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Buddhadharma : Winter 2013
After the war, Toni emigrated to Switzerland where she fell in love with a young conscientious objector named Kyle Packer. The couple mar- ried and eventually settled near Buffalo, New York, where Kyle became a school principal. They adopted a son, and in the late sixties, Toni and Kyle began practicing at the Rochester Zen Center. Toni rose quickly through the ranks and was asked to take over the center when her teacher retired. But by then, Toni was already questioning the traditional way and had discovered J. Krishnamurti, whose insights and questions dovetailed with her own. Eventually, in 1981, Toni left the Rochester Zen Center and along with a number of her students founded the Genesee Valley Zen Center. They bought land in rural Springwater, New York, about an hour south of Rochester, built a retreat center there from scratch, and before long the name was changed to simply Springwater Center. Any of the traditional Zen forms that seemed to get in the way of open listening and looking were gradually dropped, and although she gave talks and led retreats, Toni called herself a friend rather than a teacher. Sitting periods were optional, you could sit in armchairs and recliners as well as on meditation cushions, and open group dialogue became a part of every retreat. There were no rituals or ceremonies, the Buddhist jargon and ter- minology were replaced with ordinary secular language, and there was no formal practice in the usual methodical sense. The emphasis was on awareness, inquiry, looking and listening, being awake to the present moment, uncovering and seeing through the false separations that seem to divide and encapsulate us—the self-images we protect and defend, the ways we identify ourselves with certain groups and not with others. Toni questioned everything with the open-minded rigor of a scientist. She never settled for yesterday’s conclusions or stopped look- ing at things anew. She invited us to look deeply into our human suffering (anger, fear, addiction, compulsion, whatever it might be) and to observe it all with nonjudgmental curiosity and interest. For decades, Toni held roughly eight retreats a year at Springwater and several more every year in Europe and California. She met with people individually, faithfully answered letters, wrote books, served on the board of trustees, and acted as the head administrator of the center. She worked tirelessly. Toni was no stranger to suffering. After Kyle died in 1999, Toni began a fourteen-year descent into severe chronic pain and increasing loss of mobility. She was bedridden for the last years of her life. It was the kind of ending most of us dread—gradually losing the ability to do everything you love and everything that has defined you, being dependent on others, being in pain. It was a good reminder that being awake doesn’t mean that you will live in perpetual bliss. The mind habitually wants comforting, feel-good answers, but Toni asked questions instead. She invited us to be with every moment, just as it is: “No matter what state dawns at this moment, can there be just that? Not a movement away, an escape into something that will provide what this state does not provide, or doesn’t seem to provide: energy, zest, inspira- tion, joy, happiness, whatever. Just completely, unconditionally listening to what’s here now, is that possible?” Yesterday, as I walked up the hill, some shriveled flowers lined the path—an early frost had snuffed out their delicate lights. Other hardier plants were blooming during the warming day. Your question came to mind: “What is it that lives and dies?” We usually ask this question when someone close to us dies or when we ponder our own death. Rarely do we want to know what it is in a flower that has died. We take it for granted that the earth displays constantly appearing, changing, and disappearing colors, forms, and textures. ➤ What Is It That Lives and Dies? In honor of Toni Packer, we present the following selection of her teachings SETHLEVINSON