James Henry Austin was born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1925.
He attended Brown University, graduated from Harvard Medical School (1948), and did his medical internship at Boston City Hospital, where his first year of residency was in neurology. Austin's neurology teachers were Derek Denny Brown, Raymond Adams and Joseph Foley.
Austin's two years of naval reserve service in neurology were spent in Yokohama, Japan and in Oakland, California. In 1953, he began a neuropathology fellowship at Columbia University in New York, and then completed his neurological residency at the Neurological Institute of New York.
From 1955 to 1967, he held successive academic appointments in Neurology at the University of Oregon Medical School. In 1967, he was appointed Head of the Division of Neurology at the University of Colorado Medical School, then Chair of the Department from 1974 to 1983, and Emeritus Professor in 1992. During retirement, his appointments have included Affiliate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Idaho and Courtesy Professor of Neurology at the University of Florida College of Medicine.
His earlier research was in clinical neurology, neuropathology, neurochemistry, and neuropharmacology. His first sabbatical was spent at the All-India Institute of Medical Sciences in New Delhi. During the second sabbatical at Kyoto University Medical School in 1974, he began Zen meditative training with Kobori-Roshi, an English-speaking Rinzai Zen master. As a Zen practitioner, he has since become keenly interested in the ways that neuroscience research can help clarify the meditative transformations of consciousness.
Austin's interest in the psychology of the creative process led him to write Chase, Chance, and Creativity, published first by Columbia University Press in 1978, and then revised in 2003 as an MIT Press edition.
His interest in Zen Buddhism has led to four MIT Press books. Zen and the Brain (1998), currently in its 7th printing, was followed by Zen Brain Reflections (2006), Selfless Insight (2009), and Meditating Selflessly (2011).
His marriage to Judith St. Clair has been blessed with three children ( Scott W. Austin, Lynn S. Manning and James W. Austin) and three grandchildren (Nicholas Manning, Katharine Manning and Elizabeth Manning). His wife passed away from Alzheimer's disease in 2004. Austin lives in Columbia, Missouri.