The wind whistled this morning, and early morning light glowed on the gracefully aging buildings at Dhamma Dena, Ruth Denison’s desert retreat center in Joshua Tree, California. Ruth died this year and many mourn.
Dharma, my van, and I were kindly hosted by gay partners Chris and Greg, temporary caretakers of Ruth’s land. Chris and Greg, on a spiritual pilgrimage, happened to visit and were invited to stay. When she became ill, they agreed to stay on even longer to protect the center and welcome guests. Ruth died in her 90s, releasing her last breath on her beloved land surrounded by friends and students.
Who was Ruth Denison, teacher of Arinna Weisman, Robert Beatty, Sandy Boucher, Julie Wester, and other well known American Buddhist teachers? Her unusual story combines the worst of war-time deprivation and abuse, the best of a wealthy, intellectual life surrounded by famous spiritualists of the l960s and 70s, and the flowering of a highly iconoclastic, movement-centered approach to Western Theravada teachings. (Thanks to Sandy Boucher’s excellent biography Dancing in the Dharma, I learned much about Ruth’s history.)
Ruth learned as a child to be resilient, confident and adventuresome, in part thanks to growing up (naively) in Nazi youth groups. But she suffered during World War II, a young German teacher separated from friends and family, wandering alone and hungry, raped multiple times by soldiers, bouncing back from trauma over and over again. An American helped her immigrate to the US, and there she met and fell in love with Henry Denison, a very wealthy spiritual-seeker. Living and traveling to Asia multiple times with Henry, she discovered and embraced a highly body-centered style of Theravada Buddhism. It was like a fish discovering water, and she had the resources to support her intense learning and growth.
Ruth bought a desert home in Southern California and was authorized by her Burmese teacher to become a teacher herself. She came to the work slowly, lacking confidence at first, but soon threw herself fully into her own style of teaching. Ruth’s focus was mindfulness and awareness through the body. She incorporated movement beyond the traditional “walking meditation”, and drew a motley crew to her desert center. Many women and lesbians flocked to her care and tutelage, perhaps because of her accepting, non-traditional and motherly care.
Dhamma Dena is quiet today. A recent flood has marked the land and the road to the center, which is rutted and slow to navigate. The air and light are desert: dry, hot in the sun and cool in the shade, with spectacular sunrises and sunsets over the distant craggy hills.
Signs caution residents to keep screen doors closed to keep out the snakes. Oleander and a few trees green up the land, and creosote bushes smell sweet after a rain. The small meditation hall is lovely, with statues of the Buddha and Mexican skeletons in pink skirts brought in by a student to remind all of the inevitability of death.
At first, Ruth Denison was controversial and sometimes disregarded by the more Asian-trained Western teachers centered at the Insight Meditation Society in Massachusetts and Spirit Rock retreat center in California. Interestingly, her focus on movement has gradually worked its way into many other teachers’ retreat planning, which now often include yoga, Chi Gong, or Tai Chi. Ruth became respected in many Buddhist circles over the years, and is mourned now by many.
She was eccentric. Ruth wore her own style of Asian and European clothing, with a variety of signature hats. She was often accompanied by her dogs, including in retreat halls. Ruth’s approach was motherly. Stories are told about her feeding students cookies and milk, and occasionally taking a female student into bed to offer motherly comfort during emotional crisis. The retreat center was rustic, with hand-made buildings, simple food and accommodations, rock and metal art strewn around the property, and no fees charged to provide access to all. Various helpers and builders lived on the property over the years, but Ruth did much of the work herself: finances, planning, registration, cooking. She and her husband lived apart much of the time, but she cared for him at the desert retreat during his last years alive. And then her students and friends took care of her.
Ruth had a sharp edge. Students were sometimes scolded and abuse survivors were advised to focus on the moment and let go of the past as she had, apparently without grief or healing. Her teaching became sometimes foggy in her later years as she aged. Clearly her humanity was in full display but many students were able to handle her weaknesses with the same equanimity and kindness that she typically offered them.
Ruth’s house now belongs to former students, and the rest of the property is run by a trust which she created for posterity. The trust directors will decide the future of Dhamma Dena, whose buildings look like they will need a lot of improvements to continue operating as a center. In the meantime, several retreats are being scheduled.
I never met Ruth but I heard much about her over the years. Having been “raised” with more traditional Buddhist retreat practices, I don’t think I would have taken to Ruth’s style. But I appreciate the huge impact she has had on many lives and teachers, and sense the powerful inheritance she has left.
One can feel the spirit and energy of the hundreds of women and men who have followed their breath and their movements along with Ruth over the decades of practice. Whatever the future brings to this land, surely Ruth’s spirited teachings will remain embedded in the winds that blow through on windy days and the soft sands of the ancient seas that once flourished where the desert now stands.