Balancing Act

A handbook for practice and study

Marcus Perman

Contemplating Reality:
A Practitioner’s Guide to the View in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism
Andy Karr, Forward by Dzogchen Ponlop
Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2007
272 pp.; $16.95 (paper)

American Buddhism has inherited the now centuries-long debate about whether to stress study or practice as the key to the Buddhist path. From the Japanese Zen tradition’s renowned focus on silent meditation to the almost constant deafening debate of the Tibetan Gelugpa tradition, every tradition has a tendency to emphasize one over the other. Andy Karr’s new book, Contemplating Reality, presents us with the Tibetan tradition’s call for balance: it’s practice and study that gets you to enlightenment. This balance is one of the most important lessons American Buddhism can learn as it develops its own habits of practice and styles of teaching. As Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche points out in the foreword, “Modern Westerners have the education and the inquisitive nature that make them perfect vessels to receive these teachings.” If this is the case, then perhaps it is precisely because of our education and inquisitiveness that we should pay special attention to balancing practice and study. Karr describes the importance of this balance in the preface:

Liberation is quite a difficult undertaking, and one of the greatest challenges of the spiritual journey is to bring intellect and insight together to travel the path. . . . It is said that studying the dharma without meditation is like trying to scale a rock face with no arms, while practicing meditation without studying is like trying to make a long journey without eyes. Contemplation is the bridge between intellect and insight, study, and meditation.

Karr’s book helps to bring study, contemplation, and meditation into the practitioner’s everyday life through systematic practice instructions and prompts for analytical meditation. At his best, Karr provides us with lucid descriptions of Buddhist concepts that flow seamlessly into questions and practices for understanding the views of key philosophical schools in Buddhist history.

The whole book is designed to guide the neophyte through the “Stages of Meditation on Emptiness.” We are guided by Karr and his lineage of teachers through the historical developments in Buddhist thought from the Vaibhashika and Sautrantika views to the Chittamatra and finally come to rest with the Shentong Madhyamaka school. Don’t be scared off by these terms: Karr uses simple and accessible language, avoiding overuse of Sanskrit or Tibetan terms. Each of these complex philosophical schools is demystified and discussed in the context of contemplative practice. The schools are explained as a set of subtle stages that challenge the ego by slowly stripping away the coverings of one’s views about “the way things are” and revealing the true nature of reality.

For those of us who seek out the philosophical in Tibetan Buddhism, it is often a challenge to find material that is not written by and for Western academics. It is even more challenging to find a useful philosophical discussion that includes practice instructions. Conversely, there are currently hundreds of practice-oriented titles on topics ranging from mind training to Tantra, few of which do any justice to the complexity of bringing Buddhist philosophy into everyday life. Fortunately there has been a growing attempt to bridge this gap, but even today many of the popular books on Buddhist thought and practice leave one hoping that there’s more to Buddhism than fluff-philosophy and quaint self-help stories.

Karr’s book is not an esoteric romp through Tibetan philosophy; it is a stripped-down introduction to the key contemplations of the Tibetan tradition. Furthermore, and what is perhaps more important, this text is a hands-on, no-bullshit workbook full of specific questions to use in day-to-day contemplative practice. For instance, in his explication of Chittamatra philosophy, Karr incorporates various representations of George W. Bush into a discussion about how objects of experience do not exist separate from mind: “His daughters perceive him as a father. . . . To a mosquito, George W. Bush is a meal. The microorganisms that inhabit his intestines perceive him as a home. Whose version is right?”

What is particularly useful about Contemplating Reality is its collection of quotes and contemplations, frequent encouragement, and guidance through philosophical issues essential to the Buddhist path. It also includes three beautifully chosen poetic “interludes” meant to bring the mind beyond the realm of contemplation. What is not so useful are the meager resources listed on the last page and the corresponding lack of informative footnotes. One footnote explains that “Common Era” is equivalent to A.D., but few notes actually lead the reader to important background information, discussions of debated or questionable material, or further readings on key terms used in the text such as Rangtong and Shentong. Despite being empty of these “other” things, the book is full of wisdom for the Tibetan Buddhist practitioner.

Contemplating Reality is, in a word, a handbook - a handbook to the contemplative meditations developed throughout the history of the Buddhist tradition, draped in the colorful clothes of the Tibetan Kagyüpa and updated for a modern American audience. Practitioners already familiar with the Kagyü tradition as it is presented in the West may notice that Karr’s book is basically a summary of what one studies at Seattle’s Nitartha Institute, with a mélange of the most interesting quotes from all the likely sources - Jamgön Kongtrul, Khenpo Tsltrim, Patrul Rinpoche, Chögyam Trungpa, and so on. However, the significance of this book is that all of it is now in one easily accessible volume that you can set next to your cushion. All the classical analogies and classifications are pulled out and described with the skillful means of simplicity and clarity of mind. Perhaps you have read some of Chögyam Trungpa’s books and wanted more detail, perhaps you read Donald Lopez or Jeffrey Hopkins and wanted less, or perhaps you simply want a little clarity about how to practice the view; Andy Karr’s book is what you’ve been looking for. Contemplating Reality will be a great gift for intermediate practitioners, but I would recommend it to inquisitive beginners as well.

Marcus Perman
is a philosopher-at-large studying Sanskrit and teaching Tibetan at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado.

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