Memorial Tributes to Toni

Sent by Jacek Dobrowolski for the Memorial
IN MEMORY OF TONI PACKER (5.07.1927 – 23.08.2013)

that wild goose flew north
water lapping
at the stony shore

Toni Packer was a wonder to behold. A subtle, open, caring, loving, wise, free, noble-hearted lady effortlessly helping anybody who asked for help. A marvelous teacher with no airs, no stench of enlightenment, no compulsive desire to demonstrate anything. She was clear and sober, had a cool head and a warm heart and a very strong, yet playful, iron butterfly spirit. She would never flinch facing adversity, just danced through all obstacles. She was no imitator, no clone, no actress, charmer or story-teller. She knew that meditation starts where all theater ends. She was at home both with silence and with speaking and that was natural with her. Truth shone through her with a steady light–open presence of an intelligence upholding us all. Toni was a true woman of no rank with just one intention–to help people turn their attention around and question what one has not yet questioned to discover that there is no one suffering, that we are all this boundless indivisible whole with no cracks. She did not impart any teaching, she never pretended she had a secret to disclose and she jokingly nipped in the bud any admiration the listeners, marveling at her talents, would exhibit. She had tremendous energy, did not need to feed on anybody’s praise, and would certainly laugh at everything I have written here. She was simple, direct and unbelievably patient. Her only concern was, “Why do you suffer?” She had a great understanding for human weaknesses and never put people down. “Forgive and forget” was her credo.
She was very modest and that is why the public at large is not aware of her pioneer work. Not suffering from a savior complex she never cared for publicity and expansion. Luckily her six books and hundreds of taped talks remain and her quiet influence will grow, as she had prudently picked worthy successors.
I became her translator in Poland in 1975 and since that time I have also been interpreting for a number of Zen teachers in the Japanese, Korean and American traditions, but none of them opened human hearts like Toni has. I was fortunate to meet and hear H.H. the Dalai Lama speak several times and interviewd him once in Auschwitz, and I can say that they both shared the same effortless spontaneity of the heart bringing out the best in human beings. Toni was a wonderful speaker, shooting rays of light; her clear vowels and her slightly German “r’s” made her speech poignant. Her words went to the root. But she never dotted the “i’s,” never spoke in absolutes that trap the inquiry, just helped to open the space for her listeners to explore. She was a very fine human instrument, the result of dedicated meditative tuning of the heart, a true Stradivarius. She wore pendants on her throat and brooches on her heart chakras indicating the energy flow.
Toni was an excellent listener and a superb diagnostician of human problems. People coming to meetings, upon sensing her warm powerful presence, frequently could not help but cry spontaneously, unable to speak. And yet she never played mama or the great comforter, not wishing to bind people in any way. She was playful, had a very cheerful disposition, loved animals, specially the big black dog Bailey, her closest neighbor. She never had enough of nature, was an ardent country-side walker and even when she was sick would roam her neighborhood with walking sticks in her hands like some faery inspecting what new plants have sprouted and what snails have appeared.
One tiny incident may reveal her subtle spirit. When her hand inadvertently brushed against a small table in the meeting room, she immediately exclaimed: “Sorry table!”
Toni started sitting as a mature person, a housewife and a mother. She has never been at a Zen Center on staff–just came for sesshin. The kyosaku stick was not used much on her, as she was a very sensitive lady and had her initial insight only after a year and a half of training. She recalled being a very ambitious meditator but her gentle character smoothed the edges and the besserwisser Zen conceit dropped away quickly. She led her first sesshin ever in communist Poland on Kamienczyk (Pebble Mountain) where we had built a zendo in 1977.
As a junior Zen teacher in a macho Zen Center Toni was given the job of counseling people who had problems the master could not bother with. She soon learned from the people branded “wimps” or “passive/aggressive women” about their hurts caused by the priestly power elite. This made her pproach even more gentle. The more yang was the Zen Center policy, the more yin became her attitude. The more the “pressure cooker” and the “grist for the mill” methods were hailed as most productive ego-killers, the more she advocated questioning all methods and praised yielding to what is. She saw the warrior path as dualistic since the warrior always needs an opponent, even if it is his illusory divided self. She did not need it, being at peace with herself and she knew it awoke ambition in people that burned their hearts.
Shunning the violent tactics of the Rinzai school she took a liking to effortless meditation advocated by Huang-Po and Bankei. She saw the danger of abusing the koan system by taking pride in collecting koans and becoming attached to a system of skillful means. She also avoided Dharma combat resulting in being enslaved and enslaving others by strong and beautiful words itching on the tip of the triumphant tongue. Finally, spurred by Krishnamurti’s iconoclastic attitude, Toni, as a meditation teacher outside any tradition, became a gentle revolutionary, turning the self-inquiry, which the ancient Indian teachers had called atma vicara, into an open meditative inquiry.
She wondered why, if we have freedom of inquiry in science and art, we don’t use it in the spiritual realm? What prevents us? Fear of venturing into the unknown? Fear of leaving the beaten paths and entering the ever-growing jungle without ancient, outdated maps? Who stops us? Is it only the priestly tradition devoid of innocent curiosity, that defends its map collections? Or is it the Puritan superego heavily imprinted in the American psyche? Can the inquiry be totally free? and what are we afraid of discovering?
Over the years of working with this moment, following the process of listening and inquiring, she coined her own simple and original language: “wondering without knowing,” “awaring,” “open presence,” “silent question,” “stop, look and listen,” “an opening.” Rejecting power, titles and honors, respecting everyone, listening to the most confused questions, she managed through a friendly, gentle and patient dialogue with her friends in creating probably the most egalitarian meditative community in the world. She was a pointer and an attentive guide safely steering people to the shore through uncharted waters.
Her American friends tend to forget that she was also a product of German high intellectual culture. She trained as a soprano and sang Bach and Wagner in her youth. She loved German poetry and when we would meet after years of not seeing one another, she would quote Goethe, Schiller, Heine or Rilke.
Politically she was a leftist liberal, critic of both religious dogmas and the religion of greed of the military-industrial complex, as leading inevitably to war. She did not play a recluse hiding from society at large, but followed the news closely and was very much aware of the conflicts on our merry planet.. Over 30 years ago, during the Iranian crisis, she already warned of branding people “terrorists,” and concluded that it will all end with dictatorships, as people will sacrifice freedom for security. Some feminists tried to make a matriarch out of her but she refused to become one of the leaders of the American feminist movement. She cared for all regardless of sex, culture, race and species. Championing a one-sided cause would have destroyed her all-inclusive approach.
She is gone like a cloud after sprinkling rain on our hot heads, so that we may enjoy sunshine and our company more. Thank you, Toni, for sharing the open secret of the heart in your Springwater inn. Thank you Toni for striking the best chord in us. Thank you, Toni, for caring, for being a beacon of light on this rocky sea of life. You did not wag your tongue in vain.
white feather
floating safely
above the Genesee Valley