Writing the Ruth Denison Story

Sandy Boucher gives a candid account of the tangles and revelations in chronicling the life of teacher Ruth Denison, who died in February 2015.

Sandy Boucher
11 April 2016
Ruth Denison.
Ruth Denison. Photo courtesy of the author.

Ruth Denison, pioneer Buddhist teacher, died in February 2015 after forty years of inspired, innovative teaching. Sandy Boucher, her student and biographer, gives a candid account of the tangles and revelations in chronicling the life of her gifted mentor.

Ruth Denison was leery of people wanting to audiotape or videotape or write about her. She believed that you had to come and spend time with her to grasp the essence of her teachings. And as a longtime student of Ruth’s, I agreed, as it seemed her most trenchant and profound instruction occurred not in her formal dharma talks but in guiding us in mindfully inhabiting our bodies as we did walking meditation, body sweeps, stretches, even dancing in a slow circle to welcome the desert morning.

Her teaching in the meditation hall at Dhamma Dena Desert Vipassana Center in the Mojave Desert grew out of and expressed the desert landscape and lifestyle that surrounded it. This quality was hard to convey, and Ruth did not trust that people in other environments would respond well to her recorded words and actions.

But in 2001, because she had turned 80 and had been ill, igniting the fear that the next physical challenge might carry her away, some of Ruth’s older students began to suggest that a biography be written.  Her astonishing, arduous and ultimately triumphant life must be recorded before she died—and I should do it.

So, in late 2001, I took the seven-hour drive from my home in Northern California down to Ruth’s Dhamma Dena in the Mojave Desert to have a talk with her.

We sat on the deck of Samadhi House, one of the dormitories, looking out at the creosote bushes dipping in the breeze, the scattered weather-beaten buildings against a brilliant winter sky. Rabbits hopped nearby, a fighter-jet screamed above us. Ruth listened carefully as I told her about the students’ request that I write a book about her. I said I was considering the possibility, but only if Ruth were willing to give me the many hours of interview time that would be needed. And I wanted her to understand that this rendering would not be hagiography, another entry in the lives of the saints. I would not leave out or gloss over the difficult dimensions of her life and work but would engage with them and explore them in the book. Did she want this kind of story of her life?

Ruth sat looking down at her hands. In the quiet, I attended to my breathing, heard the awwk awwk of a roadrunner somewhere near. Finally she looked up at me. “Yes, dahling, you go ahead. That’s what I want you to do.”

In the moment I felt only relief. But as I said goodbye and turned to go into Samadhi House, a flutter of anxiety crept up my spine. A three-year journey had begun.

The First Sticky Task

Ruth had been born in 1922 and had lived her teenage and young adulthood in wartime Germany. She grew up on a farm in East Prussia, a northeasternmost province that is now part of Poland. Her father joined the Nazi party, and Ruth participated in the Nazi Youth Movement, drawn particularly to the nature worship that characterized its perspective.  She described outings in which the young women would weave flowers into their hair and float down a river on a raft; the boys would push a flaming wheel from the top of a mountain to watch it come spinning downward through the trees. The young people gathered for rallies and work sessions in the out of doors.

What was the relationship between the Ruth of that exhilarating, terrifying time in Germany and the teacher sitting at the front of the zendo whom I had known for twenty years, and whose innocence and honesty would not let her disavow that youthful participation? More than once in my years of practice with Ruth I had struggled with that question, and had witnessed my own strong reaction, as well as the response of Ruth’s Jewish students, to her stories of that time.

For six or eight months I read accounts, mostly by Germans, of Germany during the war, and other titles that might help me understand Ruth’s experience. The books piled up on my bookshelf. I wanted to sink in to the perspective of a teenager in Northern Germany before and during the war. What was it like to participate in the group projects, to share in the sense that you were connected to something bigger than yourself? To discover purpose and meaning in your young life, believing that your striving with others would make Germany strong again.

I began to interview Ruth, encouraging her to tell the stories of her life as she did in the zendo at each retreat. I knew it would be Ruth’s voice—her particular fractured German/English juicy delivery—that would carry the narrative of the book from Germany to Hollywood to her adventures in the Great World.

As I was forming the book proposal, my partner Martha Boesing suggested that this book needed to be not just about Ruth as teacher, but also the unique cohort of mostly female students, many of them lesbians, who came to study with her at Dhamma Dena. She also urged that my own twenty years’ relationship with Ruth should be explored. This became the thrust of the book, revealing the teacher-sangha dynamic that made Ruth a pioneer of Western Buddhism. She had been the first teacher to lead all-women’s retreats; she was the first to include mindful movement in her teaching of Vipassana meditation. Her deep work with the body—the First Foundation of Mindfulness—honored the Buddha’s traditional teachings while marking out radical new territory for practice.

Gathering, Weaving

For many days I sat with Ruth in her dining room at Las Vegas house, the house in the desert where she lived, eating the lunches she prepared for me, tending to the two dachshunds—Tara and Nellie Belly—who needed to be let out or let in, to be fed or petted.

A typical recording session would begin with my asking, “Ruth, will you tell about the baby opossums?” (This was one of her classic tales.) She might answer, “Dahling, I was driving home one day . . .” And then she would tell of finding an injured opossum on the road, taking the animal home and integrating it into her daily life, feeding it mashed bananas, carrying it like a scruffy scarf around her neck when she went out to do errands (to the consternation of fellow shoppers), leading to the final release of a cured and healthy opossum into the wild.

We drove to Los Angeles in Ruth’s old boat of a Chevy station wagon (bought by her husband Henry in 1985) to visit the house in which she and Henry had lived for forty years. Henry Denison was a wealthy spiritual seeker who cultivated relationships with the counterculture figures of the seventies. He had loved this house that perched high in the hills on the lip of the Hollywood Reservoir, with windows looking out at water and green. As we stood in the spacious living room, Ruth told of the seminars and workshops organized by Henry that took place here.

I was dazzled by the parade of luminaries who came to teach and party in Ruth and Henry’s house—Alan Watts, Charlotte Selver (founder of Sensory Awareness and Ruth’s first teacher), Timothy Leary, Ram Dass; and I learned of the enlightened masters in India, Burma, and Japan that Henry took her to, people like Lama Govinda, Nisargadatta, Zen roshis in Japan—thought by many to be the greatest spiritual teachers of the twentieth century.

We rolled down the hill to the Vedanta Society of Southern California where Henry had been a monk before marrying his several wives. And we visited the Los Angeles Zen Center and Sasaki Roshi’s center, Rinzai-ji, to which Ruth had come in the early mornings in the seventies to practice, and had supported both fledgling centers with resources and labor.

Groping Toward Understanding

My German research continued, book after book, the appalling material bringing me closer to the enormous cruelty and suffering of the Second World War. I began to feel overwhelmed and inadequate: Could I allow myself to arrive at an authentic feel for Ruth’s childhood and young adulthood? Could I follow her into the horrific abuse she suffered after the war? How would I acknowledge the terrible implications of her experience in the Hitler Youth movement? There was so much that I had to discover, understand, integrate for myself before I could bring it forth for a reader.

Working on transcripts of the interviews, I was cutting, pulling out stories, trying to create a reliable timeline from Ruth’s often confused memories. Her time in Germany after the war had been so filled with trauma that the events piled up into a jumble that could not easily be sorted out.

Students as Teachers

As I continued interviewing Ruth’s students, I saw even more clearly that the teacher-sangha interaction is a two-way street, a process in which the teacher is as much encouraged, confronted, and instructed as are the students. I imagine this is true for all Western teachers, but because Ruth was a woman, who chose to be strongly engaged with her individual students, this dynamic was even more operative. We were powerfully shaped by Ruth’s teachings, and our relationship with her over many years contributed to who she became.

Given that awareness, I revisited the instance in which Ruth’s Jewish students, hurt and offended by the information about her German past, had asked to meet with her privately to address their discomfort. Ruth agreed, and the women gathered in her sitting room to communicate and listen. Ruth spoke at length, doing her best to let them in to her early experience—that long-ago time when she had been a farm girl with such limited consciousness available to her—hoping they would have some inkling of her situation, while acknowledging the unspeakable crimes that her people had committed. Tears were shed, anger expressed, as both Ruth and her students opened to a more nuanced view of each others’ experience. The communication was not perfect, not all questions could be put to rest, but the subject had been wholeheartedly addressed by all present, and there could be some sense of mutual respect and tenderness going forward.

Some of Ruth’s female students were passionate political activists who did not hesitate to call her out for expressing ideas that seemed uninformed or carelessly arrived at. That same naïveté of Ruth’s as a child still resided in her, but her students gave informed perspectives on many subjects that she would never, without us, have been exposed to, and Ruth opened to new ways of seeing.

One day I found myself ready to start writing the section about Ruth’s life in Germany before and during the War. The challenge would be to present an accurate evocation of the historical context and Ruth’s participation, first as enthusiastic actor, later as victim determined to survive at any cost.

The Crucial Visit

When the manuscript was completed, there was one final hurdle to jump: I had to show the book to Ruth.

We arranged a visit at my apartment in Oakland, after Ruth had been teaching at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Marin County, and then had gone to a spa in San Rafael. She arrived at our home in the afternoon, proud of herself for not getting lost on the way, perky and rested from her visit to the spa. After coffee and cake, we sat down in the living room to look at the completed book. She relaxed into the easy chair, with her feet up, holding a copy of the manuscript. I sat a bit anxiously on the couch, waiting for her to begin reading. But she shook her head. “No, dahling, I want you to read it to me!”

I took a deep breath, mentally regrouped, and slowly exhaled. Well, if this was how it had to be, I would try to meet the moment.

“Do you really want to hear all of this read aloud?”

She nodded firmly, so I had no choice but to begin.

I picked up the manuscript, and explained the intent of the opening chapter, reading a section here and there. Ruth began to smile as Chapter One unfolded. “Dahling, I didn’t know what you were doing for three years. Now I see!” As we went forward, she understood more and more how the details of her life would help the reader to trace her spiritual development.

Then we hit a snag. Ruth frowned, disturbed by the portrayal of her mother as a purveyor of harsh discipline without a playful side. I assured her I would do some rewriting on this. In the chapter about her training with her teacher U Ba Khin, Ruth found a number of paragraphs vague or off-course, and we worked together to find the precise words.

Another sticking point was Henry, as I had thought it would be. Their four decades of marriage had sometimes been fiery and contentious, and Ruth’s enduring love for him had not prevented her from criticizing some of his behavior in our interviews. Concerning his unfulfilled spiritual ambitions, she had expressed her opinion, but now when she heard her words read back to her, she found them too harsh. “No, dahling, we must take that out. I don’t want to seem to be putting him down.” I understood that, and we dropped a whole paragraph. Later, we struggled over some of her comments about Henry in the last chapter, ultimately agreeing to soften the language.

As I read aloud to her, she sat, chuckling now and then, remarking on a word, a turn of phrase, offering a correction. The afternoon passed, and we broke for dinner.

After another round of coffee and cake, Ruth and I returned to our reading. She was pleased with the chapter about her time in Millbrook, Timothy Leary’s upstate New York mansion, where she had served as unofficial nurse to those who tripped out on acid. She widened her eyes and spoke emphatically. “Ah, I see, dahling, you are pulling me through the events of my life, and you enter and comment. It is very wonderful what you do.”

I hesitated at the parts critical of her, but knew I had to forge ahead. While I read these, she just listened, not reacting, and later she said, “I see, you begin with the negative but you always pull it through to the positive.” She liked my evoking my own experience of her and Dhamma Dena, acknowledging this as a good way to illuminate her teachings.

The hour grew later as Ruth and I went on with our work. She read aloud the section about her response to the Jewish students, and approved of it.

At 1:30 a.m. as I was beginning one of the concluding chapters, I looked over to see that her eyes had closed, her head fallen to the side, and she was fast asleep. So I woke her up and we agreed to call it a night. She sank contentedly into her makeshift bed on the couch.

The next morning, we resumed, and in an hour or so we had come to the last page. We were silent for a time, as I tidied up the stack of manuscript pages in my lap.

Finally I asked Ruth if I had her blessings for the book, which, now published, is titled Dancing in the Dharma: The Life and Teachings of Ruth Denison.

She smiled as she tipped her head toward me. “Ah, dahling, you have my respect and my admiration.”

Takashi Miyaji

Sandy Boucher

Sandy Boucher is a writer, teacher and editor with forty years’ experience of Buddhism. She is the author of nine books, including Turning the Wheel, Hidden Spring, Dancing in the Dharma and She Appears!: Encounters with Kwan Yin Bodhisattva of Compassion. For information on her background, writing consultation and editing work see Sandyboucher.info