Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Toni Packer and a happy yes

Somewhere or other, I read that Toni Packer was dying. For all I know, she is dead by now.

Toni Packer
A lot of years ago, at a time when I was hip-deep in the Big Muddy of Zen practice, Toni was someone in my vaguely-aware memory banks as a woman who had been lined up to succeed Philip Kapleau, who died at 91 in 2004. I was aware that Packer had packed up and left Kapleau before ever being anointed as a successor "roshi." The separation was mildly wowsers in my mind, but never wowsers enough to make me want to know the down-and-dirty details, if, in fact, they existed.

But the other day, on hearing of her waning health, I did some desultory Internet research. If I got it right, Packer left the confines of Kapleau's largely Japanese-based Zen practice to nurture her own
vision at the Springwater Center.
It was originally named the Genesee Valley Zen Center, but the name was changed to Springwater Center as Packer moved increasingly away from the traditional and dogmatic practices of formal Zen training. (Wikipedia)
I read Wikipedia. I skimmed an interview. I didn't really want to know the parameters of whatever she was teaching. I didn't want to assess her in comparison to whatever teaching I had imbibed or could regurgitate or knew. I was just kicking the tires on a car. It all sounded OK and no doubt helped some people, so ... OK.

But then I came to a line somewhere that said Packer had maintained the practice of zazen as a good tool within her framework of teachings. Zazen is the seated meditation associated with Zen Buddhist practice. Packer had a lot of trappings that might not dovetail with traditional and ritualized Zen training, but she kept zazen in her tool box.

And suddenly I was happy that Toni Packer was part of the universe. Not that I can claim to know precisely what her feelings were about zazen, but ... but ... but I was happy to find someone I didn't know with whom I agreed and felt at home. The feeling was like running into an old friend on the street -- warming, friendly, happy. The feeling had nothing to do with talking about someone else in order to elevate my own stock (guess what, I met the president!). I was just happy.

Happy, and happy to recognize that zazen really does strike me as a "yes!" Not "yes" as in "and you'll be screwed if you don't do it," just a very fine tool for straightening things out in a perfectly ordinary and sometimes flummoxed life.

Zazen does comparatively little harm to others and has the distinct advantage of being "on topic." Zazen does not wander. With or without ritual, with or without 'authentic' teachers, with or without deep meanings ... my personal preference is to say zazen is a very good thing. You can adorn it with sutras and shastras, deck it out with Buddhas and bodhisattvas, speak meaningfully of "this moment," dangle "kensho" and emptiness from its ears, buy nifty clothes, butter it over with compassion and kindness, add or subtract any damned thing you choose and still, in my mind, zazen is a very good practice.

I was happy to think that that's what I really thought and happy to think someone else might have (in my mind) a similar subscription.

Always keeping in mind, of course, the words I think I read somewhere once: "When has zazen ever had anything to do with sitting on a cushion?"


  1. Toni has a wonderful perspective on Zen without ritual, dogma, cultural overburden, teachers, hierarchy , goal orientation, etc. etc. Springwater is a wonderful place to experience zen in its most unabstract, minimalist form.

    Yes Toni is in hospic. But Springwater, without titles, ranks or transmission, embodies her work of this moment.

  2. "When has zazen ever had anything to do with sitting on a cushion?"

    Well, of course -- when sitting on a cushion. Here, I sit on a swing in the backyard, or inside on a couch during the winter storms. I don't call it zazen. Maybe it's not. Who cares? When I sit, the whole universe is sitting. When I stand, guess who stands up? If anybody knew who was really doing what, they wouldn't be able to place a name for it. Nope, they wouldn't need to say a word at all. Otherwise, call it what you will, it's probably vanity regardless. What I like about Toni is, you won't find much if any vanity there. That's what's rare.