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A Buddhist Journey through Mind, Matter, and the Nature of Reality

Praise for Into the Mirror

“The Buddha taught that freedom comes from overcoming habitual patterns and confused assumptions about reality. Into the Mirror guides 21st-century Buddhist practitioners on this great journey. Andy Karr has spent a lifetime studying and practicing under the guidance of great masters like Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. I pray that his clear words will benefit modern people who aspire to follow the Buddha’s path to awakening.”

    —Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse, author of The Guru Drinks Bourbon?

“A wonderful antidote to today’s materialism, Andy Karr’s Into the Mirror interweaves consciousness studies, Buddhist principles, and ordinary human psychology, thus offering the reader access to an authentic opportunity for self-inquiry. Profound, at times funny, and always intimate, this book reveals how to manage living in a materialistic world with a heart to relieve suffering. I recommend this book as an antidote to the clamor of this grasping world!”

    —Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara, author of Most Intimate: A Zen Approach to Life’s Challenges

Warning: This accessible invitation to Buddhist philosophy may unravel your ordinary conceptions about the mind and world. It may tie threads together from different theories about mind and matter. It may do both. Proceed with caution (and love—as always) and emerge with wisdom.”

   —Douglas Duckworth, author of Jamgon Mipam: His Life and Teachings

Into the Mirror by Andy Karr offers critical insights and reflections that help us deconstruct materialist and reductionist ideas that pervade what we call modernity. He blends this examination with a helpful and cogent summary of key ideas from both the Foundational and Mahayana vehicles about the nature of consciousness. This, in my view, is both timely and important because we suffer unnecessarily from misguided views (that we superimpose upon the world individually and collectively) that engender dissatisfaction and unhappiness. Andy has an engaging and provocative writing style that skillfully interweaves contemporary writings on consciousness with those of ancient sources making our path to a deeper understanding stimulating and potentially transformative.”

    —Tsoknyi Rinpoche, coauthor of Why We Meditate: The Science and Practice of Clarity and Compassion

“Andy Karr’s Into the Mirror is a brilliant companion volume to his Contemplating Reality, contrasting the Buddhist view of mind as the sole foundation of all experiences and phenomena with a number of mate­rialistic and reductionist views on consciousness. Contrary to such views popular in today’s world that consider matter to be primary and consciousness to be a mere epiphenomenon of matter, Mahāyāna Buddhists see it the other way round: matter is an epiphenomenon of mind. At the same time, neither matter nor mind can be pinpointed as an intrinsically existent or reified entity. In the mirror of our mind, all kinds of inner and outer phenomena appear like reflections, but when we really look deeply into that mirror, all we see is our own true face, which is neither the mirror nor anything that appears in it. Whether this is called “pure awareness,” “buddha nature,” or “awakening,” it is the basic ground of our experience: if not recognized, it is delusion; if recognized, it is primordial nonreferential wakefulness full of wisdom and compassion. Andy’s book is a significant and very accessible contribution to the ongoing dialogue between “modern” philosophy, psychology, cognitive science, and neuro-science and the “ancient” Buddhist inner science of introspection and contemplation.”

    —Karl Brunnhölzl, author of Luminous Heart Essential Writings of Rangjung Dorje, the Third Karmapa

“It is rare to find a book on Buddhist wisdom teachings that shows us how actually to put them into practice. So it is delightful to see how Karr walks the reader through these teachings step by step, with clarity and humor. Although it can be daunting to study ancient Buddhist texts on the nature of mind, Karr brings this material to life through his clear commentary and helpful vignettes.  He mixes his presentation with insights from western science and philosophy and he incorporates examples from ordinary life. Karr warmly invites us into this stream of wisdom and encourages us to jump in.”

    —Judith Lief, author of Making Friends with Death: A Buddhist Guide to Encountering Mortality

“With no lab other than meditation, Buddhist natural philosophers have developed sophisticated theories of mind and reality. Andy Karr’s Into the Mirror is a lucid survey of this tradition from a Tibetan Buddhist perspective, which he then holds next to modern neuroscientific and philosophical theories of consciousness. From that conversation arise beautifully subversive questions like whether the point is not the relationship between immaterial mind and material brain but how they might both be manifestations of something else, and conundrums like how you can have subjective experience without a self. A thoughtful and thought-provoking book.”

   —Joan Sutherland, author of Through Forests of Every Color: Awakening with Koans

“There are two common assumptions about consciousness in modern thinking: that the mind can be reduced to something material and non-experiential and that it is forever destined to remain a mystery. Both these assumptions distance us from actually exploring the nature of knowing. Karr exposes the frailty and blind spots of scientific materialism and guides us toward ancient Buddhist methods of exploring mind through ‘first-person science.’ A thoughtful, engaging, and timely book.”

   —Elizabeth Mattis Namgyel, author of The Logic of Faith: A Buddhist Approach to Finding Certainty Beyond Belief and Doubt

Andy Karr invites us to consider the materialistic benefits of modern times. Have they made us happy? And if not, what then? This is a key issue for our time and Into the Mirror adroitly lays out traditional as well as contemporary insights on how we might tame the materialistic matrix. His orientation is blessedly complete—starting with skillful insights into foundations of Buddhist thought then questioning contemporary framings of consciousness as a problem to solve. These catalyze appreciation for a profound journey toward resolving what most fundamentally ails us. Eminently readable. Eminently nourishing.

   —Anne Carolyn Klein, author of Heart Essence of the Vast Expanse: Foundational Practices and the Transmission of the Longchen Nyingthig

Foreword by Matthieu Ricard


As often stressed in Buddhist scriptures, all sentient beings aspire to happiness but often turn their back to it. They all dread suffering, but they often run toward the sharp blade of the law of cause and effect that brings them torments of all kinds. No one wakes up in the morning thinking “May I suffer the whole day and, if possible, my whole life.” Yet because of ignorance and delusion, we seem to be addicted to the causes of suffering. As my root teacher Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche said, “To expect happiness without giving up negative action is like holding your hand in a fire and hoping not to be burned.”

As Andy Karr shows eloquently in Into the Mirror, one of the main characteristics of ignorance is to adopt a materialistic perspective about life, consciousness, and the world at large. Revealing the flaws of a materialistic worldview is not a rejection of the world, as it leads to fully embracing limitless beings with limitless compassion, thus fulfilling the Bodhisattva’s ideal.

As Karr points out, this does not mean making concessions to the endless demands and mystifications of our ego, particularly in relation to the eight worldly concerns—gain and loss, plea- sure and pain, praise and blame, fame and shame. Such concerns bring nothing but frustration to oneself and others. To remedy this state of affairs, we need to have the willingness and courage to open our minds to the teachings of the enlightened ones, from the Buddha to the present holders of authentic lineages conveying ageless wisdom.

Into the Mirror stresses the crucial importance of being in accord with reality, in other words of ceasing to superimpose our mental fabrications on the way things are. We take that which changes at every moment as permanent and believe in the existence of separate entities endowed with intrinsic properties, while the phenomenal world is in flux and interdependent events are devoid of inherent and autonomous existence. This is not just some arcane philosophical matter, as it deals with the very root of suffering. In short, one of the fundamental aims of Buddhist philosophy and practice is to bridge the gap between appearances and reality.


A significant part of this book focuses on examining materialistic and reductionist views on consciousness. In so doing, Karr shows that none of these various approaches—eliminativist, physicalist, mysterion, etc.—can satisfactorily account for the fact that consciousness is primarily an experience.

In essence, there are two main ways of approaching consciousness: from the outside (the third-person perspective) or from the inside (the first-person perspective). The third-person perspective corresponds to the study of the correlates of conscious phenomena in the brain, the nervous system, and our behavior as it can be observed by a third person. The first-person perspective is the actual experience of the mind knowing the mind.

Even if the gigantic endeavor to map the three hundred billion neurons of the brain would succeed and one could describe in every possible detail what happens in the brain when someone sees the color red or feels love or hate, the precise description of what neurons do would not give us the slightest clue about what it is to experience seeing red, feeling love, or tasting wild honey without experiencing these directly. Without such a direct experience, one cannot speak of consciousness at all, and there is no way to step out of consciousness to study it, the brain, or anything else.

As my dear colleague philosopher Michel Bitbol wrote, “The creators of objective knowledge become so impressed by its efficacy that they tend to forget or to minimize that conscious experience is its starting point and its permanent requirement.” This is known as the “hard problem” faced by those who want to explain consciousness in purely reductionist ways as something entirely describable in terms of a complex organization of matter. (The “easy problem,” which is already difficult enough, but may eventually be solved, is to know perfectly the functioning of the brain down to the most minute detail.)

In a dialogue I had a few years ago with the philosopher Daniel Dennett, a preeminent representative of one of the most extreme versions of materialism, eliminativism, he bluntly summarized his view: “There is no hard problem about consciousness, because consciousness does not exist.” He hoped in this way to get rid of the “hard problem.” But how could something that does not exist probe its own existence or nonexistence?

At the beginning of Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist, Christof Koch writes, “Without consciousness, there is nothing.” It is nice to hear such a statement from a very smart reductionist. In fact, without consciousness, we couldn’t even claim that the world exists because that statement already implies the presence of a consciousness.

When I’m looking into my mind with my mind, I notice some thoughts, some perceptions of the outer world and inner reactions to these perceptions; I recall memories, go through emotions and reasoning; I feel attraction and repulsion, joys and sorrows, and so on. Behind all these movements of thoughts, there is a basic faculty of knowing. If I go deeper and deeper into it, I reach nothing else but pure awareness, the most fundamental state of experience, which is like reaching quarks or the quantum vacuum when investigating the fundamental aspect of matter. If I then apply Leibniz’s question to consciousness—“Why is there consciousness rather than nothing?”—all I can do is acknowledge the presence of pure experience. Hence, we can say that consciousness is a primary fact.

Buddhism’s conception is radically different from Cartesian dualism, which postulates, on one side, a truly existing solid material reality and, on the other side, a completely immaterial consciousness that cannot have any real connection with matter. The Buddhist analysis of phenomena recognizes the lack of intrinsic reality of all phenomena: whether animate or inanimate, they are equally devoid of autonomous, ultimate existence. Accordingly, for Buddhism the seemingly irreconcilable duality between the material world and an immaterial consciousness, is a false problem, given that neither of them has an intrinsic, independent existence.

Karr does not stop there, and in the third and last part of this wonderful book, he takes us on a tour of the main tenets of Mahayana philosophy, the heart essence of Buddhist thought articulated by Nagarjuna and other great Indian panditas and further explained by major Tibetan commentators. Altogether he offers us a very engaging and enriching book that will help many readers unravel some essential points from the measureless treasury of Buddhist teachings.

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