balancingact

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.

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