It is rare in one’s lifetime to meet a passionate and devoted teacher of the dharma. Dancing in the Dharma tells the in-depth story of the unusual life of Ruth Denison. This is a tale of several firsts. Denison is one of the first female dharma teachers in the West, not to mention one of the first senior teachers in the American vipassana community. More significantly, she is one of the first to establish all-female retreats and an inspiring mentor to many female disciples. Her biographer, Sandy Boucher, is one of Denison’s senior students.
The interviews that comprise the book take place at Denison’s center, Dhammadena, in Southern California, often at her kitchen table or in the garden with her dogs nearby. Everything about Denison, from her extraordinary background to the nontraditional and feminine ways in which she dresses and teaches, makes this a remarkable story.
Denison’s life began in East Prussia during the rise of Hitler. She naively became involved in Hitler’s Youth Movement and, following the end of the war, endured enormous suffering. As a refugee in Berlin, Denison returned to East Prussia to investigate what had happened to her extended family. On this “dark journey” Denison experienced starvation, violent rape and imprisonment in a forced-labor camp. In the midst of this suffering, she made a commitment: “I will do good and will touch life. . . . I am determined to help other people.”
After coming to the United States, she met and married Henry Denison, a wealthy and powerful man with whom she would spend the next forty years. Boucher points out that Denison’s good fortune lies in arriving at just the right historical moment: the period when the great sociological, psychological, political and spiritual experimentation of the sixties had just begun. Denison would be swept up in this movement, undergoing a prolonged spiritual training from which she would emerge a Buddhist teacher.
There is a lot of information and stories about her spiritual teachers and friends, including Charlotte Selver, U Ba Khin, Joshu Sasaki Roshi, Alan Watts and Timothy Leary.
The heart of the book is a chapter entitled “A Teaching.” Over a midnight repast in Denison’s kitchen, she and Boucher discuss the internal demons of anger, aversion and disapproval. Denision shares her personal struggles with reactivity and resentment and explains how she allows them to “cook in her heart.” She guides Boucher down the path of forgiveness and compassion, helping her to untangle the knot of her own difficulties and to expand her vision.
In the final chapter, Boucher shares her own struggles with Denison as a teacher. During a retreat she is finally able to
surrender to just observing this human being called Ruth Denison. . . . And what I saw was a person of depth and almost superhuman energy who was using all of her powers, in each moment, to contact the human beings before her and wake them up to their aliveness. . . . She was relentless in the pursuit of the opening that would release each person into this present moment, into connection with him-or herself.
This illuminating portrait of Denison helps us taste her passion for the teachings and appreciate the tools and tenderness she’s developed over her decades of practice and teaching. Boucher beautifully describes the many ways Denison has been tested throughout her life, including surviving unspeakable brutality and nursing her beloved husband through Alzheimer’s. Through Boucher’s witnessing, we see the wisdom of one of the most extraordinary dharma teachers in the West. Perhaps some readers will be inspired to go to the desert and receive the dharma directly from the hands and heart of Ruth Denison.