Posts Tagged ‘Toni Packer’

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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The Burren is a limestone plateau in County Clare, Ireland. Occupying more than a hundred square miles, it is one of the quietest places on earth, and its gray expanse has often been likened to a lunar landscape. Yet it also hosts more than six hundred varieties of flowering plants, which thrive in reflected light.

Here is a poem set in the Burren. Its author is Michael Longley, one of Ireland’s finest poets and a lifelong resident of Belfast:


Easter Sunday, 1998

While I was looking for Easter snow on the hills

You showed me, like a concentration of violets

Or a fragment from some future unimagined sky

A single spring gentian shivering at our feet.

Poll Salach (pronounced pole sol-ock) means “dirty pool” in the Irish language. Poll Salach is situated in the northwest region of the Burren, where the limestone pavement runs into the sea. Despite its name, it is an austere and beautiful site.

The narrator of this poem is walking at Poll Salach, and with a little help from an unnamed companion, he discovers a spring gentian (Gentian verna), a solitary flower. Its five petals are a bright blue, and to the poet the flower resembles a “concentration of violets.” At its center is a pure white throat. According to Irish folklore, to pick a spring gentian is to precipitate an early death. To bring one indoors will cause your house to be struck by lightning.

It is significant that the narrator of this poem was looking for one thing—Easter snow—and discovered another. As the Zen teacher Toni Packer has remarked, most of the time we are looking for something, but we can also cultivate pure looking, or looking for its own sake. In that way we open ourselves to what is present in the here and now.

Something of that kind happens to the narrator of “Poll Salach,” though he is also thinking of the future. For him, the blue of the gentian conjures a “future unimagined sky,” which is to say, a future that has yet to be envisioned, much less determined.

Michael Longley wrote “At Poll Salach” on Easter Sunday, 1998, two days after the Good Friday Agreement was signed in Belfast. The Good Friday Agreement signaled an end to the sectarian violence in Northern Ireland, which had claimed more than 3,000 lives. In the ensuing decade, paramilitaries on both sides of the conflict have relinquished fighting and put their faith in peace and reconciliation.

Last month that truce was threatened, when dissidents from the Irish Republican Army killed two unarmed British soldiers and a member of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, which is now composed of Catholics as well as Protestants. This time, however, the leaders of the once-warring sides united in condemning the atrocities and renewing their commitment to peace.

It remains to be seen whether that peace will hold. Edna Longley, Michael’s wife and a prominent literary critic, has described the “shivering” gentian in her husband’s poem as a “tentative floral image,” which indeed it is. But it is also an image of hope, as potent in its way as the lilies of Easter Sunday.


“At Poll Salach” appears in Michael Longley’s collection The Weather in Japan (Wake Forest University Press, 2000). It is reprinted here by permission of Wake Forest University Press (http://www.wfu.edu/wfupress/index.php).

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As I was driving on Route 21 the other day, I noticed a trailer full of firewood for sale. I was reminded of the winter, many years ago, when I burnt twenty face cords of firewood, most of it maple and beech. I also recalled a statement, famous in Zen circles, by the founder of the Soto school of Zen, Eihei Dogen (1200-1250):

Firewood becomes ashes, it does not become wood again. Don’t think that wood is first, ashes after. Your understanding must penetrate that although firewood is firewood, it has a before and after; that having this before, this after, it is free of these. . . . Life is life, death is death and are each in their own place like winter and spring. Winter does not become spring, spring does not become winter.*

On first reading, this statement defies common sense. “Don’t think that wood is first, ashes after”? Sometimes translated as “firewood does not turn into ashes,” this sentence runs counter to our experience, as does Dogen’s later assertion that “winter does not become spring, spring does not become winter.” Obviously, winter does become spring, if rather late in Western New York.

Dogen’s statement becomes more accessible if we remember that the image of firewood turning into ashes is a creation of the mind. It is a concept, a construction of thought. As such, it may help us to understand firewood—and to prepare for the process of burning, which will include the disposal of ashes. But it is still a concept, and though it may be useful, it can also impede our direct experience of firewood, right here and right now.

Direct experience, unmediated by conceptual thought, is the first concern of the Zen practitioner. In her commentary on Dogen’s statement, Toni Packer addresses this aspect of the practice:

Zen Master Dogen once said, “Firewood does not turn into ashes.” When I heard that the first time, I didn’t know what he was talking about because obviously firewood turns into ashes. I mean, we’ve all experienced it. And the next time we had a campfire, I watched and observed, and the time quality fell away. It was just being there and there was no change from fire to ashes; it was just what was. Fire. And then sometimes it collapses, and there are some sparks, and it seems to turn black. But when you’re really there, timelessly, it is not a process of time that is observed but presence: eternal, everlasting, without time.**

Packer goes on to say that once “you’re just here. . . a response will come out of this intelligent or wise presence. One’s response will be intelligent.”

But doesn’t Dogen also acknowledge that firewood has a “before and after”? Indeed he does, and surely an intelligent response to the burning of firewood must include a recognition of its past and its probable future. A stick of firewood was once a tree, and it will soon be ashes. To ignore—or attempt to ignore—those facts is to misconstrue the aim of Zen practice as merely “being present” or “living in the Now.”

What Dogen and Toni Packer are urging is not simply living in the Now but cultivating a dual, or binocular, vision. Contemplating firewood, we are aware that it exists in time; it is turning into ashes even as we watch. But we are also experiencing what Zen calls its “suchness”: its timeless presence, in all its brilliant vivacity. To see in both of these ways at once, to be present for the changing relative world while also being in touch with the timeless ground of being, is a primary aim of the Zen practitioner. And it is also a primary challenge of the practice.


*Eihei Dogen, “Actualizing the Fundamental Point” (Genjo Koan), tr. by Yasuda Joshu Roshi and Anzan HoshinRoshi, Dogen: Zen Writings on the Practice of Realization, forthcoming. See http://www.wwzc.org/node/279.

**Toni Packer, “Firewood Does Not Turn into Ashes,” Springwater Center Newsletter, Summer, 2003, 1-2.

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A few weeks ago, I attended a retreat at the Springwater Center for Meditative Inquiry in Springwater, New York. Joining me were twenty-seven other retreatants, who had come from as far away as Germany, Sweden, Switzerland, and Nicaragua. For the better part of a week, we sat, walked, and worked in an atmosphere of silence, speaking only when necessary or during the afternoon discussions. In the words of Toni Packer, founder and director of the Springwater Center, we paused in our lives to “ask what is really going on” and “to feel the wholeness of what is here.”

The Springwater Center is situated on a hillside amidst two hundred acres of open fields and woods. Its tall windows look out on the gentle hills of the Springwater Valley. Its simple but spacious facilities include a meditation hall, a dining room, accommodations for guests and staff, and even a modest library. Naturally lit, its interior spaces feel close to the outdoors. In the mornings we heard birdsong, in the evenings faint sounds from the town.

Toni Packer, who recently celebrated her eighty-first birthday, grew up in wartime Germany. She remembers the atmosphere of fear, the searchlights roaming the night sky. In her twenties she married an American and immigrated to the United States, settling in North Tonawanda. During the 1970s she studied Zen with Philip Kapleau, abbot of the Rochester Zen Center, where she became a senior student and Kapleau’s designated successor. In 1984, however, she and a group of friends left Rochester to establish a center of their own. Dispensing with the liturgy, forms, and hierarchies of traditional Japanese Zen, they preserved the core of the practice, which for Toni Packer is one of pure listening and unmediated inquiry.

Pure listening, as defined by Toni, is listening without preconceptions. In her essay “Listening and Looking,”*she explains:

There are different states of mind, and the state that is reacting most of the time when we are talking to each other is the state of memory. Our language comes out of memory, and we usually don’t take time to think about the way we say things, let alone look carefully at what we are saying. We usually talk to each other and to ourselves in habitual, automatic ways.

So we’re asking, can there be talking and listening that are not solely governed by memory and habit, except for remembrance of the language and the various examples that are given? Can there be fresh speaking and fresh listening right now, undisturbed by what is known?*

Described in this way, the “fresh listening” Toni advocates may resemble induced amnesia. But later on in her essay, she clarifies that point:

Can there be listening that does not abolish the personal past—that’s impossible—but that sees it for what it is: memory, thought, image, and connected feelings and emotions? That collection is not what is actual right now! When there is open listening, the past is in abeyance.**

As might be inferred from these excerpts, the practice of open listening fosters the practice of radical inquiry. “Here at Springwater,” Toni has said, “we question everything.” For Toni Packer that commitment meant questioning the Zen tradition itself, including its hallowed claims to authority. But whether she calls her practice “meditative inquiry,” “the work of this moment,” or something else, her spirit of listening and questioning goes to the heart of Zen.

If you would like to refresh your mind, while also examining your mental habits, you might wish to spend a few days at the Springwater Center, thirty-five miles north of Alfred. And unlike the retreatants from Europe, you won’t have to cross the ocean to do it.


*Toni Packer, The Work of This Moment (Tuttle, 1995), 1,4.

**Packer, 4.

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