A Questioning Life

Toni Packer didn’t call herself a Buddhist, but she dedicated her life to exploring the path of awakening.

By Joan Tollifson

Toni Packer was a rare jewel. I’ve never met a more sensitive and tender human being. She had a passionate intensity about what she called “the work of this moment,” which she described as “a profound kind of listening and openness that reveals the intense power and momentum of our human conditioning,” along with the discovery of “an inner/outer silence—stillness—spaciousness in which there is no sense of separation or limitation, outside or inside.”

Toni’s insight and expression cut through all forms of self-deception with remarkable clarity and simplicity. She was interested in listening and looking without answers or formulas, without relying on the authority of the past. Everything she said was fresh because she always spoke and wrote out of a listening presence that was vibrantly alive. That listening presence was the heart of her talks and her work.

Born in 1927, Toni grew up half Jewish in Hitler’s Germany. Apparently because of her father’s prestigious scientific career, the family was spared from the Holocaust, at least until the very end. But had the war gone on longer, they would most likely have been taken to the death camps. Toni vividly recalled air raids during the war, bombs falling all around her, buildings on fire, and her father—whom she revered—huddled in terror in the shelter. She often said that it was this encounter with the depth of human-generated horror that initially prompted her spiritual search.

After the war, Toni emigrated to Switzerland where she fell in love with a young conscientious objector named Kyle Packer. The couple married and eventually settled near Buffalo, New York, where Kyle became a school principal. They adopted a son, and in the late sixties, Toni and Kyle began practicing at the Rochester Zen Center. Toni rose quickly through the ranks and was asked to take over the center when her teacher retired. But by then, Toni was already questioning the traditional way and had discovered J. Krishnamurti, whose insights and questions dovetailed with her own. Eventually, in 1981, Toni left the Rochester Zen Center and along with a number of her students founded the Genesee Valley Zen Center. They bought land in rural Springwater, New York, about an hour south of Rochester, built a retreat center there from scratch, and before long the name was changed to simply Springwater Center.

Any of the traditional Zen forms that seemed to get in the way of open listening and looking were gradually dropped, and although she gave talks and led retreats, Toni called herself a friend rather than a teacher. Sitting periods were optional, you could sit in armchairs and recliners as well as on meditation cushions, and open group dialogue became a part of every retreat. There were no rituals or ceremonies, the Buddhist jargon and terminology were replaced with ordinary secular language, and there was no formal practice in the usual methodical sense.

The emphasis was on awareness, inquiry, looking and listening, being awake to the present moment, uncovering and seeing through the false separations that seem to divide and encapsulate us—the self-images we protect and defend, the ways we identify ourselves with certain groups and not with others. Toni questioned everything with the open-minded rigor of a scientist. She never settled for yesterday’s conclusions or stopped looking at things anew. She invited us to look deeply into our human suffering (anger, fear, addiction, compulsion, whatever it might be) and to observe it all with nonjudgmental curiosity and interest.

For decades, Toni held roughly eight retreats a year at Springwater and several more every year in Europe and California. She met with people individually, faithfully answered letters, wrote books, served on the board of trustees, and acted as the head administrator of the center. She worked tirelessly.

Toni was no stranger to suffering. After Kyle died in 1999, Toni began a fourteen-year descent into severe chronic pain and increasing loss of mobility. She was bedridden for the last years of her life. It was the kind of ending most of us dread—gradually losing the ability to do everything you love and everything that has defined you, being dependent on others, being in pain. It was a good reminder that being awake doesn’t mean that you will live in perpetual bliss.

The mind habitually wants comforting, feel-good answers, but Toni asked questions instead. She invited us to be with every moment, just as it is: “No matter what state dawns at this moment, can there be just that? Not a movement away, an escape into something that will provide what this state does not provide, or doesn’t seem to provide: energy, zest, inspiration, joy, happiness, whatever. Just completely, unconditionally listening to what’s here now, is that possible?”

In honor of Toni Packer, we present the following selection of her teachings.

What Is It That Lives and Dies?

Yesterday, as I walked up the hill, some shriveled flowers lined the path—an early frost had snuffed out their delicate lights. Other hardier plants were blooming during the warming day. Your question came to mind: “What is it that lives and dies?” We usually ask this question when someone close to us dies or when we ponder our own death. Rarely do we want to know what it is in a flower that has died. We take it for granted that the earth displays constantly appearing, changing, and disappearing colors, forms, and textures.

A moment ago, there was a loud thud against the window. I looked out and saw a beautiful bird lying quietly on the patio, eyes half-open, the white dappled belly and yellow tail feathers freely exposed. The body was still warm but without the lively motion that ended in a crash and fall.

What is it that died? What is it that is born? A bird has died, another one has hatched, an old man has exhaled his last breath, a baby has left the womb, a flower has frozen as another one has opened its purple petals. What is it that is born and dies?

From The Springwater Newsletter, January 1996.

The Quest for Enlightenment

Would there be any quest for enlightenment if it weren’t for our sense of time? Time is created by thought, memory, imagination: what I was, what I am, what I will be. Forever feeling insufficient and lacking, we want to become whole and complete in the future. We will submit to any spiritual path to overcome our hindrances in the course of time. Then, we imagine hopefully, there will come the day when we experience enlightenment, the liberation from bondage that has been promised to us by the traditions of the past.

I don’t think in terms of having experiences anymore. Things just happen. Rain is dripping softly. The heart is beating. There is breathing, in-out-in-out-in-out. There is quiet listening, openness … emptiness … nothing….

Enlightenment? How lethal it is to attach a label. Then you become somebody. At the moment of labeling, aliveness freezes into a concept. “My enlightenment experience!” To be alive, fully alive, means flowing without hindrance—a vulnerable flow of aliveness with no resistance. Without any sense of passing time. Without needing to think about “myself”—what I am, what I will be.

Our craving for experiences is a resistance to simply being here now. It’s such a relief to realize we don’t have to be anything.

From The Light of Discovery.

Am I My Body?

It’s a day heavy with clouds and humidity. You feel it as you walk through the meadows, wetness penetrating shoes and socks—you feel wet and cold on your toes. Grasses sparkle with moisture, with translucent droplets of pearl. These grasses! It never grows tiresome to look at them, all the varied colors and shapes and their graceful movements in the wind.

Today I walked down into the lower meadow, the tops of blades full with yellow seeds. Some were tall enough to touch the clouds! Couldn’t go far since the feet were hurting badly—I had to limp along the mowed path, feeling a bit foolish. I’m saying this so you need not ask me, “What’s the matter with your feet?” Right now they are happily resting on a stool—burning, yet thankful for the cooling air. Discomfort is passing. That’s the amazing thing about all the different states of body-mind: They pass. They come. They go. Some of them linger, but they will change eventually. The art of living is not to make stories about any of them, because stories linger longer than the states they’re describing. Much longer. For centuries sometimes.

People often affirm what we read in traditional texts from the East: “I am not my body.” “You are not your body!” It can be beneficial to use those words like a mantra worth repeating when one is strongly identified with “my” hurting body, painfully worried about it. It can be helpful when a set of fresh words replaces wornout, depressing phrases.

Does it bring about some relief to hear, “You’re not your body”? Up to a point, yes. But it only goes so far, since a voice immediately replies, “It does feel that I am my body! These are ‘my’ aching feet, not yours. It definitely feels that I am the owner of this body, no one else.”

So, then, what do we mean by this “I,” and what about this ownership? Are we willing to inquire deeply into this? Watching the state of mind, the effect of the words upon the organism when we say, “I am in pain,” “It’s my body,” “You’re hurting me,” or when we (deliberately at first) leave out these powerful words and simply describe what is going on? Like “Right now there is pain in the feet” or “It really hurts when you say those words.”

We can wisely admonish others and ourselves: “Don’t be identified with your body.” But what does that mean? Try not to settle superficially for the words but ask what they really point to, so we can understand each other more deeply. Don’t just accept what Toni is saying. Question it. We can question together.

From The Silent Question.

Nothing Spectacular

There is the wind, the sound of rustling leaves, the brightness of the room, the breathing, the color of the wooden floor, the hands resting, the heart beating. There is saliva gathering in the mouth, and the swallowing of it. What’s so hard about being in touch with what is real, with what is actually here in this moment, unspectacular though it may be?

Is this one of our problems? That to be in touch with reality we expect something spectacular, something out of the ordinary? So we fail to be with our feet on the most ordinary grounds, a soggy path or a wooden floor, a rug?

Last night in the meeting room there was a lamp on the table, and just beneath it is a small plant with the greenest of leaves, like tongues unfolding out of the little pot, and a few red flowers, as red as red can be, with yellow dots inside. That simple. Can we see it and not expect this to do something for us? Can we just see it, hear it, feel it completely?

At the same time there is the breathing, the sound of the wind, the ticking of a clock, and the beating of the heart. A feeling of uncertainty or calm may also be there. The entire universe is there—the wonder of it, not the concept. Just the air, the ground, the sky, the night, the stars, and the lights of Springwater.

From The Light of Discovery.

All book excerpts courtesy of Shambhala Publications, reprinted with permission.

Joan Tollifson

Joan Tollifson was on staff at Toni Packer’s springwater Center for five years. She is the author of Bare Bones Meditation and Nothing to Grasp, and is currently writing a book about aging and dying.