Posts Tagged ‘Toni Packer’

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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