Transcending the Materialistic Illusion: On Andy Karr’s “Into the Mirror”
By Ken McLeodJuly 18, 2023
Into the Mirror: A Buddhist Journey Through Mind, Matter, and the Nature of Reality by Andy Karr
Karr believes that it does make a difference. He feels that the view that consciousness arises from matter inexorably leads us down the road to materialism, not just as a philosophy but as a way of life based on acquisition. This acquisitiveness condemns us to struggle in a darkness in which we never feel complete or at peace. Letting go of that view, on the other hand, could lead us to an entirely different relationship with life, a relationship that dispels the darkness of materialism and leads us to feel complete and whole—and, potentially, free and at peace. To explore that possibility, he draws on the philosophy and practice of Mahāyāna Buddhism, laying out a path of practice that transforms how we experience life and death.
The essential insight in all Buddhist traditions is that the world we take as real is constructed from the basic elements of experience—sensations, emotions, and thoughts. Further, the self-other framework in which we live is a deeply habituated but misleading pattern of perception. It is possible to engage life in a different way, not dependent on the sense of “I” that insinuates itself into every corner of our lives. When we do, even though our lives are necessarily shaped by old age, illness, and death, we can know a peace that goes beyond ordinary human understanding. That peace is freedom, and our struggles in and with life come to an end.
Karr says that he is presenting a fresh approach to this path, an approach that, while based in the insights, practices, and history of Mahāyāna Buddhism, is more in line with contemporary culture and worldviews. In doing so, he joins a long line of teachers that stretches back over two millennia, teachers who have taken up the challenge of translating this path into different cultures and different times.
Into the Mirror has three parts: an introduction to basic Buddhist concepts, an examination of materialism as a worldview, and a journey that traces the historical evolution of one approach to Buddhist practice.
Part one, entitled “Starting from Square One,” introduces the reader to the Four Noble Truths, the Three Trainings, and the awakening that Shakyamuni Buddha experienced in India 2,500 years ago. Drawing on the Buddha’s example, Karr explains through a sequence of exercises how meditation practice leads us to relate differently to the basic elements of our experience of life. In doing so, we come to see that our whole life is oriented around a sense of “I.” This understanding naturally raises the question, “What is this I?” or “What am I?” It is a puzzle, a deep mystery. I seem to stand apart from what I experience as something that is one entity, independent and unchanging. Try as I may, however, I cannot find anything that corresponds with that sense of I. In other words, I cannot find anything that makes me me.
This, of course, is a very old question, explored by philosophers both Eastern and Western. In our own culture, the question goes back at least to Pyrrho in ancient Greece (c. 300 BCE). René Descartes, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, William James, Sigmund Freud, and many others have taken on the topic. More recently, Thomas Metzinger (in the 2003 book Being No One: The Self-Model Theory of Subjectivity), Bernardo Kastrup (2014’s Why Materialism Is Baloney: How True Skeptics Know There Is No Death and Fathom Answers to Life, the Universe, and Everything), Donald D. Hoffman (2019’s The Case Against Reality: Why Evolution Hid the Truth from Our Eyes), and others have come to the conclusion that no “I” as such exists—not as structure, function, or phenomenon. Yet the sense of “I” persists. Jay L. Garfield, in Losing Ourselves: Learning to Live Without a Self (2022), brings out the mystery to which this question points through a series of ingenious and well-explained metaphors. For Karr, it is the jumping-off point for his examination of materialism.
In part two, “Overcoming Materialism,” Karr steps into the mirror, challenging the materialist perspective that consciousness arises from matter. Materialism as a philosophy unavoidably gives rise to two problematic questions. First, how does an immaterial, vividly experiential consciousness interact with a material world? In particular, how does my experience of life arise from matter? Second, how can a concept—i.e., matter—that is itself constructed from experience be the basis for experience?
Karr, in keeping with his training in the Tibetan tradition of Buddhism, does not take matter as fundamental. It is better, he feels, to regard the experience of life as arising like the experience of a dream and then, through Buddhist practice, come to experience life that way. When matter is not taken as fundamental, this way of experiencing life becomes a possibility. Compassion, understanding, and activity for the benefit of all then naturally arise and flow into the world from the practitioner.
Karr takes the reader through these questions and the various materialist arguments, illustrating his points with quotations from David Chalmers, Daniel Dennett, Evan Thompson, and others. In an appendix, Karr goes deeper into the arguments for and against materialism. This section ends with the conclusion that materialism as a philosophy is unable to respond effectively to these two questions and we need to look elsewhere.
Elsewhere, in this case, is part three, “A Profound Journey.” To present a path of practice, Karr sketches the historical evolution of Mahāyāna Buddhism. This is a singular undertaking, given the vastness and variety of Buddhist teachings and practices. For instance, when the Jesuits first encountered Buddhism in different Asian countries in the 16th century, the variance in the rituals, practices, and teachings from one tradition to another was so great that it led them to view each tradition as a different religion. It took them over 100 years to realize that the different religions they had encountered had a common basis.
Buddhism begins in India with the Buddha Shakyamuni. About 2,500 years ago, a young prince in a small kingdom in northern India set out on a spiritual quest—to find a way to live at peace in a life shaped by old age, illness, and death. He gave up everything: his family, his position in society, and every form of conventional success. After much training and hardship, he found a way. His understanding and what he passed on to those who sought his counsel gave rise to the collection of religions that we know today as Buddhism.
As happens in every religion, early Buddhism soon gave rise to numerous traditions, each with its own lineage of teachers. Buddhism has always regarded the understanding and experience of contemporary masters, regardless of gender, as having an authority comparable to the canonical texts, including those attributed to Buddha himself. This recognition of contemporary authority has enabled these traditions of practice to retain their vitality even as they adapt to different cultures and changing times.
About 500 years after Buddha died, a school of Buddhism emerged that subsequently became known as the Mahāyāna, or “Great Path.” It was characterized by an ethic of compassion and an extension of the emptiness of the individual self to the emptiness of all experience. A pivotal figure in this evolution was Nāgārjuna, a profound master and scholar who lived around the first or second century CE. He applied the principle of mindfulness to every aspect of experience, as detailed in Verses from the Center: A Buddhist Vision of the Sublime, Stephen Batchelor’s brilliant 2000 translation of Nāgārjuna’s seminal work, The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way (Mūlamadhyamakakārikā in Sanskrit).
Karr begins with Nāgārjuna. In the Great Middle Way tradition, the central principle of practice is to keep attention open, not falling into a behavioral or conceptual extreme—neither asceticism nor indulgence, neither nihilism nor eternalism, neither monism nor pluralism, and so on. Karr traces how the Great Middle Way evolved into the “mind only” school, carefully noting that this was a process of evolution, not a revolution.
Mind only, of course, is the antithesis of the materialist philosophies that Karr dealt with in part two. Here, the principle of practice is just to recognize experience as it arises, without doing anything to it—without holding on to it, without pushing it away, without being consumed by it, and without consuming it either. This approach to meditation opens into a nonconceptual awareness that, in turn, kindles the possibility of awakening, a transformation of one’s relationship with life.
This awakening seems to come from out of the blue, as something beyond human knowledge. In later Buddhism, however, it came to be regarded as the flowering of our human heritage, buddha nature. Karr links this flowering with the ethic of compassion in the comprehensive set of teachings of late-medieval Buddhism known as Mahāyāna “mind training.” This tradition of Buddhism was brought to Tibet in the 11th–12th centuries and inspired Chekawa Yeshe Dorje, a 12th-century Tibetan master, to summarize them in his highly revered Mind Training in Seven Points. Karr provides an overview of these seven points, commenting on the most important instructions and including a translation of the complete set in an appendix. Numerous translations of this important text are available on the web.
From a historical perspective, Buddhism is still relatively new in Western culture. Even so, its meditation methods and practices have attracted the attention of scholars and researchers in philosophy, neuroscience, psychology, and psychotherapy. For instance, Thupten Jinpa, former interpreter for His Holiness the Dalai Lama, sits on the advisory board for the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University. More significantly, perhaps, is the degree to which Buddhism has captured the attention of people looking for a way to be more functional in their lives. Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program comes to mind, as well as its counterpart Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT).
Karr acknowledges these practice protocols and their benefits, but he is very clear about their relationship with the practice of Buddhism:
[F]rom a Buddhist perspective, it’s important to understand that meditation’s impact on worldly performance and mental well-being are merely side effects. They might be beneficial side effects, but chasing after them will distract you from the main point. […] Meditation’s ultimate purpose—toward which this training is directed—is to eliminate suffering at its root by overcoming delusion and then using the wisdom and freedom that come from that to help others overcome their delusion.
The last sentence here points to a crucial distinction. Buddhist practice is not about alleviating or assuaging pain and suffering. It is about ending the process of suffering itself, where suffering refers to the way every one of us, whatever form our life takes, struggles with life. The end of suffering comes about through a transformation of the way we experience the thoughts, feelings, and sensations that are the building blocks of the world we think we live in.
Karr quotes numerous Buddhist teachers and Western philosophers, scientists, and researchers to support his arguments. The wealth of corroborating material, however, was a bit distracting to this reader. It required a constant adjustment to different voices expressing similar ideas in different ways. When Karr writes in his own voice, he makes good on his claim in the introduction to present ideas in clear simple English. For instance, he writes: “The way to find freedom from difficult emotions is to find it right within the feelings themselves.”
Only someone who has experienced the emptiness of difficult emotions could write such a sentence. It expresses the very essence of Buddhist practice and demonstrates that Buddhist practice is not a state of quietism in which nothing arises. It is about experiencing what does arise so completely that it becomes a movement in mind that comes and goes like a cloud in the sky or a wave in the ocean. This is the mystical understanding at the heart of all traditions of Buddhism.
While Karr’s basic premise is that materialism is destroying our lives and, in fact, destroying our world, a question arises about his use of the word materialism. On the one hand, materialism refers to a metaphysical view that matter is fundamental. On the other hand, it also refers to a way of life based on acquisition. How are these two uses of the word related? Does a metaphysical view of materialism necessarily lead to a way of life based on acquisition? Or are these two meanings being inappropriately conflated? This reader could not find any place in the book where Karr addresses this question.
Karr is clearly knowledgeable and well practiced. As noted above, his writing is clear and, for the most part, avoids the use of jargon or technical language, particularly when describing his own understanding and experience. Of special interest was his condensation of approximately 1,000 years of Buddhist philosophy and practice methods into a few short chapters. Like time-lapse photography, the gradual evolution of practices beginning with Nāgārjuna’s Great Middle Way and climaxing in Chekawa Yeshe Dorje’s Mind Training in Seven Points unfolds before one’s eyes.
Despite the obvious care, extensive research, and hard work that have gone into this book, it is not apparent to whom it is addressed. It is clearly not a self-help book. As noted above, it points the reader to a particular path of training, a way of life that historically has been embedded in a religious or spiritual context. Other than meditation exercises that employ potent tools of examination, Karr barely touches on other elements of religious training and practice—prayer, ritual, submission, and sacrifice, for example. These elements are all but essential if one is to navigate the kind of transformation that Karr describes. Such transformations rarely come easily and there are a number of unanswered questions here. How do these philosophical explorations mature into the profound changes he describes? What kinds of challenges and difficulties may the aspirant encounter? Without the guidance of expert teachers, how does one meet those challenges and work through problems and difficulties?
That being said, Into the Mirror is clearly not a beginner’s book, either. The summaries Karr gives of Buddhist teachings may act as helpful reminders to a reader who is familiar with these perspectives and methods, but they are too cursory and too disjointed to be understood on their own. The best they can do is whet an appetite. That may be what the author intended, and that may be enough.
The book seems to be intended for people who have some familiarity with Mahāyāna Buddhist practice and seek a better understanding of how the way of life they have chosen differs from the ocean of materialistic thinking in which we all swim. In that vein, this book provides food for thought and reflection, and it may also open a way to cross that ocean and arrive at another shore.
Translator, teacher, business consultant, and author, Ken McLeod is best known for his poetic translations of Tibetan texts and his elucidation of the practices of Tibetan Buddhism. His most recent book is The Magic of Vajrayana (2023).
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