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Contemplating Reality – A Book Review

Andy Karr provides examples to prove his points. He tries putting the reader in a number of hypothetical situations, and when he actually does this, his message is interpreted more clearly. Unfortunately, too often his pretend scenarios are absent.

As the book begins, Karr has us in the forest, differentiating between ropes and snakes, playing that game where we must choose one or the other and then know what our fear was all about after the choice has been made.

Karr makes the reader think, “[Does] everyone [have] to go through a gradual path of awakening, or [is] sudden enlightenment…possible (?).” The reader will likely guess when thinking these thoughts – and most people who have ever learned something in life will agree – that awakening is had gradually. We “know” things most of the time, but “knowing” something is partially a way of feeding one’s ego. The gradual path doesn’t necessarily require patience because while traveling it, we’re telling ourselves and others how much we know. For some, though, immediate awakening is their reality, certainly a rarity though. For us gradual learners, we hope to find it someday.

Karr carries us hurriedly through different Buddhist “schools.” None of these schools seem any lighter on the contemplative mind – contemplation being an obvious theme – of the beginner Buddhist. Karr doesn’t mention this, though. It is as if his thought process is far beyond that of the average person. And, guess what? It is.

While traveling through the different schools, we don’t have a clean enough separation to delineate the different modes of thought and contemplations on reality. Rereading the text, only the names are familiar, but not their ideas. The Sutra school is a fine example. One chapter – A Poetic Interlude – begins asking and answering the question, “What does the Sutra school’s genuine reality look like? It is our ordinary experience stripped of all conceptions.” Though this question/answer style works temporarily, the reader will be challenged later on with another school’s thoughts, at which time he will be encouraged to distinguish between the two, and this is why the contemplation is not optional. This book demands activity – or inactivity! – from the reader, so he who hasn’t the time and patience is better off reading something other than Buddhist books. (They all demand “something more.”)

In order to look more specifically at modes of thought, Karr defines singularity as, “feel[ing] the self to be a single thing.” It takes on a force of “independence.” Dualism and materialism are discussed as asserting “a material basis for a world ‘out there’.” These two views – dualism and materialism –  run against the thought promoted in the text: that “out there” doesn’t exist, that it is neither existent nor nonexistent. These concepts take the reader far beyond Buddhism 101 and can rack the brain in a hurry. The reader will find throughout “Contemplating Reality” that that is the case; his concepts, passed down an interminable lineage, are likely best understood by the studied philosopher.

Karr directly and indirectly encourages contemplation, pushing the reader to read his examples but conceding that they alone will not be enough to understand certain concepts. On page 93, Karr says, “You might still find this explanation unsatisfactory. This view is so radically different from conventional dualistic understanding and our deep-rooted dualistic habits that it is extremely difficult to wrap our minds around.”

For new folks, and maybe even for those experienced in Buddhism, the simple explanations and examples always work best. My favorite is when Karr is telling the reader how “existence” and “nonexistence” are creations of the mind. He shows two lines, claiming that most people would refer to the longer line as being “long,” the shorter one as being “short.” The next diagram shows the same longer line but this time it is matched against an even longer line. The point is to avoid labels and understand relativity.

In both his words and other Buddhists’ words, Karr attempts to explain ideas such as the Middle Way. “Nothing exists independently,” Karr says. To understand and agree is to adapt the Middle Way. He represents this concept by mentioning a water-moon, which appears clearly, yet there is no moon in the lake. While meditating on such thoughts, we are encouraged to contemplate the causes of things. This analysis will expose “phenomena’s true nature – emptiness.”

Though this book is intended for intermediate Buddhists, written by a student and teacher, it is a prodding tool. This book should be read slowly, and reread even slower.

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