Toni Packer: “Dropped Away”

You won’t find her obituary at the LA Times, nor at the NY Times, the Washington Post, Huffington Post, or at CNN. You will find one for Julie Harris, the great actress who passed away Saturday, of course. And for Charles Pollock, the designer of the popular office chair. And there’s one for Sheila Walsh, an activist nun who lobbied for the needy. But scour the Internet and you’ll find very few mentions of the passing of a pioneer woman author and meditation teacher named Toni Packer.

She died August 23rd at the age of 86.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised at the slight, if that’s the word for it, but given the high profile Buddhism has these days and the growing interest in meditation, I do find it rather odd. Toni Packer truly was a pioneer and that is important.

tonipackerShe got involved with Zen Buddhism in the late sixties, studying under Philip Kapleau, one of the “founding fathers” of American Zen. By the early eighties, however, disenchanted with the Japanese formalism in Zen, and inspired by the writings of J. Krishnamurti, she set out to forge a new path, one that in her words centered on “the work of this moment.”

In 1981, she established the Genesee Valley Zen Center. Four years later, most of the Zen aspects were laid aside and the name was changed to Springwater Center for Meditative Inquiry & Retreats. As the Shambhala Sun noted, in one of the few notices about her death I’ve found, “Toni called herself a friend rather than a teacher.” In a 1996 Tricycle interview, she said, “When I do say that I’m not a teacher, I mean something very simple: I do not have that teacher image of myself. It dropped away quietly.”

Somehow I feel that “dropped away” is apropos to describe her passing. For some time, she had been living in a hospice, bedridden due to a number of medical conditions. I have no knowledge of her final days, but I suspect that she “dropped away quietly,” peacefully, with no fear and no illusions.

I didn’t know Toni Packer, but I know that she was a remarkable woman. I never heard her speak but I’ve read her words and they have resonated with me. I am not as soured on Asian forms as she; however, I am very much aware that forms are empty.

I did think it was important to say a few words on this blog about her presence and her passing. I invite you to learn the details of her life here at Wikipedia, visit the website for Springwater Center, and to read this touching remembrance of her by Seth Zuiho Segall.

This is an excerpt from a talk given by Toni Packer at a February 2006 retreat:

Can we throw out all of our previous ideas of attainment and watch freshly whether there is something we wish to attain, today, this instant? Listening from moment-to-moment, without knowing ahead of time. If you know something ahead of time, like Faust anticipating gaining land from the sea, that wouldn’t count! That is already living in the realm of fantasy, and we’re trying to see whether we can live actually, this moment, concretely, not in fantasy. Can this anticipating, wanting, or striving toward attainment come into awareness by itself? I can’t speak for you, but is it possible for each one of us to turn awareness inward?

Awareness does not really know inward and outward — whatever is going on this instant simply appears. And what is going on? . . . In fully observing what is going on here this instant — is there a noticeable slowing down? Awaring the franticness often results in slowing down. It is a seeming paradox. And the more slowing down of thoughts, the clearer the vision. In hecticness there is very little that can be seen clearly. But as soon as everything slows down, we see in much more subtle detail what is happening. Not what we want to see — let’s be very careful because there is great power in our desire to shape things — hectic wanting can produce mirages — but what’s here, actually. If we urgently need to see clearly, then there is a good likelihood that we will.”

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