Driving along a county road in an agricultural region of New York State, 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 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 Springwater Center for Meditative Inquiry had been established by Toni Packer in 1981 after she left the Rochester Zen Center. Philip Kapleau had identified her as his successor, but, after a period of overseeing the Center 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.
There 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 González tells me. Then adds, “But they don’t. They follow the schedule.”
Sandra is from Nicaragua and had studied with Eido Shimano and Joshu Sasaki before learning about Toni Packer in a book and coming here in 1988.
Lunch is prepared by long-time Zen practitioner, Andy Anderson (and is probably the best vegetarian lasagna I’ve ever had). Afterwards, Sandra leads a discussion circle which 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 print material at the Center—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.
I try to get a sense of what exactly the term means and how it differs from traditional Zen practice. “Okay,” I say, “let’s pretend I’m someone who’s heard about this place, and I come knocking on the door. I’ve never done any kind of spiritual practice before, but I think I’d like to give it a try. So I come to the door. Who would be the first person who’d speak to me?”
“Okay,” I say, laughing. “So I come to reception and say, ‘Hi! I wanna try this out. Your sign says “meditative inquiry.” I want to learn how to inquire meditatively.’ What’s the receptionist going to say?”
“‘So you’re interested in this work?’” Then in a deeper voice, gently making fun of me, “‘Yes.’ So there are some people here if you want to meet, if you are interested.’”
“And who are those people? Who would I be directed to?”
“Me or whoever is here.”
“So the receptionist directs me to you, and I tell you that I’ve read a little bit about meditation, maybe even tried it out. But basically I feel there’s something missing in my life, and I’d like to see if there’s something more I can get by coming here.”
“Okay. So, let’s look at this desire that you can get something from here. So we begin to explore. Let’s look at the intention, motivation that brought you here. And that, factually, is meditative inquiry. Let’s explore right now all these motivations that brought you here. What ideas are there? And let’s put it all open. Let’s air the whole thing out. So it’s an inviting.”
“So it comes back to what Toni Packer said to you, ‘This is your koan.’”
“That’s it,” she says, almost in a whisper. “And can be through questioning if we have motives within. You know? Kind of, ‘I came sometime with a confused mind and there is this . . .’ You felt it here during the discussion. You or anybody can ask a question that can bring some person to see that the mind is going zzzzoom! So—you know—this is a space for everything. There can be some wisdom that’s not coming from you but coming from just the seeing what is going on.”
Cypress Trees in the Garden: pp. 385-408