Sandy Boucher on her life as a student of Ruth Denison at Dhamma Dena.
Cultivate the healing power of the pure unattached mind.
My spiritual practice was inaugurated twenty years ago in the Mojave Desert. A friend drove me there—ten hours south from Oakland, through the little town of Joshua Tree, and up the long desert slope to Copper Mountain Mesa where, halfway along a sandy dirt road, we came to a cluster of low buildings huddled under the killer sun. Here I first met Ruth Denison, a German-born woman trained in the Burmese tradition of Theravada Buddhism, whose flexibility and sense of what Westerners need in order to practice mindfulness had led her to a challenging teaching style grounded in traditional practice augmented with sometimes outrageously innovative techniques. She was known as an eccentric, who would employ any means to communicate her beloved “Dharma”; she was also the first Buddhist teacher to offer women-only retreats.
Another person would have approached meditation gradually, carefully, beginning with short sessions of a few minutes each day and slowly graduating to longer periods of sitting—the sane way to proceed. But I plunged in, signing up for a seven-day meditation retreat.
In the silence—observed by everyone but Ruth, who gave a talk each evening—I felt unseen, unacknowledged. At first this was excruciating, but as the week progressed, I found myself grateful to be experiencing my own livingness without the distraction of others’ opinions of me and responses to me. Sometimes a sadness would well up and I would feel warm tears running down my face; sometimes I felt a great wounded tenderness for myself, as if I watched a child struggling to accomplish a task too difficult; now and then an expansive peacefulness opened in my chest and I found myself smiling. The silence had become my friend.
Over the years, Ruth’s meditation center—named Dhamma Dena for a distinguished female teacher from the Buddha’s lifetime (Dhammadinna)—became the cradle in which my timid beginning attempts at awareness were rocked and nurtured. I learned that the practice Ruth taught, called Vipassana, or insight-meditation, came from the Theravada Buddhist tradition. Theravada is known as the gradual path, involving effort made through many lifetimes toward the goal of liberation from suffering. It emphasizes “bare attention” and “choiceless awareness,” teaching a method for being wholly present to one’s own experience. Its practices lead to an apprehension of the three “marks” of existence: impermanence, suffering and the insubstantiality of the self.
Theravada Buddhism was brought to the United States mostly by Westerners, young people who studied in Burma or Thailand or Sri Lanka and brought the practice back to pass on to their peers in America. Ruth Denison, somewhat older than her counterparts, journeyed to Burma with her American husband, studied and practiced there, and received “transmission” from a noted Burmese Buddhist master. The teacher, U Ba Khin, told her to go back to the United States and teach meditation, but Ruth was modest, uncertain about her capacities. On her return to this country she steadily pursued her meditation practice, both alone and at Zen centers in Los Angeles (at that time there were no Theravada centers in southern California), but did not set out to teach. She and her husband hosted spiritual teachers in their Hollywood home, and were part of a circle of seekers that included Alan Watts and Timothy Leary. Eventually, students began to gather around Ruth and ask her to teach them to meditate. They followed her to the desert, and Dhamma Dena was born in several tiny buildings.
From the beginning of my visits to Dhamma Dena, the stark, spacious environment made a vibrant container for the practice. My memory holds many encounters with Ruth, like the morning in the early eighties when I was using the break after breakfast to hide away behind the work shed and write in my journal. (Reading and writing are discouraged at meditation retreats.) I was picking up my notebook and readying myself to leave when a long-skirted figure appeared from around the woodpile, her hair covered by a white scarf tucked up behind, her long-sleeved white blouse and tan skirt fluttering against her body in the wind.
“Ah, this is where you are hiding!” said Ruth. She came to sit across from me on an upended milk carton.
Adjusting my now-stiffening buttocks on my makeshift seat of piled boards, I looked over at Ruth, who had picked up a piece of rusted metal and was examining it with the shrewd eye of one who knows how to recycle everything. I was feeling grumpy and tired, having struggled through the early morning meditation session and afterwards castigating myself that I was not really a very religious or spiritual person. She, on the other hand, had always been drawn to religious practice; as a child in Germany she was always devout. She was even attracted to her husband because he was so “spiritual,” having been a monk in the Hindu tradition of Vedanta. We began to talk about how Ruth was led to offer all-women retreats.
“Certainly I am a woman who is not totally dependent on the man,” Ruth said. “Before I married I was very independent. I was a schoolteacher and a principal. When I married, I just took that wifely role for a while because I didn’t need to work. But as you can see, I didn’t stay in that role, so there is some blood in me. But I must say, I have one thing which is remarkable, which is, I have no need for revenge.” (She had told us about her experiences during the war in Germany, when she was raped and violently handled, but she obviously harbors no bitterness.)
Ruth squinted against the sun, and looked up at me from deepset thoughtful blue eyes. “In many ways I have brought good karma forces with me, with natural balance, with a sense of justice coming from a deeper soul or ground, and a great compassionate feeling. I have a love for life, hmmm?, which brings with it sensitivity and care, real care. So when you have that certain sense you cannot really charge back, no matter how wrong it was done to you. Because when you charge back, you see that you injure life. And the principle then is not injuring life.”
How to be present to life, to allow each life-form to realize its full cycle and potential. I felt something celebratory in this idea, some large and joyful possibility. Later I watched Ruth stride briskly away. In headlong flight, short, square-shouldered body tilted slightly forward, skirt billowing about her legs, little cap gleaming in the sun, Ruth looked like one of the factory women in a Käthe Kollwitz lithograph, someone sturdy and strong-armed and reliable, whose life is labor. I stood thinking about the concept she articulated: To promote life, to nurture and celebrate it. Even my own life—to get out of my way and enjoy the show.
I think about what I receive from Ruth. For some people I know, it has made sense to move from spiritual teacher to spiritual teacher, seeking out the yet-more-illumined guide who can take them the next step in their practice. For me, although I have sat with numerous teachers, it has made sense to stay loyal to one teacher, for I have understood over the years that a teacher is a mirror, reflecting one back to oneself. Staying with the same mirror over years has allowed me to see the patterns in myself and how they have changed. Ruth has remained herself, offering the teachings in the ways she has developed; I come to her each time experiencing her and myself differently, learning new things, going deeper.
When we first came to the desert—a ragtag band of young hippies, political activists, and fledgling healers in the early eighties—Ruth had emphasized dukkha, the Buddha’s First Noble Truth, the truth of suffering embedded in each moment of our human lives. I remembered learning that new word, rolling it on my tongue, and not wanting to admit its gritty truth. But over time, sitting in the small crowded zendo that was all we had then, I experienced the restlessness and anger and stubborn resistance that ruled my life, the insistence that things be other than they were, and I knew this to be dukkha.
Ruth taught us to redirect the urge to escape our suffering; she guided us into the sensations of each successive moment, trained us to bring our attention there and to simply watch our busy thoughts, our unruly emotions, and return again to attention to our sensory experience.
But for three years I resisted Ruth, realizing the value of what she taught but not yet ready to accept her guidance. I would sit in the meditation hall among the other meditators as she guided us, and I would argue with her in my mind. I criticized her, prayed that she would shut up and leave us alone, yearned for her to be more like other people and not so eccentrically herself. I would wait impatiently for her to do what she had said she would do, and when she did something unexpected instead, I would explode in an inner tantrum of rage and disappointment, as if she had personally betrayed me.
Even so, the truth she was offering pierced through to me, and those glimpses so drew me, with their promise of freedom, that I came every year and sometimes twice a year, to retreats at Dhamma Dena. From a worldly perspective it would seem that I was wasting my time in a particularly perverse way, but on a spiritual path there is no such thing as wasted time.
I was fighting Ruth in order to preserve the familiar, desire-ridden, out-of-control self that caused me so much suffering. It was a life and death struggle, for she threatened me with the death—in any moment—of my concepts and opinions and self-construction. I exerted all my power against her—and made myself miserable—to protect my little self-referential identity. I came to her because I could no longer bear to live in such a limited way, and yet I could not open to her. This existential struggle went on, as I said, for three years. The war raged in me, hurting me, stifling me, continually thwarting my efforts to concentrate and meditate and be simply present.
During those years I saw how much of my suffering is self-created; I experienced the tremendous power of my conditioned responses. Perhaps I could have continued my internal war for decades, if I had not found myself utterly without money as a retreat-session drew near. I telephoned Dhamma Dena and explained my predicament. Was there a way, I asked, that I could attend the retreat for free? Half an hour later someone called back to convey Ruth’s message that I was welcome to work for my room and board.
So I spent hours each day painting and cleaning and building, and I began to experience myself joined with my surroundings. I became part of the physical reality of structures, carpets, windows; I entered the energy of the place, promoting its continued existence, creating order. And I began to be wholly committed to each task, fully present in the doing of it, so that self was forgotten, and only the action of hand holding rag wiping wall was known.
One particular labor tried my endurance. I had to dig a hole for a latrine, bending over the shovel, lifting the heavy dirt, within sight of the zendo where the other retreatants sat peacefully in meditation. A cold wind battered me; the wooden handle of the shovel wore against the skin of my hands raising blisters; my back began to ache. In the performance of this task, at last the hard carapace of my resistance broke apart. After hours of shoveling, I entered the zendo and lowered my body onto my cushion. To sit still, to meditate, seemed a great privilege and gift in itself. And looking at Ruth at the front of the room, I saw her anew—not as my tormentor but as one who offered a precious opportunity. I saw that she was always gently pointing to the complexity and authenticity of this moment, suggesting a new way for me to be with my experience.
I surrendered utterly to her teaching, opening to receive her directions, no longer shutting my heart and mind to them but letting them enter me, and I was profoundly touched. In those few days, all the teachings of the previous three years that I had so vigorously rejected gelled in me. I felt myself enter a deep enduring life-force, expansive and sure, and full of a quiet joy. Not that I was totally transformed—even now my resistance will pop up to impede me—but there was a qualitative change during that retreat that left me much more receptive to and able to make use of Ruth’s teachings.
The spiritual teachers I have experienced use stories as devices to engage us, instruct us, and wake us up. At Dhamma Dena, Ruth Denison often weaves tales from her life, stories that will appear to wander and traverse many detours but always arrive at a moment that sticks in the mind, like an arrow pointing at something one has missed before, or has never considered. She is willing to offer up the moments of her life in the effort to give us ways to connect with ourselves.
On one particular morning, after several hours of sitting and walking meditation, someone had asked Ruth about difficulties with the breathing practice.
“If our mind is open and free of resenting or wishing, we can allow the breath to come to its own naturalness,” Ruth answered. “But somehow we can’t just do that! The problem is that our mind runs along on its own way. We have very little control over it. Who notices this?” A number of the meditators nodded. Ruth sat back, adjusting the chain that held her eyeglasses hanging on her chest.
“There was a time in my life when I experienced extreme states of terror and pain because of difficulties with breathing.” A deeper silence fell among us as she continued. “My difficulties had arisen from wrong practice. I had been too eager-beaver, I was concentrating too harshly, pushing it too hard in a determined way. Today I know why I had to experience that. It brought me into a great space of humbleness and respect for myself, and love. But then all I knew was that I had no power over the mind. It just roamed around and created pictures and fear. Some of you are psychologists or social workers—you have probably met people in this condition, hmmm?”
She peered out among us, nodding as someone indicated agreement. “My mind suffered tremendously, but I did not suffer doubt, because I could remember that this practice is good. So I trusted, and I began humbly returning to the lowest, most modest type of practice, to begin there, and I could gradually come back. That gave me wonderful ways of exploration that I can share with you now when I am teaching.”
She reminded us that the Buddha did not tell us to strive to attain something in breathing but merely directed us to observe the breath just as it is.
“This he did because he understood the healing power of the pure, unattached mind,” she said, “this correcting power which demands nothing and thus allows what you observe to come into its natural order again.” She adjusted herself on her seat, leaned back a little. “So if you feel difficulties and pain and congestion, don’t be too much concerned. Be only concerned that your mind is pure, not reacting. With a quiet, nondetermined mind, just observe what you are doing. Watch how you breathe. Can you discover something in it? It is all for one reason—to train the mind to stay here, to invite it, hmmm? To overcome some of the difficulties and give us more trust, to give us more confidence.”
Ruth finished slowly, bringing home the message. “You allow the mind to come in with its desires, with all its conditioning, with its compulsion to think, to strive, to resent, to want, and so on. And then you are really an explorer. You are noticing all this coming in and not forbidding it, not pushing it away but permitting it to live in the light of your attention.
“Remember this Vipassana mind, this witnessing, attending mind, is already part of your beautiful self. So if you can hold on to that in a modest way you can sustain that cool, you can provide again and again a beautiful condition for your practice.” She lifted her head, looking to the back of the room where I sat and inquiring briskly, “Does that make sense to you, Sandy?” I thought for a moment, not wanting to answer hastily. “Yes, it does,” I said. “Good.” Ruth gave a decisive nod. “I hope it makes sense to all of us.”