Posts Tagged ‘Toni Packer’

Bonnard Tree Alley“We rarely contact this simple moment,” wrote the Zen-trained teacher Toni Packer (1927-2013). “So used to constant input and excitement, we lack fine-tuning into all the subtleties of this instant, the ability to register a quiet aliveness without the stirring of expectation.”

In this otherwise straightforward reflection on the place of meditative practice—or “contemplative inquiry,” as Packer preferred to call it—in contemporary Western culture, the word aliveness may give us pause. What, exactly, is “aliveness,” and what has it to do with meditation, a practice conventionally associated with quietude and calm?

In his book The Path of Aliveness: A Contemporary Zen Approach to Awakening Body and Mind, the Zen teacher Christian Dillo employs two striking metaphors to characterize his primary subject. “Aliveness,” he asserts, “is the buzz that can be felt from head to toe,” the “buzz of basic aliveness.” It is “the feeling of the body being filled with a liquid continuously releasing champagne bubbles.” More prosaically, he defines aliveness as “the always-present background”—what elsewhere he calls the “field of mind”—to any and all sensations,” the “here now through which everything appears.” In Dillo’s view, to become consciously aware of the aliveness of one’s body and mind, and to cultivate that awareness, is a central objective of meditative practice.

In his book Taking Our Places: The Buddhist Path to Truly Growing Up, Zoketsu Norman Fischer Roshi offers a perspective congruent with Dillo’s, but he places emphasis less on cultivating the quality of aliveness than on appreciating its abiding presence in our bodies and minds. In his discussion of zazen, or seated meditation, Fischer notes that in Japan this practice “is called ‘just sitting’—in other words, simply being present with the fact of being alive, breathing, in the body. It is such a simple thing, yet so profound, to appreciate directly that we are living, breathing bodies. Mostly we take this for granted and occupy ourselves with what seem like more significant concerns. But, in fact, there is nothing more significant than being our bodies.” Through the daily practice of zazen, we can become more cognizant and far more appreciative of our breathing, physical presence. And as our practice matures, this fundamental recognition can lead to a deeper awakening, as we come to see that “we are not atomized individuals separate from and opposed to the world.” By becoming acutely aware of our living bodies, we also become aware of “that which is larger than [ourselves], which holds [us] in its embrace.”

Yet another view of aliveness animates the Zen teacher Susan Moon’s collection of essays Alive Until You’re Dead: Notes on the Home Stretch. In her essay “Knowing How to Be Satisfied,” Moon recounts the harrowing experience she had while riding on the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) from Berkeley to the San Francisco airport. Upon reaching her destination, Moon discovered that her carry-on bag, which contained her IDs, credit cards, cash, address book, appointment calendar, and teaching notes, had been stolen. Shocked and disoriented, she felt “stripped of everything.” Barred from boarding her flight without an ID, but still in possession of her round-trip train ticket, Moon took the BART back to Berkeley. And on the way home, she had a startling revelation. Whatever else had been taken from her, she suddenly realized, she still had her life, her body, her family, and her friends. “I touched my own knees in amazement,” she recalls. “I wanted to jump up and down in the train, shouting, `I’m alive! I’m alive!’ The theft was a strange kind of gift. I lost some objects, yes, and I gained a sense of gratitude for my life that is still with me. I often forget how amazing it is to be alive, but if I concentrate, I can open a drawer in my mind and find the memory of that BART train ride: I’m alive! I’m alive!” By periodically reliving that pivotal experience, Moon can also rekindle her sense of aliveness, restoring it to its rightful place in her hierarchy of values.

It bears noting that in Toni Packer’s formulation, it is not only the “constant input and excitement” of contemporary life that prevent us from registering our “quiet aliveness.” It is also the “stirring of expectation,” with its attendant speculation, anxiety, and sometimes dire scenarios. But, as Fischer reminds us, the daily discipline of seated meditation, in which we contact “this simple moment” in all its plenitude, can prompt us to appreciate our living, breathing bodies and to recognize once again the precious gift that we’ve been given.  And over time, this renewed awareness can awaken our infinite gratitude.  


Christian Dillo, The Path of Aliveness (Shambhala, 2022), 54, 122, 218.

Norman Fischer, Taking Our Places  (Harper, 2003), 119.

Susan Moon, Alive Until You’re Dead (Shambhala, 2022), 122.

Image: Pierre Bonnard, L’allee d’arbres. (The Tree Alley)




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During my years of teaching at Alfred University, I often found myself holding a piece of paper known as a Drop/Add Form. With this form in hand, students petitioned their advisors and professors to permit them to drop a burdensome course or add a desirable one or otherwise navigate the academic system. In this way students learned to make judicious choices and take responsibility for their decisions. Meanwhile, we professors learned to use a ballpoint rather than felt-tip pen when signing a multi-carboned form.

So far as I know, Drop/Add Forms are peculiar to academic life. They are not to be found in any other line of work. But the need those forms answer and the process they represent transcend the boundaries of academia. Dropping-and-adding, it might be said, is the heartbeat of everyday life, whether the item being dropped or added is tangible or intangible, conceptual or concrete. Sometimes, as in the case of mandatory retirement, the dropping of a habitual activity is not a matter of choice. Likewise, the adding of an activity or device or medication to one’s daily round may be prescribed rather than freely chosen. But often the choice to drop or add may be more voluntary than one supposes, particularly if what is being dropped or added is a personal habit. And meditative awareness can play an integral role in that process, whether the habit be one of thought, feeling, speech, or behavior. (more…)

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Let us imagine that it’s a Friday afternoon, and you are driving on the New York State Thruway. You are in the passing lane, going seventy-five miles per hour. The car on your right is not slowing down, and the SUV behind you is fast approaching. You can see its emblazoned grill in your rearview mirror. You do not want to increase your speed, but the driver behind you is leaving you no choice.

As the SUV draws closer, you feel your heart rate increasing, your anger arising. You can’t see the driver in your mirror, but you can well imagine him: an aggressive, insensitive lout, with no concern for anyone but himself. As you reluctantly speed up and move over, an epithet comes to mind, and you let it slip from your lips. It is not a nice word, but it gives you satisfaction.

Moments later, the SUV passes on your left, and you see that the driver is not a lout at all but a petite, professional-looking woman in her thirties, who is keeping her eyes on the road, apparently unaware of your distress. And a few minutes later, after she and her SUV have long since disappeared, you realize that your anger, too, has disappeared and your clarity of mind is slowly returning. It is as if a veil, through which you were viewing the world, has gradually been lifted. (more…)

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“Can there be fresh speaking and fresh listening right now,” asks the Zen-trained teacher Toni Packer, “undisturbed by what is known?”*

Packer’s question would be pertinent in any season, but it is especially so in the present season, when the usual holiday tunes are in the air, and what we are hearing is so well-known as to seem banal. Like it or not, here comes The Little Drummer Boy again—he and his drum. Given the familiarity of the old songs, is “fresh listening” possible? And if so, how shall we go about it? (more…)

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Path of stone over water, Nanjing, South of China

If you have ever sung in a choir, you know that certain disciplines apply. You must sit up straight at the edge of your chair. You must breathe from the diaphragm. And you must open your mouth more widely than you otherwise would—widely enough to accommodate three fingers. Although these principles are simple, it is easy to forget them, especially if your mind is elsewhere.

Such was the case one morning in 1961, when I and other members of the Clinton High School A Cappella Choir sat upright at the edge of our chairs, rehearsing Michael Pretorius’s beautiful carol “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming.” Leading us was our director, John De Haan, a tall, ruggedly-built man with a gentle but commanding presence. Glancing in my direction, he noticed my half-open mouth. “Open your mouth, Ben,” he said, quietly but firmly, in his deep bass voice. “This is my life’s work.” (more…)

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One thing at a time, Bud, my father used to say. For centuries, Zen teachers have said the same. Whatever you are doing, give that one thing your full attention. When you walk, just walk.

That is sound advice, but in our present culture it stands little chance of being heeded. A recent New Yorker cartoon depicts an urban couple at an intersection of trails in a state park. While the man studies the printed guide, his companion turns to a passing hiker for help. “Which trail,” she asks, “has the best cell-phone reception?” When you walk, just walk, our culture seems to be saying, but keep your cell phone on. Within this prevailing social ethos, the admonition to do one thing at a time, and to give that one thing sustained attention, comes to look like a quaintly archaic notion. (more…)

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Every morning at half-past six, I make a cup of coffee for my wife, using a device known as an AeroPress. Simplicity itself, this device consists of a plunger, a cylinder, a paper filter, and a perforated cap. To brew a cup of coffee, I place the AeroPress on top of a mug, pour the prescribed amount of freshly ground coffee into the cylinder, and add a small amount of hot water to release the flavor. Moments later, I add the full complement of hot water, insert the plunger, and press down. If I press too hard, I will encounter formidable resistance from the volume of air trapped between the plunger and the coffee, and the AeroPress won’t work. But if I press gently, with virtually no effort, the plunger will go down smoothly, emitting an audible sigh as it reaches the bottom. Almost always, the result will be a delicious cup of coffee.

I first heard about the AeroPress from a friend and fellow Zen practitioner, who also makes morning coffee for his missus. That is perhaps no accident, because the skills required to operate the AeroPress resemble their counterparts in Zen meditation. Both the AeroPress and the practice of Zen require balance, patience, and steady attention. Beyond that, both enlist the kind of energy known to Taoists as wu wei, or “effortless effort,” whether the object of the effort be the breath, the contents of the mind, or the situations encountered in everyday life. Press too hard, and you will fail. Press lightly, aligning yourself with natural forces, and you will allow the desired result to occur.

Most meditative practices begin with attention to the breath. Some schools of meditation, including Zen, advocate the counting of breaths in general and exhalations in particular. Others employ such words as “in” and “out” to track the process of respiration. Whatever the method, however, many people find it difficult to observe the process of breathing without attempting to control that process or bring it into conformity with an imagined ideal. To counter that tendency, I have found it helpful merely to listen to the breath, as the Zen-trained teacher Toni Packer advises, rather than employ an analytic method. In the same spirit, one can view oneself not as the owner/operator of one’s breathing but as the one  “being breathed,” both by one’s body and by the life force common to all living beings. Approached in this way, the breath becomes an object of interest rather than willful concentration.

Turning from the breath to the contents of the mind, the same quality of attention may be applied. In his essay Samadhi of the Self, the Soto master  Menzan Zuiho Zenji (1683-1769) defines the contents of the mind as “emotion-thought,” which he views as “the root of delusion; that is, a stubborn attachment to a one-sided point of view, formed by our own conditioned perception.” The purpose of zazen, or sitting meditation, is not to suppress thoughts, as some would have it, but to clarify “how emotion-thought melts.” Through the regular practice of zazen, “the frozen blockage of emotion-thought will naturally melt away.” This will occur not through cutting off thought, a practice Menzan likens to cutting the trunk of a tree and leaving the root alive. Rather, it will occur through effortless effort: through mindful observation of self-centered thoughts and their emotional subtexts. The equivalent of a gentle hand on the AeroPress, such observation serves to illuminate the roots, the dynamics, and the consequences of ego-centered, prejudicial thinking. Over time, it can thaw the frozen block of emotion-thought.

But can that degree of awareness, attainable within the confines of private meditation, be sustained within the arena of everyday life? Can it withstand the violence, physical and verbal, of contemporary culture? In his address in Tucson on January 12, President Obama invited us to ask ourselves whether “we’ve shown enough kindness and generosity and compassion to the people in our lives.” He also asserted that “what matters is not wealth, or status, or power, or fame” but “how well we may have loved.” Those are stirring words, and they rightly locate the nexus of non-violence in immediate, human interaction. At the same time, they remind us of the centuries of negative conditioning—the monumental blocks of emotion-thought—that must be addressed with awareness, if the President’s vision of a kinder society is to be realized.

Given present conditions, that may seem a Herculean project, requiring nothing short of a social and spiritual revolution. But such a project can begin with an effortless effort, which is to say, with a clear and intimate awareness of what we are about to say or do in this very moment. Living in that awareness, we can ask ourselves whether what we’re about to say is necessary, true, and kind, and whether our words and actions are likely to be hurtful or harmful. And we can speak and act accordingly.


*Menzan Zuiho Zenji, “Jijuyu-zanmai” (“Samadhi of the Self”), in Shikantaza: An Introduction to Zazen, edited and translated by Shohaku Okumura  (Kyoto Soto-Zen Center, 1985), 106.

The AeroPress was invented by Alan Alder in 2005. For more information please see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/AeroPress. In the photo above the AeroPress rests on a cup by Robin Caster Howard.

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“Ah, she was a terror for the flowers,” an Irish widower once remarked of his late wife. “She had no gift for leaving things alone.”

Few of us Westerners do, including those of us who practice Zen meditation. “Zazen,” writes the Soto master Kosho Uchiyama Roshi, “enables life to be life by letting it be” (1). And Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, author of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, advises us to “let things go as they go.” But how, exactly, are we to do that when practicing seated meditation? How much, if any, control should we relinquish, and when?

Nearly all the manuals agree that the Zen practitioner should sit in a stable posture, knees down and spine erect, and pay attention to the breath. But should we regulate our breathing? Should we count our breaths or simply observe the flow of air as it comes and goes? Is it really necessary to hold our hands in the “cosmic mudra,” left palm resting in the right? Should we strive to silence our inner chatter—or allow it to continue? Answers to these questions may be found,  but they vary according to the school and the teacher.

Among those who advocate stern control, Japanese Rinzai masters occupy a pre-eminent position. Rinzai Zen has been likened to a “brave general who moves a regiment without delay,” and with few exceptions Rinzai teachers live up to that description. The renowned Rinzai master Omori Sogen Roshi advises the student to push the breath into the lower abdomen and “squeeze it lightly there with a scooping feeling” (2).  Katsuki Sekida, another Rinzai teacher, directs the practitioner to narrow the exhalation by “holding the diaphragm down and steadily checking the upward pushing movement of the abdominal muscles” (3). Similar admonitions regarding breath, posture, and concentration resound throughout the Rinzai literature, lending a tone of rigorous authority.

By contrast, Soto Zen takes a less severe approach, urging continuous awareness more than strict control. Soto teachers do emphasize form in general and correct posture in particular, but the intent is less to marshal the body into submission than to facilitate the open flow of breath and the cultivation of awareness. In his Opening the Hand of Thought, Uchiyama Roshi admonishes us just to “drop everything and entrust everything to the correct zazen posture” (4).  In similar fashion, he instructs us not to suppress discursive thoughts but merely to let go of “all the accidental things that rise in our minds.” Firm but gentle, Uchiyama’s instructions typify Soto teachings, which have been likened to a “farmer taking care of a rice field, one stalk after another, patiently.”

At the least directive end of the spectrum, the non-traditional teacher Toni Packer advocates “fresh seeing” but no particular control of breath or posture. In her essay “A Few Tips for Sitting,” she offers this advice:

No need to be rigid about proper posture. The back lifts itself up spontaneously as the mind inquires, opens up, and empties out. It is intimately related to our varying states of mind. In experiencing pain, sorrow, anger, fear, or greed, the body manifests each mood in its own ways.  In openness and clarity the body feels like no-body (5).

Like those poets who view literary form as an “extension” (or revelation) of content, Packer views proper posture not as a form to be externally imposed but as an expression of an open, inquiring state of mind.

To the newcomer, the rich variety of methods that marks Western Zen can be more bewildering than encouraging. Whom should you trust, and what method should you follow? As a general rule, the unaffiliated novice would do well to choose a method and stay with it long enough to determine whether the prescribed forms of control promote or detract from the development of awareness. For my own part, I often begin a sitting with the Rinzai practice of susokkan, or counting of out-breaths. Later on in the sitting, I practice zuisokukan, or following the breath, focusing on the lower abdomen. Toward the end, I settle into shikantaza, or “just sitting,” which is sometimes called the “method of no method.” Although this sequence will not suit everyone, I have found it a skillful means for gradually relinquishing control. At the outset of the sitting I am, as it were, making something happen. By the end, I am learning, in the manner of the Taoist master Chuang Tzu, to “gaze at the world but leave the world alone.”


(1) Kosho Uchiyama, Opening the Hand of Thought (Wisdom, 2004), 102

(2) Omori Sogen, An Introduction to Zen Training (Tuttle, 2001), 42

(3) Katsuki Sekida, Zen Training (Weatherhill, 1985), 56.

(4) Opening the Hand of Thought, 48.

(5) Toni Packer, The Wonder of Presence (Shambhala, 2002), 17.

“Gaze at the world but leave the world alone” is the Irish poet Derek Mahon’s paraphrase of Chuang  Tzu’s admonition:

We have lost our equilibrium, he said;

gaze at the world but leave the world alone.

Do nothing; do nothing and everything will be done.

–Derek Mahon, The Yellow Book (Wake Forest University Press, 1998), 50

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If you are near-sighted, as I am, you may have found that you can sometimes see nearby objects more clearly by taking off your glasses. Or, to put it another way, in the absence of your glasses, the inherent closeness of those objects becomes more apparent. What was supposed to enhance your vision was actually imposing a veil between yourself and the coffee cup in front of you.

One of the aims of Zen practice is to recognize such veils and, if possible, to remove them. According to Zen teachings, direct experience of the world—or what the Zen-trained teacher Toni Packer calls “fresh seeing”—is the one reliable basis for knowledge, understanding, and whatever wisdom we might acquire. Books and teachers may guide us, confirm what we have seen, or place our perceptions in an enabling context. But we must see things for ourselves. In Zen practice we cultivate direct seeing and a sense of intimacy, both with ourselves and with the world around us. Whatever stands in the way is to be set aside, or subjected to scrutiny, or cut asunder.

Of the conditions conducive to direct seeing, none is more important than the silence of meditation. “Only when I am quiet for a long time / and do not speak,” writes the poet Jane Hirshfield, “do the objects of my life draw near.” Elaborating her theme, she imagines that the proximate objects in her life, among them scissors and spoons and a blue mug, are deliberately keeping their distance from her. Even her towels, “for all their intimate knowledge,” are hesitant to come close. They are kept away by speech and thought, which separate self and other, the ego-centered mind and the things of this world. Only in those rare, egoless moments when she glimpses “for even an instant the actual instant” do the objects of her life draw near. At such moments, she fancifully suggests, each object emits a “sigh of happiness,” knowing that she has joined “their circle of simple, passionate thusness,” void of habitual, me-centered thought and the separation it imposes. (1)

Such intimacy is indeed a source of happiness. Conversely, a sense of separation can engender a deep and chronic suffering. In her essay “Touching Fear” Toni Packer addresses that reality:

“I’m never free of fear,” some people say, implying that there should be a state of mind and body that is free of fear. How can we possibly be free from fear when we live in the conditioned mode of the me-story most of the time? We’re deeply programmed to believe in this separate me by inaccurate language and by growing up in a world of other mes, all of whom think of and experience themselves as separate entities. . . . With separation inevitably goes fear and pain. (2)

Elsewhere, Packer quotes a questioner who asked, “Why does this me-ness, this self-centered feeling, arise when we realize that it causes such a painful sense of separation? How did it ever start in the first place?” Packer admits that she doesn’t know, but she also suggests that “all of us can watch me-ness as it is arising from moment to moment. We can find out about it if we are really deeply interested and curious.” (3)

Perhaps we can. And perhaps over time we can also discover ways to release ourselves from the me-centered tyranny of dualistic thinking, which places images and concepts between ourselves and the objects in our lives. By sitting still and not speaking, if only for the space of an hour, we can permit those objects to draw near, and we can rejoin what the poet Mary Oliver has called the “family of things.”(4) By taking off our conceptual glasses, we can see the world afresh, and see our place within it.


(1) Jane Hirshfield, Only When I Am Quiet and Do Not Speak,” Given Sugar, Given Salt (HarperCollins 2001), 23.

(2) Toni Packer, The Wonder of Presence (Shambhala 2002), 59

(3) Packer, 82

(4) Mary Oliver, “”Wild Geese,” Dream Work (Atlantic Monthly Press 1986), 14.

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Since the death of Walter Cronkite in July, much has been written about the late anchorman’s moral authority. According to a Roper poll taken in 1974, Walter Cronkite was “the most trusted man in America”. When he gravely intoned his signature line, we believed him. However shocking or sad the reality just reported, that’s the way it was. The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite had opened a window on things as they were.

Zen practice also aims to put the practitioner in touch with reality, as it is in this very moment. And every Zen center or monastery has, as it were, its own Walter Cronkite. Whether he or she is called Abbot, Sensei, Roshi, or simply “head teacher,” the person in this position embodies the inherited wisdom and the venerable authority of the Zen tradition. If the person is a “lineage holder,” which is to say, has received “Dharma transmission” from an earlier teacher, the weight of authority is even greater. It is, in most instances, unquestioned, and one of the core requirements of a prospective Zen student is to believe in the teacher. If a Zen student is unable to do that, the student is well-advised to find another teacher.

Yet if the structure of the traditional zendo is authoritarian, the practice itself is quite the opposite. It is radically egalitarian. From the start, Zen students are enjoined to rely on direct experience: to trust their senses, not the words of any teacher. Every morning, students in Rinzai Zen training chant the verses “Atta dipa / Viharata / Atta sirana / Ananna sirana,” which roughly translate as “You are the Light / Rely on yourself / Rely on nothing but yourself”. This is followed by “Dhamma dipa / Dhamma sirana / Ananna sirana,” which translates as “Rely on the Dharma / Rely on nothing but  the Dharma”. Although the word Dharma has multiple meanings, in this context it is best understood as “reality,” or “the laws of reality,” most prominently those of  impermanence and interdependence. It is left to us to perceive those laws—and to realize ourselves within our immediate surroundings. As one ancient Chinese master told his student, “I can’t  wear clothes for you. I can’t eat for you. . . I can’t carry your body around and live your life for you”. We must do these things—and know we doing them—ourselves.

How, then, is the near-absolute authority of the Zen teacher to be reconciled with the imperative to trust direct experience and rely on ourselves? And to the extent that we embrace a particular Zen lineage, to what extent are we free to question its authority? To speak for ourselves?

For Toni Packer, who left the Rochester Zen Center to establish the Springwater Center for Meditative Inquiry, the resolution lay in dropping the liturgy, forms, and hierarchies of traditional Japanese Zen, leaving only the sitting, listening, and questioning. For traditionalists, however, the resolution lies not in discarding hierarchical structures but in clearly defining the teacher’s role. Often that role is likened to a mirror, which reflects the present state of the student’s mind and heart.

In my own experience, the most helpful teachers have been those who have urged their students to look honestly into their lives, moment by moment, and to act in accordance with what they see. Rather than answer abstract questions with absolute authority, such teachers return their students, time and again, to the concrete, reliable practice of zazen: to a direct and continuous contact with reality, just as it is. Only then can the student realize the richness and depth of present experience. Only then can he or she say, with any real authority,  “That’s the way it is”.

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