Ruth Denison

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Ruth Denison (1922-2015) was the first Buddhist teacher in the United States to lead an all-women's retreat for Buddhist meditation and instruction. Her center, Dhamma Dena Desert Vipassana Center is located in the Mojave Desert, in Joshua Tree, California. She was also a teacher at the Insight Meditation Society dhammawiki in Barre, Massachusetts. She sometimes teaches at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, California.

Life and teachings

Ruth Denison is one of the first generation of women teachers of Vipassana in the West, and is the first Buddhist teacher in the United States to lead all-women's retreats for Buddhist meditation and instruction. Since its inception in 1976, she has regularly taught at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusettes, as well as at Spirit Rock in Woodacre, California.

Ruth was born in a small village in East Prussia, Germany. She grew up in a horticulture nursery whre she still remembers her father teaching her how to listen to the grass growing. She was trained as an elementary school teacher. After the draft of teachers during the war, she was left alone to teach 130 children in all eight grades. She was in Berlin in the midst of the Allied bombing of WWII. She spent time in a Russian forced labor camp as the war ended. Afterwards, through her teaching profession, she became acquainted with American teachers in Berlin. With their help she came to Los Angeles in 1957. Denison had an incredible life and impact. After growing up in the horrors of Nazi Germany and Soviet work camps, she came to the United States, where her circle included Alan Watts and Aldous Huxley. While working as an assistant to a German professor, she met her husband. He had previously been a Vedanta monk, and was a friend of Alan Watts.

In the 60's, inspired by the book Experience in Mindfulness by Admiral I.H. Shattuck, she traveled with her husband to Zen monasteries in Japan to deepen their practice of Zen. They continued on to meditation monasteries in Burma. There they trained in the monastery of Mahasi Sayadaw. Because of the lack of English language there, which restricted communication with the Master, Mahasi Sayadaw referred them to practice with the Burmese Master U Ba Kin, who was fluent in English and well acquainted with Westerners. He taught in a way that Buddhist and non-Buddhists, as well as Westerners could all grasp the teaching. In the 1960s and 1970s she was part of the alternative and counterculture scene.

There Ruth and her husband submitted themselves to U Ba Khin’s training. He was a layman as well as a meditation master. He held the position of Accountant General of Burma as well as founding and running The Vipassana Research Association in Rangoon. Although he had ordained as a monk for a short time, as a layman he felt the need for a course of instruction particularly for householders, rather than strictly for bhikkhus (members of the Buddhist monastic Sangha) and recluses who gave up their entire worldly life to practice meditation. The Vipassana Research Association undertook research and experimentation in Vipassana meditation, which he originated. Results and findings from these studies enabled Sayagyi (U Ba Khin) to present the Buddhadhamma to laymen and laywomen in a systematic, scientific manner that is appealing to the modern mind. He developed the method of vipassana or insight meditation, which was aligned fully to the Buddhadhamma teachings of sila, samadhi and panna. He announced that, with this disciplined practice, one could expect very satisfactory results within a short period of endeavor. This provided non-monastics with a way to dedicate themselves to a Buddhist practice, without taking robes.

Sayagyi also developed the “sweeping” method, as well as to the “ten day retreat.” He realized that the period of ten days was sufficient for the practitioner to get a first thorough touch of the benefits of vipassana insight meditation, if practiced in a very disciplined and dedicated way.

The resulting benefit of this method is to come to see clearly who we are--our true nature. The "sweeping" meditation constantly touches the bodily sensations, making clearer the aliveness and the elements which are anicca. Directly experiencing in this way the fact of change, as it manifests constantly in our bodies, opens the door for understanding and seeing the nature of our suffering and no-self. Sayagyi’s way was not the way of scholars. Every word he spoke came from his own experience. Therefore, his teachings had the life of embodied experience within them. Every word said by him was very powerful and encouraging for his students.

Ruth’s husband very much benefited from this method of direct experience, after his many years as a scholarly monk with the Advaita. Sayagyi wrote little, and spoke little, but still his students benefited greatly by his teaching. As a layman he applied himself solely to the task of helping sincere meditators explore and experience a state of purity of mind and the realization of the truth of suffering and impermanence, resulting in peace within, through vipassana. With this attitude he accomplished his dream of introducing and presenting the Buddhadhamma to the West, and training Western lay teachers to carry the practice home with them. Today this sweeping practice has swept throughout the world's spiritual centers, and the Vipassana method he developed is practiced widely.

Through practicing mindfulness of the body via U Ba Khin's sweeping "awareness of sensations" meditation method, Ruth had a breakthrough experience. This breakthrough opened her to seeing clearly the nature of our being--that there is no solidity, just constant change. With this she came to the deep realization of the law of impermanence--that what we are is that natural law of anicca. U Ba Khin recognized Ruth's attainment, and she became one of only four Westerners (and the only woman) to receive certification to teach from him.

Ruth's ability to so thoroughly embrace Vipassana was a result, she feels, of her previous training with Charlotte Selva in Sensory Awareness, in which she learned to put her attention on the body's senses.

After returning to the United States, her home in Hollywood became a place of spiritual investigation, where a great many teachers from the east came to lecture. Ruth had students in Los Angeles as well as teaching regularly in Sweden, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Spain, France, and England. In 1977, as a refuge from Hollywood, Ruth purchased a small cabin on five acres of desert outside Joshua Tree, CA. Her students followed her there, snd the center began to grow and be known as Dhamma Dena. It was named after one of the Buddha's foremost bhikkhuni disciples, Dhammadinna, which was also the dharma name given to Ruth by another of her venerable teachers, the late Taungpulu Sayadaw. More on Ruth's life can be found at on the web as well as in her biography Dancing in the Dharma written by Sandy Boucher (see for an exerpt).

As founder and resident teacher of Dhamma Dena Desert Vipassana Meditation and the co-founder of the German Institute for Awakened Living and Buddhism in the West in Cologn (Koeln), Ruth Denison is deeply engaged in Sangha community practice as well as with many environmental and social issues including animal rights.

In February 2015 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.

See also

Dhamma Dena