James H. Austin (real name) has an M.D. degree and is Professor Emeritus of Neurology at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center. He is the author of Chase, Chance and Creativity, and author or co-author of more than 130 publications in the fields of neurochemistry, neuropharmacology, and clinical neurology.
The following account is taken, by his permission, from his amazing book Zen and the Brain (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1998). This is a book I have been reading in – and expect to be reading in slowly, appreciatively, for a long time, as it is more than 800 pages long – with great excitement, for it is so rare to have someone who has real experiential knowledge of any meditative tradition also be able to compare various aspects of that tradition to modern understandings in neurology.
James H. Austin
Vacuum Plenum: Kyoto, December 1974
And then some evening their bodies will
become quite comfortable and their minds
quite still. Ah! And for a moment, a bare
moment, they have an intimation of what
Hakuin meant when he sang:
This very place is the Lotus-land,
this body Buddha.
Afterwards, without speaking a word, they
will put on their coats and go home.
Ruth Fuller Sasaki (1883-1967)
It is the evening of December 2, 1974, a typical cool, damp time of the year in Kyoto. The last beautiful, red Japanese maple leaves are now dropping off. Soon we too will be departing to spend the second half of the sabbatical year in Stockholm. Change is in the air.
During the previous months, I have been sitting regularly in zazen two morn-ings a week at Ryoko-in. Now the major sesshin, called rohatsu, is in its second day. Yesterday, I sat in zazen for two hours in the morning from 8 to 10 AM. Following it came a work period, a lecture, and two more hours of evening zazen. This morning, after another morning of sitting, and an interview with Kobori-roshi, I went back to the university as usual to work in the pharmacology laboratory. This evening, I have returned for two more hours of zazen. This particular evening sitting is being held in another small subtemple of Daitoku-ji nearby. It is called Ryosen-an, and here Ruth Sasaki used to be the abbess.
I have never been in Ryosen-an before. My senses feel open, poised, as I enter its unfamiliar gate in the dark. After two consecutive days of both morning and eve-ning zazen, I am relaxed, concentrated, centered. I feel an unusually strong sense of calm determination and purpose. During the second period of zazen this leads me to consider adopting an even firmer sitting posture, so that I pull the left leg over even more than usual. In this snug half-lotus position I have a more stable base. Yes, but within minutes my left leg tingles uncomfortably. Soon, numbness ascends until my whole lower leg and back of the thigh falls totally asleep. Still, the original calm resolve has one other, more salutary, effect. It leads me consciously to restrain from moving myself, or the leg, for the noise would disturb others in the zendo. So I aban-don myself to this numbness, stick it out, accepting the consequences.
When the second sitting ends, perhaps a quarter of an hour later, I lift up the senseless, paralyzed, left leg by hand and massage it for a very long minute. It finally tingles reassuringly. Unusually painful pins and needles take over. These are gradually replaced by enough function so that, still limping, I can enter the kinhin line and barely hobble along for the few remaining minutes of walking zazen.
Disappointing. Just when I think I am getting somewhere, I find that my sitting is flawed! Back on the mat once more for the last sitting of the evening, my former resolve has vanished. My will has dissolved during this process of giving in, and of giving myself up to numbness and paralysis. Gone is any sense of striving, pressure, stress, or strain. A passive affective tone now prevails: a settled, relaxed release from purpose. Simple acceptance…
Perhaps as a result, at this final sitting, both the position of my legs and the rest of the zazen posture now become natural, balanced, comfortable. I am not sleepy. I feel mentally calm and physically stable. I register these feelings and the next one, but they are my last conscious sensate thoughts for a long interval of time…
Noting that this new zendo has more electric light illumination than does our regular zendo, I lower my eyelids slightly, half-closing them to reduce the brightness.
What follows is an abrupt, complete blank. It lasts an indeterminate period of time. Nothing intervenes-no feeling sleepy, no head nodding, no quick trunk movements to catch myself from dropping off. However long this blank period lasts, it does not change my tone or posture. Consciousness drops out. Unknown to me, my body remains erect.
A seamless interval runs between this phase of absolute mental blankness and the next phase. Hyperawareness then turns itself on immediately but smoothly, as with a rheostat. The transition period contains no sense of physical, mental, or emotional startle. Instantly I am extra-wide-awake, more totally awake than ever before in my life.
A gray indistinct mist engages the top half of seeing, perhaps because my lids are half-open. It blends with a soft, pink color in the bottom half. Neither occasions any surprise, nor does the image which now presents itself to total awareness.
A small red maple leaf is THERE. It has made no entrance, it is simply there. It hangs far up in the top left corner of what is now a black field of vision. Every-thing stops. The leaf, too, stays motionless, stem pointing down to the left, tip directed diagonally up to the right. Along its edges and veins, sharp contrasts and surface markings are intensified in exquisite fine-grained detail. Its vivid colors glow. They are a stained glass window transilluminated from behind. It all seems right, a complete answer satisfying some unasked question.
And the leaf hangs there as a simple bare, detached fact, in an utterly still black void.
It is the sole inhabitant. It and awareness anonymous. For no personal self is in this scene, or observing it. No head, body, arms, legs-no one is in the center. Extraordinarily clear perception is going on by itself, spontaneously, automatically.
Vanished by now is every ordinary physical and mental constraint that would limit the boundary of a visual field. Total visual awareness is all-encom-passing, its focus wide-open to a space which extends 360 degrees in every direc-tion. Its vantage point extends as far up and as far down under as it does forward. It reaches back around to the rear as far as to the right and left sides. And it stretches out into an infinite distance, especially in front of its witness, that fully aware nonentity back in its center.
The motoric “looking” aspect of gaze feels steadily fixed on a single, forward-directed hold. In contrast, the sensate events on the receptive side take on properties. The process of “seeing” is defining itself spontaneously. Seeing what? Empty space? No. Jet blackness, glistening in fine detail and with great immediacy -throughout the entire volume of limitless space.
So this leaf is simply hanging up there in this black, silent, vast anonymous awareness. (If the neurologist were there, he would recognize that the leaf hangs far too high up and to the left to be seen by any person who is using only a “normal” field of vision. But no neurologist is there.) Yet, despite its impossibly remote position, the leaf is still being seen as clearly as though it were placed in front of the viewer. Again, neither the enhanced clarity nor the striking colors register as an inconsistency. The leaf is seen and appreciated; it is not thought about, let alone analyzed.
Then the leaf vanishes. It drops out as softly as it came. No forewarning, afterimage, or sense of loss.
With its departure, the sole object in view is the immense open vault. It is a singular expanse. Total awareness perceives it as blacker than black, yet glistening like a huge crystal of obsidian. Moreover, the same clear awareness-as it pervades this semitransparent void-is itself infiltrated from every direction by a exquisite aesthetic enchantment.
Subsequently, a different sense takes over. A deep, serene atmospheric comfort -infuses every dimension of this earlier enchantment. It is the cozy feeling one knows from having been extra-snug indoors during a snowy winter holiday, comforted at the hearth by a warm fire. It is not a caloric heat, nor is any hearthlike visual glow present. It is something far more profound. It is a deep satisfaction, and it also enters unannounced, not in response to something. No overwhelming sense of goodness, no badness, no notions of Heaven or Hell, no wisdom, no almighty presence, no time, no person is there to share it.
Nor is any sound there. Absolute silence is prevailing ever since the leaf ar-rived. No trace remains of the usual background hum that accompanies everyday hearing. No distant hiss as from a seashell held to the ear. No faint echoes. It is being in a total soundless vacuum.
The black, timeless, silent void continues. It lingers, then very subtly wanes. Slowly, smoothly, uniformly, everything goes through a diminuendo to return to a person on the mat.
To a person on the mat who is not the same person. Within the residual bliss, the first feeling is a wave of profound gratitude mixed with a sense of awe. No disappointment lingers, no wish to get back inside the experience. Then, over the next several minutes, the detached person is gradually reinfiltrated by some the usual sensibilities of the I-Me-Mine existence. Even so, he-I perceives that there is a striking difference. It is the novel sense of being fully alive. It is a mental-physical compound, a blend of some of the initial extraordinary mental clarity plus those physical sensations which go along with one’s having entered into a fully erect, alerted posture. For this new feeling, which comes from being extra-upright, has taken over the back of my head, neck, and entire spinal column. Even so, it feels altogether natural, unstrained.
Moreover, getting up from the mat is simple. Movements perform themselves. Both legs and the rest of my body feel about a third their usual weight-free, agile, mobilized by a quick liveliness. With senses sharpened, the sound of the final bell penetrates deeply, as do other sounds during the rest of the evening. Yet none so loud as to be unpleasant. Having accepted a ride home later that night with two other friends from the sangha, I find no inclination whatsoever to talk about the experience. It takes on its own, deeper, private, sacred-like quality. Sleep that evening is deep, dreamless, restful.
By the next morning the light body, lively movements, erect posture, sharp-ened senses, and the residual mental clarity are half-gone. Over that day and the next, everything gradually fades away. Yet several brief traces of each of these return over the following two days, intensified together and lingering for a few seconds each time.
Two mornings after the event, I enter my next sanzen interview with Kobori–roshi. I begin with the innocent remark that during evening zazen I have seen a leaf. Immediately, his face darkens. He shakes his head and utters a brusque, “NO! When you concentrate too hard, you may see things.” Muttering in Japanese for many seconds, he then abruptly and summarily dismisses the topic from fur-ther discussion. I leave the rest of the interview feeling disappointed, but I have been learning. I remain silent.
Could the inquisitive neurologist in me ever stop wondering: how did all these remarkable events come about? But it would take many weeks for me to be aware that I was overlooking something peculiar. For you would think that I might also have been curious enough to ask: why did this particular leaf enter the scene?
The Leaf: Coda
Just an old leaf, yet
try to follow its structure-
or count its colors!
It is a longer story than one might suppose, this account of letting go, of yielding, and of seeing that red Japanese maple leaf in a void of space. Two months have passed. I now have in my hand the latest batch of 35-mm color transparencies. Taken in Japan, they have been processed in the United States and just forwarded to me in the mail to Sweden. I am looking, astounded, at one set of photographs. They do more than remind me about that leaf I had hallucinated while meditating. The prove that I had seen it even earlier, and had interacted with it once before.
The photographs reveal that I had already framed the very same Japanese maple leaf in the viewfinder of my camera. The date indicates that I had done so back in November in Kyoto. The transparencies also show that the actual leaf was lying in the identical, diagonal position: its stem pointing down and to the left. Obviously, before the sesshin, the real leaf had made a strong aesthetic impression on me as it lay flat against a damp cobblestone pavement. Moreover, it had made multiple visual impressions on my brain as well, because I had carefully focused three times on this leaf, each at a different exposure, while photographing it from above.
The evidence of the mounted transparencies jogs my memory. Sure, now I recall the day and the very spot where I had photographed the real leaf. The date was six or seven weeks before the leaf image reappeared that night in the zendo. Two separate and distinct events. This was odd. Why hadn’t I made the connections? Indeed, would I ever have rejoined the associative links between them if I had not later seen the transparencies? I doubt that I would. The two experiences seemed to have been stored in separate mental compartments.
Nor does the story end then. Five years later, returning to Kyoto on a trip, I make the pilgrimage to Ryoko-in to pay Kobori-roshi an informal visit. In the course of the conversation, I venture to explore the episode again. This time, in view of the way he had reacted before to the leaf, I consider it prudent to describe all the rest of that early experience at the subtemple of Ryosen-an. Now, the roshi’s immediate response is totally accepting. He obviously appreciates hearing about it. He leans forward, listens attentively, nods his head repeatedly, flashing his warm, knowing smile. Choosing not to dwell on any detail, he simply says, “Yes, when I had that, it was like being in a vacuum.”
Next, in one graceful gesture, he raises his left arm slightly and then drops it all the way, palm down. It remains down there at his side for several seconds. Then he says: “After blankness, going down, there is …” No need for him to finish the sentence. For then, without a word, he simply turns his palm up and this time raises his entire left arm up to shoulder height.
By gesture am I led to understand: going this deep is followed by an especially steep ascent. Moving quickly on, he preempts any further wordy discussion of the topic. This time, by what he omits, will I be led to understand: in Zen, this episode of five years ago, however remarkable it may seem to me, is to be regarded as “nothing special.”