Memorial Tributes to Toni

Magdi Badawy – I met Toni at her last retreat at the Rochester Zen Center. I used to go frequently to retreats at the Rochester Zen Center. I was very focused doing zazen and did not socialize much. When I met Toni, I hadn’t even heard of her. It might seem odd that all this time going up to Rochester Zen Center, I had never heard of her. But that is how it was. I did not know it was her last retreat at the RZC. The first day of the retreat, I met with her in the dokusan room, the meeting room. I was having a sensation in my belly, like an expanding balloon and I asked her about this sensation. I don’t clearly remember her answer, but one word stood out. This word was “attending.” To attend. I had never heard this word used in the dokusan room and although I didn’t understand it, it did stop me somehow. It had a significance that I didn’t understand. “Attending” became the core of that retreat. In that term, there was an invitation to relax and a sense of ease and well-being. Over the subsequent retreats with Toni after she left Rochester, “attending” became the core quality of my sitting. There was sweetness, gentleness, an ease which as in contrast to the previous years of Zen practice at the Rochester Zen Center. Soon after that first meeting with Toni, a letter came in the mail asking me to choose whether to continue working at the RZC or to join Toni. The choice made itself. It was really no choice. I continued my work with Toni

Yesterday, I was contemplating who Toni is and what she represents for me… Earlier, I was telling a friend that I don’t know who Toni is. As I stand right here, right now in front of you, I don’t know who Toni is. And it feels perfect. Just being here. So, the way each of you had your personal relationships with Toni… for me Toni is just presence… just this. Really, there are no words for it.

Blessing to you all. Very lovely to have journeyed with Toni and to journey with you.

Betsy Bevan – Toni taught me about light which continues to infuse my life to this day in which I’m grateful. When I think about her, especially here at Springwater Center, I hear her sparkly voice call out to me, “BB!” During retreats, waiting in the solarium to go into a private meeting, I used to tremble in fear to go in and meet with the great Toni. I’d enter the room with trepidation, and she’d bubble up with a smile. “BB!” she’d say, which helped the darkness of my mind release a bit.

When I first came to Zen practice, it was at the Arnold Park Zen Center in Rochester. I was 25 years old and it was a few months before Toni left the Buddhist tradition. Half of the sangha stayed with Roshi Kapleau and half followed Toni on an adventure which became Springwater Center. I had met Toni at a sangha concert I was playing at after Thanksgiving dinner and felt a connection to her due to a mutual love of music. Just five weeks later, in January, my brother, who was 21 years old, became ill and I was meeting with Toni to talk about it. Within two weeks he passed away and shortly after that I attended a seven-day retreat with many sangha members led by Toni at Camp Onanda.

I remember being so annoyed the entire retreat because Toni kept bringing up the topic of death. Every talk seemed to be about death and dying and every time I went in to the little dokusan meeting room she would bring up my brother’s passing. I thought, why is she doing that, why is she being so persistently cruel?

I realized, years later that this was her gift. She would bring things up and out into the light, so they’d be faced, whatever was there. No topic or wound was off limits. Now I’ve come to appreciate her gift, her ability to look and listen with clarity at all of life, internal and external and feel it, discuss it, be with it, notice the resistance, because now I can kind of do that in my life. I have the courage to look and look at myself with inclusiveness and curiosity and compassion.

An important part of my life right now is that I create music to Rumi’s spiritual poetry about the Beloved and infinite love and I perform it with a quartet of musicians. My path to Rumi and sharing the music his words inspire is due to Toni’s work and her tool working through me with the infusion of light and love and I feel very honored to have known her and to have spent so much time at this beautiful retreat center she inspired. Thank you Toni.