Memorial Tributes to Toni

Wayne Coger – Weaving my way to the front, I’ve forgotten everything I had planned to say! And that’s just as well, but now something does come to mind. Just this morning, before the memorial, I had a quick conversation with an old friend about a very difficult situation that had happened–that has been going on for these past few months–at the Center. I looked at what he brought up and there was a spontaneous response, “Maybe we can just forget about it.” And it just occurred to wonder, where did that come from? [laughter] Where have I heard that before? Who invited this capacity to simply drop our so-called problems, our worries?

And now another memory, or another forgetting, arises, about a meeting with Toni during the August retreat. Somebody came here who hadn’t been here for nine years, and he very much wanted to see Toni. We got the clearance to go and visit her in the middle of retreat, and after some small talk, Toni remembered who he was and asked about his wife, his work and his life. At some point there was a lull in the conversation and the visitor, on his knees so that Toni could hear better, began to really praise Toni for bringing the Springwater Center into being, for bringing this different way of working into being, and for sharing her life, herself, to make all of this possible. Toni’s throat by now was dry and she was having trouble swallowing, but she replied haltingly, “I didn’t bring this about.” And the fellow that I came with persisted, “But you did, you gave everything of yourself to this.” And she said very clearly and with energy, “Everything brought this about!” And he said “I understand.”

We don’t know where this energy comes from. It’s amazing and it’s wonderful that it manifested in this person called Toni.

John Teleska – I love seeing you all after the passing of so many years. I first went to the Rochester Zen Center in 1976. I was pretty miserable. I sat for years, staying on the periphery, never going to meetings or sesshin.

Eventually there was this new teacher, Toni Packer, not much on my radar. As she took on more responsibility, she began changing things, shedding some of the long held forms and rituals. Some folks were pretty upset. It came to a head: In a series of meetings in the Buddha hall, Toni and Phillip Kapleau debated their differences. More upset in the sangha. How can two Zen teachers disagree?

There was a split. Toni and a number of students left and set up a Zendo in a house on Alliance Street in Rochester. Without much internal debate, I found myself going with Toni, too. And as soon as the first retreats happened, I attended them. And I started meeting with Toni, which I had never done in any kind of Zen or spiritual setting before. I didn’t have a clue what I was supposed to do at those meetings–yet, I went as often as I could. I asked her all these questions about sitting, relationships, sex, about work, about everything. I just would ask, imagining there was going to be some solution. When a meeting was at its end, Toni would sometimes lean forward and with urgency whisper, “Go on!” As I left, I often thought, “With what?”

Time passed, Springwater Center was built, and I was still sitting and still meeting with Toni. Sometimes she’d hold up a flower and say… well, she’d just hold it up. And I’d dutifully look at it and think “When are we ever going to get down to the real deal?” [laughter] I sort of intuited that somehow the real deal was right in this interaction. More sitting, more meetings. I got really frustrated during the mid to late 1990’s. Finally, at one retreat I went into a meeting with her, and said “I’m done sitting. I’m done, I’ve gotta get off the mat, go out [into the world] and find out more.” She leaned forward and with urgency whispered, “Go on!” I packed and left.

I was gone for years. . . life, relationship, and work my primary teachers. After a long while, I started sitting again, mostly on my own. Eventually I returned to Springwater for a retreat. By this time, Toni was bedridden. People who wanted to meet with Toni signed up on the board outside the kitchen and went by van to her house.

About ten minutes before the van leaves, there’s still a space left. I sign up and go. And we’re all in a C-shape around Toni. When it’s my turn to speak I say my name and Toni says, “I know you” and we interact, all so straightforward.

Afterwards, as everyone leaves I stay behind and scoot over next to the bed. We hold hands. And we are just there looking in each other’s eyes. There’s a felt deepening and she says, “Now there’s just here.” And I start to cry because I empathetically get that she’s in bed, she can’t move, she’s in pain, her body’s thermostat is busted so she gets hot and cold. Ahhh! Suffering and only “now, just here.”

But also what is so, so clear: “Now, just here!” She was holding up that flower!