Dancing in the Dharma: The Life and Teachings of Ruth Denison
Boston: Beacon Press, 2005
264 pp.; $25.95 (cloth)
Though its roots shoot back to the nineteenth century and earlier, dharma practice in the United States is a uniquely twentieth-century product. World War II and its aftermath, the drug culture, the Vietnam War, feminism, the unbridled explosion of capitalism, psychotherapy, and technological innovation—for starters—launched and molded the forms of American Buddhism we have today. The Western dharma teachers who have emerged from this soup are a phenomenon of the twentieth century, too, blending the quirks, trends, and insights of their cultures and temperaments with the 2,500-year-old wisdom handed down from the Buddha.
Ruth Denison, an eighty-three-year-old German Vipassana teacher, is just such a phenomenon: few people have lived a life as extraordinary and tumultuous, or brought as many varied life experiences and influences to bear on dharma teaching. In the early 1970s, when she was in her fifties, Denison received permission to teach from the lay Burmese master U Ba Khin (1899—1971), with whom she had studied for mere weeks, and she founded a dharma center called Dhamma Dena in the desert near Joshua Tree, California. Among those who know her, Denison is described as eccentric, frustrating, charming, highly creative, highly controlling, and iconoclastic in the extreme: this is a teacher who pioneered all-women meditation retreats that sometimes called for her students to crawl around in the desert on all fours, swim in formation in a hot tub, or shovel dirty diapers out of an abandoned trailer in order to convert it to a dormitory.
All these things are true. But thanks to Sandy Boucher, Denison’s student for nearly three decades and author of Dancing in the Dharma: The Life and Teachings of Ruth Denison, we can now sink into the wide-ranging, intensely complex personality and story of this woman and see how the teacher emerged. It started in 1922 in Prussia, where Denison was born, the daughter of a farmer. In her teens, she became a schoolteacher and an exuberant member of the Nazi Youth Party, only to suffer imprisonment, gang rape by Russian and Polish soldiers, and near-starvation in the years of chaos after the war. Her pluck and faith in a version of karma got her through it. “I would never cry and say, 'Why did this happen to me? I didn’t do anything!’ The people who said that, they got sick and crazy... I saw myself being part of the society that had done wrong to the world. I knew we were suffering for what we did. I paid.”
Denison picked up her pieces, emigrated to the U.S., and started anew. She married, and remained married for forty years, to Henry Denison, a charismatic, imperious, and sometimes emotionally abusive spiritual seeker who accompanied her on pilgrimages to Asia and around the world. It was in Henry’s Hollywood house, cooking, cleaning for, and entertaining the countercultural celebrities of the 1950s and 60s—Aldous Huxley, Alan Watts, Timothy Leary—that Ruth encountered her first teacher, Charlotte Selver. Selver had developed a practice in mindfulness of the body that she called Sensory Awareness, and this became the core of Denison’s own spirituality and teaching. She used Selver’s teachings of body awareness in her spiritual practice to ground herself in the present moment, and guiding students through these explorations has become Denison’s trademark.
In spite of being Denison’s disciple, Boucher is never a sycophant excusing her teacher’s egotism or micromanagerial style. Instead, like us, she is trying to figure it all out, to reconcile the flaws with what she recognizes as Denison’s gift of the dharma. How, she wonders, can this woman ignore the world’s political struggles but unfailingly offer boundless compassion to the most damaged and marginalized people she encounters? How can she be a Buddhist beacon to scores of feminist practitioners yet hate being called a feminist? Ultimately, Boucher settles for knowing that the unique experience of meditating with Denison is well worth enduring her eccentricities:
In the zendo, she guided us in deep exploration of our body sensations, with great penetration and subtlety... She took us through the entire body so deeply that we apprehended the bones of our own skeletons... Emerging from a meditation like this, I would experience a great wave of tenderness for myself and all the beings in the room. We shared the same elements, we partook of the same impermanence.
This knowledge held me in a heightened, spacious consciousness. This, for me, was the heart of Ruth’s teaching.
Boucher is a writer who conveys her research, insight, and personal story with clarity and grace, but there is one area where more detail might better serve the reader: at times she uses the terms Vipassana and Theravada interchangeably to describe the Buddhism Denison and others teach. Theravada, literally “the doctrine of the elders,” is the school of Buddhism that uses as its guide the Pali canon, the earliest surviving record of the Buddha’s teaching. Vipassana, the Pali word for “insight,” refers to a meditation practice used within that school. Vipassana can be integral to the practice of the Theravada religion, but the distinction is one that dharma students need to understand. Perhaps it is the eclectic influences on our Western teachers—like Denison—that make this confusion possible.
Denison is the first to point out this shaky heritage and her lack of real training: “I had no formal model, dahling,” she tells Boucher. “I had no history, I had no authority really. On top of it, I come from the Nazi country. I mean I was so in space without any support on that. I had no one to consult. But I had Charlotte’s practice, and that was the ground for me for Vipassana. But the teaching when I began, it was just falling like the water out of the spring back into the pool. Very natural. U Ba Khin had actually said to me, 'Don’t worry, you are a natural.’”
Whatever a reader may conclude about the legitimacy of Denison’s credentials or methods, she has inspired and helped many people on the dharma path. Boucher’s wonderfully tender and compelling book leaves us to make our own decisions, enriched by a portrait of an incredible woman.
Contributing editor Mary Talbot is a parent coordinator with the New York City Department of Education.