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. From the Shambhala Sun archives, you can read a teaching by Toni Packer, “What is this Me?” and Robert Hirshfield’s portrait of her, “Nothing but the Present.”

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

6 Comments

  1. Susan
    Posted August 24, 2013 at 9:03 am | Permalink

    I have known and worked with Toni for over 30 years. She has had a profound impact on my life, may she rest in peace and now be free of pain.

  2. Posted August 24, 2013 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

    ONLY THE BUDDHA

    Out of Emptiness
    the buddhadharma gives you
    someplace to return to:
    working on an old koan,
    studying the thousand sutras,
    attempting to follow the precepts—
    giving them all up,
    after you’ve worked so hard, so long
    with each of them—
    who but the unseen, unknown Buddha
    could cut the ropes and sink his raft,
    walk shoeless and empty-handed
    out upon that shore?

    —Richard Wehrman

    (worked with Toni back in the old
    Rochester zc days. Her presence
    and compassion opened me more
    than any teaching could do.)

  3. D Allen
    Posted August 24, 2013 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

    Actually, Roshi Kapleau named Toni his successor and asked her to take over all teaching duties at Rochester Zen Center as he retired. She carried out those responsibilities for a year before deciding to leave. Her disenchantment was not only with Asian forms but with any forms that get in the way of open listening, questioning, wondering. But she wasn't really interested in rejecting anything as much as moving into something that genuinely opened up space for we human beings to look and question together into the silence of not-knowing. I was there through all of this and watched her, while under intense judgement and pressure from many, take her leave with grace and the willingness to do this 'work' with anyone who was interested.

  4. Posted August 25, 2013 at 10:40 pm | Permalink

    I had the good fortune of working with Toni as an editor for her first book at Shambhala Publications, "The Work of This Moment." Toni’s was one of the first books I brought in as a junior editor there. At the time, I was recovering from radiation treatment for cancer of the larynx. I won’t forget her kindness and her sheer intensity as a teacher, reflected in the title of her book. This very moment has an urgency to it, presenting us with a challenge; to work with it–work that never ends but is endlessly rewarding.

  5. Shiri Ayalon Grote
    Posted September 5, 2013 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

    Will always be my teacher, regardless of what she called herself.

  6. Cheryl Lynn Yeoman
    Posted September 22, 2013 at 9:11 am | Permalink

    I have known Toni for 3 in half years as her caregiver I was very blessed to have known her she taught me alot and her passing for me is very difficult but I know she is no longer suffering anymore and shes at great peace I will deeply miss her and I will never forget her

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