Letters to the Editor Winter 2005

Nina Wise's article “Sudden Awakening” follows a pattern that by now has become all too predictable in Buddhist writing. (1) The author brings her problems to a renowned spiritual teacher or retreat center. (2) She is told that all she has to do is let go. (3) After some struggle she lets go and finds a moment of peace. (4) Based on that moment of peace, she tells us what the teachings of the Buddha and all the great enlightened beings of the past really meant. At least in this case, Ms. Wise is honest enough to admit that she's still a little uncertain and confused, but why share her confusion with the world?

What I'd like to see is an article where the author is really honest with herself. She realizes that (1) she can't trust her desire to believe that everybody's talking about the same goal, nor can she get there on any path she likes; (2) she can't believe everything she hears from spiritual teachers (for example, the idea that the Buddha taught that we are consciousness itself—everything I've read tells me that he said that to identify with anything, even infinite consciousness, is to suffer); (3) she's going to have to do some long, hard work to prove for herself which path really works; she'll get results and then tell us what she found. She'll show her scars, laugh heartily, and tell us that it was more than worth it.

—Barbara Shepard, Laguna Beach, California
Neal Crosbie

From The Source
In Mary Talbot's otherwise perceptive and appreciative review of my Dancing in the Dharma: The Life and Teachings of Ruth Denison (“The Natural,” Fall 2005), there were several misconceptions. Talbot states that Ruth Denison received dharma transmission from the Burmese Master Sayagyi U Ba Khin. That is certainly accurate. But then she adds: “. . . with whom she had studied for mere weeks.” I'm afraid that very much distorts the truth. Anentire chapter describes Denison's training with U Ba Khin, from her initial two-month time with him in Burma in the early sixties to her numerous other journeys to Burma and periods of training that followed (made very difficult by the political situation in Burma), as well as the close connection that Denison maintained with her teacher when she was not able to get into Burma to study in person with him. This training and deepening went on for ten years, until finally, in 1971, U Ba Khin brought Ruth into his lineage and authorized her to teach.

Something else that I'd like to address is Talbot's contention that there is blurriness between the terms Vipassana and Theravada in my book. She may be responding to a shift in some practitioners' views of the tradition of Theravada Buddhism and its practice of Vipassana meditation, and the confusion that can result. There are teachers and students now who have adopted the term “Vipassana movement” to describe retreats and trainings in which the meditation practice is offered but not the traditional Theravada teachings of the Pali canon. I think I was quite clear about Denison's position; she certainly has never confused the two. She teaches Vipassana meditation (both in the traditional manner conveyed to her by U Ba Khin and with her own innovations), and she expounds the dharma in the Theravada tradition, drawing from the Buddha's teachings as presented in the Pali canon. Talbot is certainly correct in noting that in our language and practice the continual transformations going on in our Western Buddhism can sometimes cause confusion. In other respects Mary Talbot caught the uniqueness and freshness of Ruth Denison, and I thank her for her kind words on the book.

—Sandy Boucher, Oakland, California

Mary Talbot Responds
In using the phrase “mere weeks” to describe Denison's study with U Ba Khin, I referred to my understanding of their one-on-one time together, based on the chapter chronicling their relationship: there was Denison's initial two-month stay with him (some nine to ten weeks) and subsequent visits “back to Burma whenever she could.” This suggested to me that the later trips were not long. In no way did I intend to dismiss the intensity of Denison's discipleship to U Ba Khin or to distort the authenticity of their student-teacher relationship. Compared, however, with the day-in-day-out, year-in-year-out contact of most Theravada teachers with students to whom they grant authority to teach, Denison's in-person contact with U Ba Khin was remarkably brief.

Regarding my assertion that the terms Theravada and Vipassana are not clearly delineated in the book, I certainly appreciate that Boucher knows the difference, but I don't think some of her references make the distinction clear. On page 165, for example, Boucher writes that while Dension “teaches within the Theravada or Vipassana tradition . . . the real truth is that Ruth exists outside any lineage.” That usage suggests interchangeable terms, which they are not, as Boucher describes above.

Correction
On page 83 of the Fall 2005 issue, Sharon Salzburg's book should have been listed as The Force of Kindness, not The Face of Kindness.

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