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Wednesday, 19 June 2013

6/18 - The Springwater Center for Meditative Inquiry

                Another county road in New York state, this one in what appears to be primarily an agricultural region. I miss the side road to the Springwater Center on my first pass, come to a dead end, turn around, and watch more closely on the way back. Even when I pull onto the gravel road indicated, I’m not entirely sure I’m in the right place until I see a bench set up by a stream in the forested area which I drive through very slowly and carefully. In the reception area at the main building there is a notice that a black bear has been seen in the vicinity of the parking lot. Visitors are warned not to stare at it but to turn and go the other way.
                The full name of the Center is The Springwater Center for Meditative Inquiry. Toni Packer established it in 1981, after leaving the Rochester Zen Center. Philip Kapleau had identified her as his successor at the Center, but, after a period of overseeing it during one of his absences, she decided she could no longer practice as a Buddhist. The question she found herself facing was whether or not the type of work that took place within the Zen tradition could be done without all the trappings—without identifying it as Buddhist or even calling it meditation. It was a brave decision on her part, but I suspect if she had not already been identified as Kapleau’s heir, she would not have drawn away as many followers as she did.
                When I wrote to ask permission to come here, I said that I was aware the center was not directly affiliated with the Zen. Wayne Coger wrote back to me and said: “While we are not a Buddhist Center we are incorporated as a Zen Center. The late Roshi Kapleau once wrote that the ‘spirit of Zen is all pervading.’ So legally, and perhaps in spirit, we are in the Zen tradition.”
                It is a very informal atmosphere here. There is no religious imagery of any type, although the “sitting room” looks pretty much like a zendo without an altar. The rules are all optional—save for two: Everyone takes on a one hour work period each day, and when silence in called for, people are silent. Other than that, even during retreats, one may choose to sit or not as one wishes. “You can go for a walk if you want,” Sandra Gonzáles [photo above] tells me. Then adds, “But they don’t. They follow the schedule.”
                Sandra is from Nicaragua and has a charming Latin accent. She had studied with Eido Shimano and then Joshu Sasaki before learning about Toni Packer in a book and coming here in 1988.
                After lunch—the best vegetarian lasagne I’ve ever had!—Sandra leads a discussion circle. It reminds me of a cross between a Quaker meeting and a group therapy session. People sit in silence for a while and then someone brings up a topic which people are free to respond to in any way they wish. The topic that comes up is “authority”—the authority that teachers have or are given.
                Sandra is a “retreat leader” here—she is identified as such in the pamphlet—but she is hesitant to claim to be an authority, or even a teacher. When I push her, she reluctantly agrees to the term “facilitator.”
                She had gone to her first face-to-face meeting with Toni Packer with some anxiety. The format was much what she was used to in Zen, seated on a cushion before the “teacher,” and she began by explaining that her work until then had been largely with koans. Toni asked her why she had come to Springwater, and Sandra said, “I don’t know.” “Then that,” Toni told her, “is your koan.” To sit and to wonder—no other practice. That is meditative inquiry.
                Wayne Coger, another “retreat facilitator,” had been with Toni at the Rochester Zen Center and was one of the nearly 200 students who left to join her when she withdrew. Both he and Sandra have this habit of closing their eyes and reflecting in silence on a question before answering it. I timed one pause at 41 seconds; several were almost as long. I wonder if it is something Toni Packer did as well.
                There is minimal teaching here, so it is difficult to get a handle on what is being done. I suggest to Wayne that they’ve created a supportive environment in which people are able to pursue their own inquiry. He agrees but stresses that this is often easier to do in the company of others.
                So there is sitting; there are talks (one of the guests refers to them as Dharma Talks, but I suspect the “facilitators” just think of them as talks); and there are face-to-face meetings. Not the few seconds or minutes associated with dokusan or sanzen; face-to-face interviews can be half an hour long.
                It is intriguing and attractive, but one cannot help wondering how sustainable it will be without an identified resident teacher. Toni Packer is still alive but is not physically well and has diminished mobility; she no longer has much to do with the operations here. There are questions about the future that need to be addressed. Wayne suggests that the best way to deal with them is to just allow the situation to unfold. Maybe he’s right. I hope he is.
               [On August 23--slightly more than two months after my visit--Toni Packer died. I sincerely wish the staff and members of Springwater well and hope they find a way to continue into the future.]

Cypress Trees in the Garden: pp. 385-408

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