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Ruth Denison Brought the Dharma to the Dance

I've been reading about Ruth Denison, a Buddhist teacher who died Feb. 26. I'd picked up a book about her, Dancing in the Dharma, because I liked the title. I had not heard of her. That's a shame, because Denison's work deeply influenced how Buddhism is taught in the west.

I'm deeply grateful for her work, even though I didn't know it was her work, that it wasn't always this way. I don't think I'm alone in that -- her Wikipedia entry is seven sentences.

Denison was among the first wave of westerners who went east, a contemporary of Jack Kornfield, Sharon Salzberg, and others whose work formed the bones of Insight Meditation. She taught at their centers, at Spirit Rock and Insight Meditation Society, but in her own idiosyncratic way. She was not popular with students who wanted a traditional experience, Salzberg says in the book.

Denison's gift to the dharma and its students was to introduce and integrate body practices. Having studied in Zen before finding her teacher in U Ba Khin, she taught walking meditation. She taught students to ground in their bodies, to use sensation to integrate body and mind. When her contemporaries were experimenting with psychedelics and meditation, Denison was known as a person who could help those having a bad trip by keeping them anchored in their bodies. After she opened a dharma center, Dhamma Dena, she was known as a teacher who could work with students who had mental illness or other difficulties.

She also worked with women, creating the first retreat for women practitioners, and brought a strong feminine presence to Buddhism.

Dancing in the Dharma is written by one of Denison's longtime students, but it's unusually clear-eyed and straight forward, not sentimental or cloying. In that, it seems to be a fair reflection of Denison. She had a fascinating life, growing up in Germany between the wars, living through horrific experiences, and coming west to join the counter culture and then Buddhism. But she seems not have been particularly impressed by any of it, going about her life.


In her teaching and in her life, Ruth acts spontaneously; she is so fully committed to this moment that she may lose track of what she promised yesterday, or even the prescribed schedule of events at a retreat. At first this evoked little fits of exasperation in me -- until I discovered the obvious, that it was my own mind that was causing me to suffer. Then I began to understand that this was a great teaching for me: to get go of expectations, to not hold so tightly to my own precious agenda, to break the form and stay with the interest and joy of the present moment. -- Sandy Boucher, Dancing in the Dharma

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