put together a book of almost 1000 pages overnight, and so much of the references for “Zen and the Brain” are actually from papers from the 1980’s and earlier. The fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) machine didn’t even come out until the early 1990’s, but—of course—it took a while for the studies featuring this powerful technology to reach publication.

The book is arranged into a whopping 158 chapters divided amongst 8 parts. Some of the chapters are pure neuroscience, and there are detailed descriptions of the brain and the functions of its various parts. Other chapters are designed to give one an insight into the practice of Zen and aren’t technical at all. The author has a reasonably engaging writing style when he’s not conveying the minutiae of brain science. He tells stories of his experience as a practitioner of Zen, and passes on the wisdom of past Zen masters.

I have an unconventional recommendation for this book, which I got so much out of. I recommend you first check out the book “Zen-Brain Horizons” put out by the same author and press (MIT Press) in 2014. While I haven’t yet read that book, it seems to hold three advantages. First, it’s only one-third as long and seems to cover similar material. Obviously, it goes into far less detail. (But you may find that a plus.) Second, the 2014 book is reasonably priced. “Zen and the Brain” is one of the most expensive books I’ve bought in recent years. I’m not saying I regret paying as much as I did, because it was a useful book, but cheaper would be better. Finally, the 2014 has the benefit of access to a lot of great research from the past couple decades. If you read the 2014 book and think you need more detail about the brain, then—by all means—get this book.

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