I just received word that Toni Packer, after a brief hospitalization, is now in hospice care at the Livingston County Center for Nursing. My first impulse was to write that I had heard the news “with great sadness,” but those words would not be entirely true. I’m not at all sure that Toni feels any sadness at the moment, or if she does, I suspect it’s fleeting, coming and going with the clouds and the warm summer breeze. My fantasy is that she’s ready for whatever comes, embracing and investigating each moment with her customary clarity and equanimity, and not necessarily eager to hang on to a failing body with all its attendant pain. This is all, however, just my fantasy, my projected wish for Toni’s last days. It’s been years since we’ve last talked or corresponded. My own personal sorrow is mixed with my great appreciation for having met and known her, and a wish for her suffering to be minimal and at its end.
Toni has been in pain for over a decade. In 2003 she wrote me about her chronic and debilitating pain and neuropathy, hoping her doctors would come up with some “miracle med.” (“Too much to expect?” she asked in parenthesis.) Despite the pain, she tried to maintain her life’s work of meditative inquiry and dialogue:
“The one thing that has not been affected by this ailing body are talks and meetings even though we had to cut back schedules. There seems to be even more than the usual clarity and sharpness of mind in meeting together, and I’m thankful for that indeed.”
As time went on, her energy and mobility decreased, until she became bed-ridden.
In 2006 I’d written Toni about some changes going on in my own life, including my late wife’s struggles with cancer and my first grandchildren — twins! — on the way. Toni’s response says, I think, something about her perspective on her own worsening adversity:
“And twins about to arise… have they fully made their appearance? I wish you all the best for your new family! It won’t be easy, but good if you can maintain some equanimity in the midst of all this relentless change, the endless demands that little human beings bring into life from the very outset. Wishing you lots of strength, remaining in touch with that bottomless source of energy that only seems to elude us at times — with sufficient patience a little bit of a toe-hold is always possible!”
She ended with her characteristic warmth: “Sending you love and a big hug for all of you.”
Toni was one of my very first teachers. The first time I heard her voice was at a Q-and-A session at the 1997 Buddhism in America conference in Boston. It was the most moving dharma talk I’ve ever heard, composed and delivered in the moment, spontaneously, from the heart. It seems fitting now that what she talked about then was life and death — how people who are dear come and go in our lives — how that’s the very nature of our existence. It wasn’t so much what she said, but the way she said it, tinged with tenderness, emotion, and the ring of hard-earned truth. I decided then and there that I wanted Toni in my life as a “teacher” (she would reject the term), and began a series of retreats with her at the Springwater Center for Meditative Inquiry.
Toni’s the real thing. She talks the talk and walks the walk. There’s a clarity, genuineness, and openness about her that very few people possess. She invites you to sit with her and discover things for yourself, without dogma, ritual, or cant. She doesn’t need to teach you anything, but gives you the space to discover things for yourself. She’s a true kalyana-mitta, or spiritual friend, and she’ll always be with me.
When I first sat retreat with Toni, it seemed to me she did things backward. Coming from a Theravada tradition, I had traditionally meditated with eyes-closed. Toni meditated Zen-style with eyes open, but when she gave her dharma talks, she often did so with eyes closed. It was as if the attention she needed to find the right words required that she shut out all possible distractions. When she spoke, her body moved and swayed with her words, so that she wasn’t talking from her “head,” but with her whole body-heart-mind. I have never seen or heard anyone else talk in just that way. Her talks never seemed canned or rehearsed, but were truly of and in the moment.
As Toni nears her end, I wish her everything she wished for me seven years ago — equanimity, connection to the “bottomless source of energy,” and the possibility of “maintaining a toe-hold” in “aware-ing” and “presence.” Her life has been extraordinary from beginning to end, from the little half-Jewish girl raised in Berlin in the shadow of the Third Reich, to her marriage, family and immigration to the U.S., to her pioneering role at Phillip Kapleau Roshi’s Rochester Zen Center, to the gradual process of shedding past attachments and allegiances to create her own Center, forged from her acquaintance with Zen and Krishnamurti, but also from her own unique understanding of awareness. Along with other seminal figures like Charlotte Joko Beck, she has helped shaped the course of Buddhism in America for the better: a Buddhism that’s centered in the aliveness of discovering the moment, freed from authority and dogma, and welcoming of women on a footing of respect and equality.
Toni, I’m thinking of you as you begin your final journey. My heart and thoughts are with you. And Toni, as Milton Erikson used to say, “your voice goes with me.” You’re a part of me and everyone you’ve touched in all your years, and you live on in the future of the Buddhism (and non-Buddhism) you’ve helped shape.
Many blessings! And may your path be easy!