Excerpts from a question and answer session with Toni Packer at the Buddhism in America conference in Boston in January, 1997.
Questioner One: I would like to ask you a question. I have deep respect for you — I’ve listened to your tapes and read your books. I also have deep respect for the others present here, and for myself. We have been talking a lot about the future of Buddhism in America, and many people here are from different traditions, and some are not affiliated with traditions. Generally the traditions have a concept of transmission and lineage — lineage from master to teacher to support the tradition down through centuries and support the teachings that will succeed us. Your discovery, your approach is seen by many people as a stripping away of form, and I think many people would see something of the future of Buddhism in a form which has no form, which asks, as you do, that you be simply present with the moment. As a person grounded in the traditions I’m asking whether you could address my concerns about the future, about future developments without a sense of lineage.
Toni: Truth itself needs no lineage, it is here, without past or future. I cannot share your concerns for the future because I don’t have them.
In Springwater, where we hold retreats and I meet and talk with people, some have expressed concern about the future, and a committee has been organized to share ideas and visions about what the Center will be like without Toni. “After all, she’s getting older, she’ll be seventy this year, and what will become of the Center when she is no longer here, how will we use the place, will we preserve it or do we need to preserve it, should we continue in the way we have been, or should we do something different, shall we find new teachers in our own midst, or ask other teachers to hold retreats here?” and so on and so on. (To avoid a possible misunderstanding, let me say that I am presently in the best of health and vigor.)
I am always interested in what people say, feel, fear, and creatively imagine, and I’m curious about what is being envisioned for Springwater, but I’m not concerned about the future. I’m saying this completely honestly. From its very beginnings, which cannot even be remembered, this whole amazing unfolding present, since my early childhood days in Nazi Germany, I feel a total absence of this apprehension with regard to Springwater. I understand the brain’s ingrained occupation with thoughts and plans about future developments — it certainly has a practical function in daily life. But it is a wondrous happening when creative responses arise out of the openness of simply being here this moment, awake, and empty of self-interest — no felt need to identify with any person, place, group, or teaching. How could anyone be worried that truth might not reveal itself entirely on its own at any moment? It’s doing this all the time! Truth doesn’t need a midwife to come into being.
Transmission takes place when two people, or a group of people, see completely eye to eye — one single eye seeing. I’m not talking of sharing the same opinions or traditions, but being free from conditioned opinions and traditions at the instant of seeing. When the tight enclosure of self-delusion becomes luminously transparent, narrowness is replaced by vastness — there is no one there to be anything, nothing to get, nothing to know, nothing to pass on. What is there to transmit? To whom? We’re not divided from each other! I give you a hug. Did I transmit love to you? Or is it here, flowering joyously?
I do remember koans from Zen training which dealt with “preserving the house and the gate” — the house and the gate referring not just to the temple, but to the entire tradition. The budding Zen teacher going through koans has to learn not only to speak and act before the teacher out of “non-duality,” but also to take on the responsibility of preserving and perpetuating the house and gate of their lineage. That’s not what I’m interested in. I wish for Springwater to flourish in its own spontaneous and unpredictable ways, and not become a place for the transmission of traditional teachings. But if this should happen, so be it. We can wake up at any time!
Am I communicating with you? Have I been talking to your question?
Questioner One: Yes. If you had put the question to me, “What is it that is transmitted?” I could talk to that question, but I’m here to listen. In a sense there is a body of knowledge which is intuitive, that seems actually….
Toni: Yeah — that I leave to others.
Questioner One: A master will have presence. You yourself have a state of presence. If you were not present yourself, but spoke to others continually about presence, I think the respect that you deserve and which you receive, would not be there. So there is something which you are transmitting, unless that is just words, which isn’t truly just words, but there is something…
Toni: Is there something? Is there something?
Questioner One: Your presence is first, to those who are. . . .
Toni: It’s not mine, it’s not mine! [Laughter] Or is it?
Questioner One: No, it’s not yours. It’s not yours, it’s not mine, it’s not ours, it is presence.
Toni: Yes, yes! And who transmits it to whom? Who “receives” it when it’s simply here?
Questioner One: When one is deluded, and one is not clear. . . .
Questioner One: . . . then there is a transmission.
Toni: [Laughs] Yes! You said it! I didn’t.
Questioner One: It’s hard for me to say that it doesn’t happen. Say I’m in the presence of a master, and I am deluded, and gradually through the collapse of my strategies I fall into the presence of the master. The master is skillful, and I have experienced that as a transmission, so it’s difficult for me to say that it hasn’t happened. I began by saying out of respect for you, that I ask these questions, and it is really out of deep respect — I’m not trying to set traps.
Toni: I didn’t feel that you did. What is there to get trapped?
Questioner One: I know it sounds like I’m only trying to be clever with you, and I’m not. . . .
Toni: No, I understand.
Questioner One:I’m just being with you, it’s a privilege rather than just listening to your voice on a tape.
Toni: The real thing!
Questioner Two: Is there is a possibility of all of us learning the same truth through different paths?
Toni: We learn the truth in spite of different paths!
Truth has nothing to do with a path. I’m not saying this facetiously.
Questioner Two: No, I hear you.
Toni: Truth is not caused by a path. And waking up… who knows why there is waking up? It’s the miracle of humanity, or of the universe, that there is waking up to the truth of infinite wholeness! For me to think that you woke up because my tradition did something or you makes me feel good about myself and about my tradition.
If I remember correctly, the Buddha once said: “Since there is the Unbecome, Unborn, Unmade, Unformed, there can be liberation from the become, born, made, or formed.” Unbecome means not subject to cause and effect. Everything we do — striving, hurting, retaliating, or forgiving each other is the conditioned stuff of cause and effect. The clarity of insight is unconditioned — it has no cause and no effect.
Why “no effect?”
If you belittle me, and there is complete listening, complete attention to what you’re saying — what’s going on for you and what’s happening in me, to the body’s impulse to tighten up, to fight back, defend itself, or withdraw in pain — if there is complete openness in listening, attending to the whole thing vulnerably, innocently, then what you are saying does not become the
cause of an effect.
I see you’re nodding, you understand. People say to me: “Didn’t you, Toni, learn to concentrate and be aware through long years of Zen practice — wasn’t that the cause of an effect?” And looking back through memory, I can say, “Yes, twenty, thirty years ago, there wasn’t this ability to look and attend quietly, undividedly, in a sustained way. But one also realizes that uncountable other things, beside Zen training, have fed into the unfolding of this present moment, including the “big bang,” the fact that the universe happened at all. If it becomes clear that right now we’re the result of everything that’s ever happened, why pick out one thing and say that was the cause of this? Everything is the cause of everything, and everything is also the effect of everything. And yet — this moment of being here completely unfettered, is timeless and without cause.
Someone asked me, “Can a leaf swirling to the ground be my teacher?” Yes! Of course! This instant of seeing is the timeless teacher, the leaves are just what they are.
Questioner One: You’re pointing to awareness, not to a method, if I’ve understood correctly. I’m reflecting back, “What is awareness?” and in a sense it isn’t a practice. Awareness is what it is, it’s not a practice. Am I echoing what you said… or am I distorting?
What I wanted to put to you was, we came to your talk from listening to Tsultrim speaking about the three vehicles with the vast array of practices. Everybody was listening to the vast array of practices. Pointing to awareness is staying with the essence, if you like, the very essence, but people go through a vast array of different states and problems. I’ve heard the Dalai Lama say about certain Zen schools, they have one method. Is one method enough to cope with all the various types of problems and states that people have? Pointing to awareness is not even in essence a method. I understand that. I wonder if you could address that for me?
Toni: What are you asking?
Questioner One: The vast array of methods in Buddhism — ah, you’re not even really advocating one method!
Toni: No. And yet we work. We look and listen, just as we’re doing right now. If you say that’s a method, well, I don’t care what words you use. We love to label things, don’t we? People say to me, “you have the ‘methodless method” and stuff like that.
But, I have no quarrels, I’m not fighting people who do practices or whatever. I don’t know. See, insight happens. In spite of anything we do, it does happen.
Several years ago, a man came to Springwater, who wanted to talk to me about an experience he had during the Vietnam war. I had never seen him before nor did he ever come back. He looked somewhat unpolished, he told me he was a steelworker. The memory of that day in Vietnam had just come up again, and he wanted to talk to somebody who might understand. This is how I remember his story: In Vietnam, not too far from where his platoon was located, there was a hill dangerously “infested” with Vietcong fighters, and his commander was charged with capturing that hill from the air. He asked for volunteers but nobody volunteered. So individual names were called up, and his was among them. “You cannot possibly imagine how I felt,” he told me. “My knees were shaking so fiercely I hardly made it up to the helicopter. I was in total panic.” And then, flying and looking for that hill, something inconceivable happened. Suddenly every bit of fear dropped away and there was nothing but vastness and peace and joy — these may not have been his exact words, but that doesn’t matter. “And,” he added, “We didn’t even find that hill — it didn’t exist.” Returning to his unit, he was overflowing with the urge to tell people what had happened to him, but his buddies just laughed at him, maybe they thought he was off, that something had snapped in him. Telling his wife later, she didn’t understand either.
So — a flash of insight happens to a frightened marine on a death commando in a helicopter. We could say, maybe facing death caused everything to drop away. And when everything drops away, all the paths, the refuges, the “I am” and the “Buddha, Dharma, Sangha,” — what’s left?
When the fog lifts, bright sunshine illuminates and warms the whole earth.
So, you see, I’m not really concerned with practices and paths. I understand that you are, because you may be in the midst of all this right now. We can start working together from scratch at any time, but if you do something else, then you do something else. It doesn’t matter much, does it?
Let me add a few more words here, outside of the conference, on how I regard the function of a spiritual teacher, guide, facilitator, pointer, catalyst, a mirror for seeing oneself. All of these different terms are appropriate in a way, but the simplicity of being here without any sense of separation, and responding out of silent, empty listening cannot be captured in a definition, a word, a label. Defining oneself in any way harbors dangers. The human mind likes to grasp at concepts about itself, to feel good and important about itself, and the image of being something or somebody (like “a spiritual teacher” with all of its heavy traditional paraphernalia) instantly creates separation and hierarchy in the midst of empty, creative space.
So, if the work of this moment is not the transmission of something to someone — not the transmission of teachings, of traditional rituals, of secret or not so secret practices, not a body of knowledge or interpretations of scriptures — then what is it? What is my function in meeting with people who come in sorrow, confusion, upset, anger, fear, despair, and a deep yearning to be healed, to become whole, to find out whether there is anything beyond the nitty-gritty of everyday life?
I am learning more and more, as the years go by, what it is not. The essential function of a spiritual guide is not, as I see it, to give instructions, practices, counsel, solace, answers, solutions to problems and so forth. It is rather to allow the total situation, as it is manifesting right now in us and everywhere around us, to reveal itself as it is, and, if questioned, to point out clearly what is actually going on to whomever is listening and looking. Not just talk out of remembrances of past experiences, not simply use descriptions or give explanations, not “teaching you.” It is the complete entering into what is happening right here, lovingly, without any resistance, letting the meeting together percolate spontaneously. Let it all become transparent and express itself in words that arise freely, without hanging on to the words. Words can be changed. Nothing that is happening is permanent, and all is taking place in empty space without borders. “Empty” meaning the absence of a self-centered network confining and fragmenting the space. When that is in abeyance and the brain is awake, then there is the clarity to see people and things just as they are. In emptiness nothing collides with anything. Empty space does not resist the free movement of infinite happenings. In listening, speaking and acting out of this common ground, we can awaken to the joy of wholeness — our true home.
Often people who come to a meeting mention intense fear of this emptiness — maybe one had a momentary experience of it during quiet sitting or whenever. For the Vietnam veteran the vastness was joyous freedom. But at another instant it may also arouse a barrage of frightening thoughts about “myself”: “What’s happening to me? Am I disappearing? Will I lose all that I am used to?” In this confusion one may come upon the help of someone who understands, who can enter freely into fear and point to thought and memory as the origin of these endless fears of separation and death.
Can one see directly that fear stirs as soon as thoughts and images about myself arise, but that this does not tell the truth about what I really am? Can we discover for ourselves tha
t what we call “fear” is a disagreeable mental and physical reaction programmed into every living cell of this organism? Fear may be useful when there is real danger, but most of the time the brain is making a mistake in warning of a danger which does not even exist, threatening a “me” that is seemingly possessed by fear. As soon as the thought about “me” arises, there is separation accompanied by fear, as well as longing for wholeness, for paradise lost. No thought of “me” — no separation.
In emptiness there is wholeness — everything completely as it is.