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In her foreword to Packer's latest book, Joan Tollifson writes that Packer has the courage "to put aside all the books, all the authorities, and be with the moment at hand". This claim however remains a poetic insight rather than a piece of enlightenment advice.
The question to ask is why do radical Zen teachers have the desire to write books and to attach their signature and identity to them? If we take Packer's advice to "observe what is", we need to ask another naïve and simple question, namely, why does a Zen master need to copyright her work? If there is no Self as the Buddha taught, who is the Self of the copyright? I propose that this become a new koan to be dissolved by those seeking the "light of discovery".
In reading through the text one notices the strange mixture of Zen wisdom with Krishnamurti's insights. I find this to be the most troubling feature of Packer's work. In other words, Packer is not presenting anything new. What was said about enlightenment and discovery was already said by the Buddha. Packer's collection of words becomes a footnote to what was already discovered.
Packer confirms that Light of Discovery is a compilation of previously published articles, letters and excerpts from talks. The text seems to ignore the advice that it gives. Packer asks, " Can there be a pause in this vast stream of conditioned thinking and reacting, a quiet inward looking and listening without knowing?" If words do not allow us to see things directly, why write that words do not allow us to see things directly?
Packer's book does provide us with interesting biographical information. We learn that she began Zen training to find "insight, relief, and strength in quiet sitting and koan work". As a work of biography the text is excellent. It documents Packer's struggle to find meaning in "this utterly meaningless life". But Packer's quest for meaning is unique to her. She writes, " When belief dissolves, there is no one to save. This realization brings joy beyond words". And yet the whole text with its thirty little chapters is nothing but a display of the excess of words.
Packer's method of dropping the formality of traditional Zen training does have a great appeal to her American and European disciples. She tells us, "Here at Springwater there are no precepts for one ought to behave….if a person wants to spend the entire retreat in bed, that is perfectly okay". Working in this open and unstructured way is a way of watering down Zen to make it more appealing to a North American culture.
The Zen presented to us in Packer's book is what Slavoj Zizek correctly describes as "new age spirituality" that offers no engagement with the most pressing problems of our time. This new age Zen allows one to fully participate in samsara without feeling the least bit guilty. The path is open according to Packer, "there are no precepts for how one ought to behave". You can sit, sleep, watch the grass grow and somehow in this activity one will see "the light of discovery". In Packer's words, " There is the wind, the sound of rustling leaves, the brightness of the room, the color of the wooden floor, the hands resting, the heart beating….direct seeing is the light of discovery". What I find when reading through Packer's poetic insights is not the light of discovery. Following Zizek, I see Packer's version of Zen as a fetish that "believers" cling to " in order to cancel out the full impact of reality". In other words, Western Buddhism functions as the perfect ideological supplement to Capitalism. One can still keep the "Self" while pretending to have cut through the illusion of the Self. Packer asks, "What is the self that yearns for completion?" The answer is evident. The self that yearns for completion is the Self that meditates on the copyright cushion marked "Self" so that it can feel the great insight "there is no one there to be aware". Once this insight is achieved the Self can go back to investing in stock options and nano-technology firms, feeling good "in this infinite space of aliveness". In Packer's words, " It's such a relief to realize we don't have to be anything". When Zen becomes Self-Help, the tyranny of the Self is re-established forcing the Buddha to sit under the Bodhi tree once again.
© 2008 Marko Zlomislic
Marko Zlomislic is professor philosophy at Conestoga College, Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada.