The Essence of this Work

What is the essence of this work–a letter and reply,


Background: For the past 5+ years I’ve been a member of a group that teaches meditation in jails, prisons and transitional housing facilities in the Metro DC area.  We meet regularly to discuss issues, including guidelines for how and what we teach.

My question: Did Toni (ever) mention or use the Four Noble Truths and Eight fold path of Buddhism in her teaching approach? What would you describe as the essence of her teaching?

Any comments appreciated and thanks for your time.

Be well,




Hi Nancy,


I took a quick look at the talk titles and couldn’t find anything that mentioned the Four Noble Truths or the Eight Fold Path, even among the earlier Zen Center talks. My memory is that Toni did mention the noble truths from time to time, but when referencing the eight fold path she would emphasize right understanding as the important aspect–indicating that right speech, etc. would flow from that understanding. Again this is my recollection and my memory is utterly undependable–and I certainly may have misinterpreted what Toni said as well.

But it does make sense to me. How can there be right action or right speech without understanding, without seeing wholly and openly. Without seeing, we depend on the words of others, upon abstract ideas and arbitrary rules and guidelines. If our actions spring from division they will most likely create more division and ultimately more suffering.

Again, I cannot speak for Toni, about what she saw as the essence of meditative work, but to me, it is vitally important to see how we are from moment to moment; to see our reactivity, our fear and anger and our multitudinous longings–and to see if these movements can quiet and might, in the light of understanding, drop away. The Buddha spoke of life as suffering, a suffering brought about by greed, anger and ignorance. Is the ending of suffering the ending of ignorance: discovering in a moment, that we are not the separate, isolated self-center that we think we are? What are we then? Do we need a label or a pat answer, or is this work live, lived; unbound and undefined.

Parenthetically, I’d like to add that Toni would often state that she did not see herself as a teacher. She would ask if we could meet together as friends, not as teacher and student. So I do not feel that she was limited to a ‘teaching approach.’ We were invited to look and discover together what was helpful and what made sense.

Your work in jails and transitional facilities sounds very exciting. What was mentioned above may not be what you are looking for, but what might be of some use is this sense of meditative work that is grounded in seeing/listening. Listening to the prisoners, the parolees, your fellow workers and to oneself. Whatever work we engage in presents countless opportunities to see how we are, how we react and how all of this me stuff can simply drop away. Then there are no prisoners and there are no helpers–simply what is here, what is present at this moment.

With warm regards,