Photographs courtesy Dhamma Dena

Ruth Denison was one of the first female dharma teachers in the West, renowned for pioneering an unconventional, body-centered approach to Buddhist practice and for launching hundreds of students on the Buddhist path. Earlier this month, she suffered a massive stroke and, according to her wishes, received no life-prolonging intervention. Denison spent her last days surrounded by students and friends at home at Dhamma Dena, the rambling, desert retreat center she founded in the late 1970s near Joshua Tree, California. She died on the morning of February 26, at the age of 92.

In the early 1970s, when Denison was in her fifties, she received authorization to teach from the Burmese Vipassana master U Ba Khin. She was one of only four Westerners he chose, and the sole woman. Ba Khin had instructed Denison for just a few months before declaring her “a natural.” “I was so in space without any support,” Denison once said of her transmission. “I had no one to consult. . . . [T]he teaching when I began, it was just falling like the water out of the spring back into the pool.” 

Over the next 40 years, Denison independently forged a style of dharma training that was at once eccentric and accessible. She conceived and led the first women-only meditation retreats, supported teachers of various traditions in founding their own centers, and became famous for her incredible life story, expansive generosity, and quirky creativity.

Before becoming the doyenne of Dhamma Dena, a sought-after meditation instructor, and revered elder at practice hubs like Spirit Rock and Insight Meditation Society, Denison had lived other lifetimes. She was witness to and player in some of the most harrowing political events and formative cultural movements of the mid-20th century.

Denison (nee Shaffer) was born into a German farming family in 1922, in a small town no longer on any map, near what is now the border with Poland. As a young girl, she was sure that angels and saints spoke to her—the early inklings, she later determined, of religious sensitivity. In her teens, she began work as a schoolteacher and, with the same spontaneous enthusiasm that would mark her actions for the rest of her life, joined the Nazi Youth. She often described what happened next as a kind of karmic comeuppance: she endured the evacuation of her village, the Allied bombing of Berlin, capture and imprisonment in a Stalinist work camp, serial rape by Polish and Soviet soldiers, and near starvation. “I had a tacit sense that I was one individual recipient of a collective karma brought on by my entire country,” she once told Insight magazine. “Although I did not personally contribute to its causation, I realized that as a member of that society I must share in experiencing the consequences.”

That perspective, and an extraordinary grit and resourcefulness, helped Denision survive the trauma and piece her life back together. After the war, she left Germany for California, where she met and married a wealthy intellectual and lapsed Vedanta monk named Henry Denison. He was charismatic, domineering, and, at times, abusive, but they shared a similar urge for awakening, and remained married until Henry’s death from Alzheimer’s in 2000. Through the late 1950s and ‘60s, their house in the Hollywood Hills was a regular salon devoted to the pursuit of mind-expansion. Denison wined, dined, and entertained a steady parade of celebrities of the spiritual counterculture—Aldous Huxley, Timothy Leary, Lama Govinda, Fritz Perls—and received, in exchange, an education in philosophy, psychology, and psychedelia. Alan Watts, a close friend, was Denison’s partner in postprandial interpretive dances and in his autobiography, recalled her as “a very blonde fraulein . . .  audaciously adventurous, sexy, practical, and religious.” 

It was at one of these bohemian gatherings that Denison encountered her first teacher, the music educator Charlotte Selver, who had developed a practice in mindfulness of the body she called Sensory Awareness. This movement-based approach became the core of Denison’s own spirituality and teaching, a porous amalgam inflected with Zen (she and Henry lived in Japan for a time, studying with Yasutani Roshi, Soen Roshi, and Yamada Roshi) and the Vipassana techniques she absorbed from U Ba Khin and others.

According to students and friends, Denison could be a study in mind-boggling contradictions: she was a Buddhist beacon for female practitioners, but couldn’t stand being called a “feminist.” She was famous for helping guide her students into states of deep concentration, only to shatter the stillness with a barrage of instruction. According to Sandy Boucher, her longtime student and biographer, Denison could be “the high-handed Prussian general at one moment—ordering you around, snapping at you if you’re slow or inattentive—and at the next melt your heart with her tender empathy for pain.”

When she smiled, which was often, there was an actual twinkle in her eye. She called everyone “dahling” and insisted on feeding all and sundry visitors, especially the California roadrunners who skittered into her house in search of the little balls of ground beef she kept just for them.

Indeed, Denison had an abiding interest in people and animals at risk. From spiritual seekers with mental illness or addictions to wild animals injured by passing cars, all sorts of distressed beings found a home with her, and many flourished in her care. Her ministrations were emphatic, and playful. She once wore a convalescing possum around her neck, stole-like, on a trip to the post office and relished the memory of how it woke from its diurnal sleep as she stood in line, scaring the hell out of the other customers.  

Denison’s retreats were legendary. Set among the funky collage of outbuildings, trailers, creosote and bunchgrass that make up the landscape of Dhamma Dena, she led practitioners through dance-like movements that could involve yoga, vocalizations, or “crawling like a worm” on the desert floor. People would come and go. Sporting one of her many, many little hats, she might load retreatants into her station wagon and sail through stop signs and red lights en route to a dilapidated hot springs resort where she’d lead the group through mindfulness exercises in a steaming hot tub. Work projects were always part of the experience and, as at a monastery, visitors were expected to help maintain the center, often in lieu of paying for room and board. Dennison was adamant about the principle of dana and never turned a student away for lack of funds.

However idiosyncratic, Denison’s methods could be uncannily effective. A friend and former retreat manager remembers how new meditators, many of them men, metamorphosed under her guidance. “They would arrive, like most of us, with no way of connecting to their bodies, completely in their heads,” she recalls. “Ruth would get them doing these little dances, or rolling on the ground, and by the time they left, they were visibly changed. You could see it in their faces, and in their bodies.”

Denison grasped, early on in her explorations, that mindfulness has to be rooted, and cultivated, in the body. “Using such variety of sensations for developing awareness students learn how to apply their practice in situations other than simply sitting on a pillow,” she said in the Insight interview. “Often [they] do not know how to carry practice home with them after a retreat. But awareness developed in such a wide scope of meditation pattern, as I teach it, becomes gradually a natural state.” For Ruth Denison, grounding the mind in the body was the way into the heart of dharma. It was the portal to a versatile clarity and lasting happiness that stand the test of everyday life—and the end of life. That teaching may prove to be her most enduring legacy.

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