Toni Packer Remembrances
sent by Kevin Frank February 25, 2014 – The Toni that I continue to hear is a voice of profound optimism and affirmation: The moment when I reported to her in sesshin that I felt lost, and her response was, “Great, be totally lost!” and then the bell to leave.
Then there were the moments when I had to report any number of disasters, crises, fund raising shortfalls, staff conflict/hired manager conflicts, and so on, during the construction of the Springwater Center–her responses were typically something like, “Why be afraid?” or just curiosity about the details, wanting to hear considerable details. Then quiet. Then, “OK, let’s see what happens. Something will work out.” The message felt true somehow. We kept going. Something worked out.
And at staff meetings in Springwater, with no end of challenges about what we could provide to guests, to unusual people who showed up to volunteer and test just how far we could go with questioning, I felt some sense of wanting to allow a degree of questioning and then a desire to get on to expedience. Toni counseled that we give the benefit of the doubt to doubting, for some of us, at times, to a maddeningly great degree. The question became, for me at least, how far can we take this work, when practical “realities” appear to breathe down our neck? And the Toni voice inside me says, “Why have any ideas about this?”
Living on staff at the ZC, the GVZC and then the SC was an opportunity for communal fish bowl living. Toni was part of the fishbowl, as we all lived and worked in close quarters. I think this was a feat of adaptability for Toni, to live and work communally like that. What strikes me now is that no matter the considerable errors, embarrassments, and shortcomings of my work life and personal life, consistently Toni’s questions to me would be about what was true in my experience. No judgment on her part was noticed; just let’s look and see what’s true. She offered the chance to look. . .
I reflect that years of working with Toni leave me with the impulse to watch and see if judgment is necessary–whether it leads to anything worthwhile. I remember Toni, again at the Zen Center, walking around the Zendo during sesshin, and she starts to recite words from the Prajna Paramita Sutra, “No eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind. . .” then, “NO JUDGEMENTS”. . . as she then walked out and up the stairs. . .
I recall also, a voice of pain and anguish, not from her later years, but from the years of heartache, or what I would call heartache, around the episodes of schism in the Zen community–the response I saw was one of grief and enormous responsibility and worry. I don’t see this as a fault. I see it was a chance to absorb how we all might have to face inconvenient truth, and that, for her, there was no question about being fully truthful and, at the same time, no escape, no looking for escape, from her grief about the consequences, and the body pain that goes along with it. One must act, and then one may have to ache.
And I fondly remember Toni attempting to enroll staff at the Mt. Hope house in the art of properly cleaning the bathtub after using it–taking advantage of the plastic bubbly water bottle she donated to the bathroom so each one of us might fill it, and then squirt the rub walls to free them of the things that bodies leave behind on bathtub walls. I appreciate remembering the movements of Toni’s hand showing the dance of bathtub rinsing. And I feel an amused irony in Toni’s face as she saw how hopeless it was to expect a clean bathtub, living at Mt. Hope.,
Sent by Jack Canfield January 1, 2014 – Toni wonderful Toni. She first appeared in my life in the late sixties, when, acting for Philip Kapleau, she gave a talk at the then recently formed Toronto Zen Center. Her topic was the crucial one of death. Afterward we talked only briefly but a contact had been made that changed over the years to strong commitment, as I struggled to follow the trail she had blazed. What was it like to follow that path? The central feature of her non-practice practice was a direct and simple focus on awareness. I have this corresponding vivid memory: Mind alert, well into retreat, sitting with Toni in the meeting room, she holds up a burning candle–presenting it to my strong awareness. Another such moment, telling of the Toni we love and celebrate here: On the balcony, arriving on the first day of retreat, I see Toni some yards away, speaking with some people. she turns her head, sees me, and breaks into a marvelous heartfelt smile. Her whole being is in that smile, indeed her whole practice. For at the heart of her teaching, of the walk she walks, showing forth her deep affinity with those ancient and contemporary spiritual sages, is love. Not romantic love but an all embracing deep-grounded love that reaches out to all.