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Nothing But the Present


Robert Hirshfield on Toni Packer's no-trappings approach to Zen.

With her eyes closed, with the morning light streaming through the windows, Toni Packer begins by saying, "I want to talk about the breeze that blows right through this room, touching skin, hair..."

In a way, Toni's teachings are like that breeze: simple, free-flowing, without technique. But they can also spin you around like a strong wind coming from a silent place.

In a private meeting with Toni, on the fifth day of a week-long retreat I attended recently at her Springwater Center, I spoke to her about my fears of death.

"What exactly are you afraid of?" she inquired.

"The loss of the known," I said. "The loss of body, mind."

"But isn't it really the loss of an idea that you fear? Our fear of death is the fear of letting go of our story."

Toni Packer is seventy-three. This, briefly, is her story:

Raised in Nazi Germany, Toni was and is passionately allergic to all forms of authority. As a gifted Zen teacher at the Rochester Zen Center of Philip Kapleau Roshi, she began questioning the bowing, the rakusu-wearing, the teacher's special seating. Were they not just spiritualized expressions of hierarchy and conditioning?

She found herself drawn to the teachings of Krishnamurti, who said, "Truth is a pathless land." When he broke with the Theosophical Society in 1929, he said, "I maintain that no organization can lead man to spirituality. You are all depending for your spirituality on someone else, for your happiness on someone else, for your enlightenment on someone else."

Toni's break with the Rochester Zen Center came in June of 1981, and it was wrenching. After Toni was put in charge of the center during Kapleau-roshi's absence, a meeting was held in which she was accused of subverting the Zendo's rituals. "Some people would love this type of thing, thrive on it," she told Lenore Friedman in Meetings With Remarkable Women. "Whereas for me, having grown up in Hitler's Germany, this really touched off a lot of old fears—of being accused, of being denounced."

Toni left to found her own center, the Genesee Valley Zen Center. Later, she established a new center south of Rochester called the Springwater Center. It's a place notable for the absence of the usual religious birdcalls: symbols, ceremonies, structures and ideologies. The meditation hall is lined with neat rows of cushions, but no one is obliged to meditate during retreats. Your obligations are limited to keeping silence and doing the job you have been assigned.

"The work at Springwater," Toni maintains, "is attending to what is happening within and without, from moment to moment."

As Toni speaks, with her eyes habitually closed, with a slow shuttling of her arms that seems to help with the birthing of her words, I hear a great deal about listening. She talks about a "new listening," which she also calls "awaring."

"What is this new listening?" she asks. "All the senses open and in touch in a new way."

And if there should arise the expectation of getting something from this listening?

"Then listen to the rumble of expectation. The whole organism is involved when there is expectation."

And if comparison muscles its way in?

"Listen to the buzz of comparison as it comes into awareness. Drop the objects of comparison and listen to what it does physically."

Before Toni's morning talks during retreat, the wooden partitions that fence off one row of meditators from another are hauled away like pieces of a dismantled stage. There's a pleasurable wiggling of toes, a pulling up of knees, a hungry swiveling of heads towards the silver-haired woman taking her place in her chair. Accustomed to the preponderance of women at Buddhist retreats, I'm struck by the large number of men in the hall. I hadn't expected that at Springwater, with its strong female teacher.

To some who come to Springwater from the Zen and Vipassana traditions, with their strict meditation timetables, the lack of structure can be a problem. Toni has said of this issue, which comes up at every retreat: "This desire for discipline, imposed discipline—it's as if this human being, this body/mind, were incapable of arousing energy when it is really interested. It is very capable!"

It is not structure but Toni's presence—alert, silent, always listening—that seems to arouse the alertness, silence and listening in those gathered around her. (I can hear Toni admonishing, "You are projecting things onto Toni. Toni does nothing." Maybe so. Maybe just her being fully there is enough to inspire fully-thereness in other people.)

The first time I speak privately with Toni, in her tiny meeting room with its two clocks, I ask her about awareness and effort. Toni has made the distinction between the normal, dualistic thinking mind, and awareness, which she defines as "presence without a self-referential center." So is effort required for awareness to happen? A purple and blue afghan covers her knees, and with her glasses off, her face looks soft and unprotected. Outside the room, people are waiting on cushions to see her, but she is in no hurry to answer. Effort, she says eventually, is incompatible with awareness. Effort implies tension, and usually involves some storyline about "I," "me," or "mine."

"It is important," she emphasizes, "to be without the tension of creating a storyline. In the awareness I am talking about, there is no tension. There is freedom."

Toni falls silent. I notice her looking at my fingers. "Are you aware of your fingers touching?" she asks. I was not.

Toni's own life during the retreat is anything but easy. Her husband of fifty years, Kyle, is suffering from cancer, from which he will later die, and she drives daily to the care facility to see him. Joan Tollifson writes in her memoir, Bare-Bones Meditation, about one of her meetings with Toni:

"There's too much pain," I tell Toni. "I'm not sure I can stand it."

To which Toni replies: "It takes enormous patience to see the sorrow. To be with it. To not move away. Or find easy comfort. To look. To see human history. Because it is not just one's personal pain that is contacted. It's humanity's pain, the universal sorrow of human beings."

In the group meetings that are held twice a day during retreats, any subject can come up. A woman speaks of a sudden craving for marshmallow cups. Toni suggests she might try going with the craving and order a crate of them. Or she could stay with the sensations the craving arouses, like salivating. Or she could watch the wily mind as it maneuvers: it's okay, you can order marshmallow cups today, but maybe not tomorrow.

Once Toni asks the group what's going on with them. A woman barely out of her teens replies, "There's nothing going on. I can't wait until Saturday and the retreat is over." Toni throws back her head and laughs. The remark is free of self-judgment, which delights her. Judging, she observed, "is an enormous habit, which by now is probably right in our DNA. We judge everything."

At one point during these meetings, I encounter a side of Toni that grates. We are talking about gurus, and people are taking turns carping about their sexuality, their money, their vanity. Toni chimes in about the pope's visit to Poland. "He let himself be adored by over a million people," she fumes.

My first thought is, "She is so angry. Is she aware how angry she is?" Thinking about it later, I don't know what to make of my dismay. Everyone gets angry. Everyone has a blind spot. With Toni, it's papal grandiosity. So why do I overreact? Is it because of my own concepts of immaculate guruship?

"Our ideas keep us from the innocent energy of life," Toni says in one of her talks.

Of the problems that get aired at Springwater, one's "Niagara of thoughts," to use Toni's phrase, is the most persistent. Toni assures everyone that this "Niagara" is not eternal but dissoluble.

"There is an awaring that is free from self-reference, maybe only for moments at a time. And in that, there is no right or wrong, good or bad. There is freedom to observe, to see, to be.

"Actually, these moments happen on their own. I have never found a cause for this opening, for this presence. And reading the literature, everyone calls it causeless, unconditioned."

Like Krishnamurti, Toni claims not to be a teacher. "If you are not a teacher," I say to her, "why are you here? Why is this place here?"

Toni doesn't say. She just tilts her head. She takes no offense.

The whole teacher/non-teacher issue comes heavily seeded with confusion. The regular retreatants uninhibitedly claim to be Toni's students, and Toni doesn't seem to mind. But she forcefully reiterates that the images they create and perpetuate around her are the products of thought, memory, projection, conditioning. The things that matter to Toni spring from the timeless moment, innocent of conceptualization.

Inasmuch as Toni does give teachings she is, in the conventional sense, a teacher. But it is risky to put a label on Toni. She stated in a 1996 interview in Tricycle magazine, "I do not have the teacher-image of myself. It dropped away quietly." When someone comes to her for answers, she says, "Unconfuse yourself by not knowing," and this gets a laugh. But Toni is serious.

"What are we doing here?" she inquires. "What are we doing in sitting? The first answer is, 'I don't know. I don't know.' Is this a genuine 'I don't know' or a sort of throwing up one's arms and eyeballs in despair? There are many different 'I don't knows.' The one I am referring to is this true not-knowing, and therefore, more freedom from all the stuff we know, and entering into it freshly. Not-knowing!"

One morning, Toni giggles as she begins to tell a story about one of her recent California retreats. A storm has leveled some trees on the land where the retreat is being held. Chain saws are brought in and the silence of the retreat is shattered. Everyone has paid a lot of money for the silence, so there is great dismay. One woman protests and a halt to the sawing is ordered, at least while the talks are being given.

Toni poses the question: How do we live with circumstances that grind on the nerves? In the presence of sawing, what else is going on?

"Is it possible," she wonders, "to purify perception by beholding what comes in between? Our own psychological and physical reactions do come in between. And they may abate when they are seen.

"Actually, quite a number of people learned a lot from this chainsawing about this amazing ability to drop annoyance factors by not thinking in certain terms about them. Not resisting. Not resisting. Do we know what this means, not resisting? Noticing all the gross and subtle resistances that this body/mind has cultivated or become habituated to over a lifetime. They are subtle, and so is the attention that detects and replaces them. The seeing replaces the habit that is seen. The seeing is open and quiet and present. Empty."

Toni is aware of the difficulty some people have with her unflinchingly simple here-and-nowness.

"It means looking just at what's there, at one's mind, and the workings of one's mind: the boredom, the judging, the 'I am a hopeless case.' It's nothing spectacular." 

Robert Hirschfield is a social worker in New York and a freelance writer whose work has appeared in a number of spiritually-oriented magazines.

Utterly Simple, Toni Packer, Shambhala Sun, March 2001.

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