James H. Austin

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For other people named James Austin, see James Austin (disambiguation).

James H. Austin is an American neurologist and author. He is the author of the book Zen and the Brain, which aims to establish links between the neurological workings of the human brain and the practice of meditation, which won the Scientific and Medical Network Book Prize for 1998.[1] He has written two sequels to it: Zen-Brain Reflections (February, 2006), and Selfless Insight (2009).


Austin has been an academic neurologist for most of his career, first at the University of Oregon Medical School, then at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. He is currently a clinical professor of neurology at the University of Missouri School of Medicine. His research and publications included work in the areas of clinical neurology, neuropathology, neurochemistry and neuropharmacology.[2]

Experience with Zen[edit]

Austin has been a practicing Zen Buddhist since 1974, when he began as a student of the late Rinzai roshi Kobori Nanrei Sohaku.[2]

After eight years of regular Zen meditation, Austin experienced the taste of what Zen practice calls kensho. The chief characteristic of this experience was a loss of the sense of "self" which is so central to human identity, plus a feeling that this is the way all things really are in the world. While he was on a sabbatical in England, he was waiting for a subway train when he suddenly felt a sense of enlightenment unlike anything he had ever experienced. In Austin's words, "It strikes unexpectedly at 9 am on the surface platform of the London subway system. [Due to a mistake] ... I wind up at a station where I have never been before...The view includes the dingy interior of the station, some grimy buildings, a bit of open sky above and beyond. Instantly the entire view acquires three qualities: Absolute Reality, Intrinsic Rightness, Ultimate Perfection."

" With no transition, it is all complete....Yes, there is the paradox of this extraordinary viewing. But there is no viewer. The scene is utterly empty, stripped of every last extension of an I-Me-Mine [his name for ego-self]. Vanished in one split second is the familiar sensation that this person is viewing an ordinary city scene. The new viewing proceeds impersonally, not pausing to register the paradox that there is no human subject "doing" it. Three insights penetrate the experiant, each conveying Total Understanding at depths far beyond simple knowledge: This is the eternal state of affairs. There is nothing more to do. There is nothing whatsoever to fear."

Austin writes that when his former subjective self was no longer there to form biased interpretations this experience conveyed the impression of "objective reality.”As a neurologist, he interpreted his experience as "proof of the existence of the brain." This and other experiences and research led him to write Zen and the Brain.[3]


  • AUSTIN James H., 2011 Meditating Selflessly: Practical Neural Zen. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA
  • AUSTIN James H., 2009 Selfless Insight: Zen and the Meditative Transformations of Consciousness. MIT Press.
  • AUSTIN James H., 2006 Zen Brain Reflections. MIT Press.
  • AUSTIN James H., 2003 Chase, Chance and Creativity: The Lucky Art of Novelty. MIT Press.
  • AUSTIN James H., 1998 Zen and The Brain: Toward an Understanding of Meditation and Consciousness. MIT Press

Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ "Zen and the Brain: Toward an Understanding of Meditation and Consciousness [Paperback]". Amazon.com. Retrieved 1 September 2012. 
  2. ^ a b "Guest teacher: James Austin, M.D.". Upaya Institute and Zen Center. Retrieved 1 September 2012. 
  3. ^ Begley, Sharon (May 7, 2001). "Your Brain on Religion: Mystic visions or brain circuits at work?". Newsweek, cited at Center for Cognitive Liberty and Ethics. Retrieved 1 September 2012. 

External links[edit]