Remembering meditation teacher Toni Packer (1927 – 2013)

On August 13, we reported that author and meditation teacher Toni Packer had entered hospice. Today, word comes that, on the evening of August 23, the Springwater Center founder died peacefully in hospice in Mount Morris, New York, surrounded by some of her oldest and dearest friends. She was 86 years old.

An early adherent of Zen Buddhism, she taught often at Phillip Kapleau Roshi’s Rochester Zen Center and was thought to be next in line to succeed him. But Packer would become disenchanted with Asian forms in the practice and found the Springwater Center for Meditative Inquiry and Retreats in 1981, eschewing even the labels “Buddhist,” “Zen,” and “teacher.” She published five books, the latest of which is The Silent Question: Meditating in the Stillness of Not-Knowing.

A selection of Packer’s teachings will be presented in the Winter 2013 Buddhadharma, along with a remembrance from Joan Tollifson, who served on the staff of Springwater Center for five years and considers Toni her primary teacher. In addition to sharing her impressions of her late teacher, Tollifson presents some of the facts of Packer’s extraordinary life, as in the following excerpts:

“Born in 1927, Toni grew up half-Jewish in Hitler’s Germany. Because of her father’s prestigious scientific career, the family was spared from the Holocaust, at least until the very end, when they learned that had the war gone on longer, they would have been taken to the death camps. Toni vividly remembered air raids during the war, bombs falling all around her, buildings on fire, and her father — whom she revered — huddled in terror in the shelter. She often said that it was this encounter with the depth of human-generated horror that initially prompted her spiritual search.

“After the war, Toni emigrated to Switzerland, where she fell in love with a young conscientious objector named Kyle Packer. The couple married and eventually settled near Buffalo, NY, 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 dove-tailed 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. The Zen forms were gradually dropped, and Toni called herself a friend rather than a teacher.

[...]

“The last time I saw Toni in person, which was several years ago, she had that luminosity that people often have as they approach the end of their life, when everything has been stripped down to the barest, most essential reality — pure and simple love. She was one the most truly amazing people I’ve ever met, and I feel enormously blessed to have worked closely with her and to have known her over these many years.”

You’ll find Tollifson’s complete tribute to Packer in the Winter 2013 Buddhadharma. Visit the Springwater Center website for a selection of Packer’s teachings, here.

Buddhadharma and the staff of the Shambhala Sun Foundation offer our condolences to all who feel Toni’s loss.