Tuesday, 7:30 a.m., November 11, 2014
Dhamma Dena Desert Vipassana Center,
Mojave Desert, California
I’ve come over to the kuti, the remodeled chicken house that Ruth previously used for her office, interview room and sleeping place. I sit out back on a dusty old chair, on this covered patio, looking past her garden to the desert stretching to mountains reclining against brilliant morning sky. This view I receive like an old friend, after thirty years of retreats here with Ruth, now in her nineties.
Suddenly I am transported back in time, decades ago, to a moment in the meditation hall. It is the worst year of my life—major abdominal surgery for cancer, twenty-six weeks of chemotherapy, nausea, weakness, disability. I am sitting in the back of the meditation hall, doing my best to stay upright, my eyes closed, when suddenly I sense a presence. Opening my eyes, I see Ruth squatting before me in her voluminous, Zen-inspired skirt.
“Dahling, you are straining,” she whispers. “You must lie down.” I am taken by surprise. This strict, demanding teacher who brooks no whining is inviting me to lie down in the meditation hall! She gets up to gather cushions and a blanket from the corner pile, arranges a narrow bed and helps me lower myself down on it.
I lie among the meditating people, hearing Ruth’s voice from the front of the room guiding the meditation, always returning our attention to the body with piercing precision. And I surrender into deep relaxation, a loving regard for my weak, compromised physical self.
As I sit on Ruth’s patio, with her kuti behind me, scenes tumble through my mind. How many group interviews have I attended in which she did most of the talking? How many late nights have I sat here alone with Ruth, after the evening Dharma talk and meditation session, listening while she critiqued the day, made tea, offered chocolates? How often have I seen Ruth at her desk in the office, glasses slid down on her nose, mouth pursed, trying to keep track of the paperwork for Dhamma Dena—always interrupted by the next knock on the door, the next head poked in to ask for help, to complain, to report a crisis?
I see before me the succession of dachshunds, rescued from the pound, who shared Ruth’s and her students’ lives; the roadrunners, Ruth’s favorite bird, that she fed with small meatballs and who strutted brazenly through her doorway to demand food; the rabbits, munching discarded vegetables from old automobile tires near the meditation hall; the coyotes, distantly howling, fed dinner scraps each night far out in the desert.
And into my memory’s cinematic display strides Henry Denison, her tall, bearded, distinguished husband whom she adored and stayed married to for forty years. “He is an elegant man,” she used to tell me, lowering her eyes and subtly smiling in appreciation. Henry had been a Vedanta monk and remained a spiritual seeker. Now and then he came to sit at Ruth’s holiday retreat, an impressive presence among us, and once in a while he could not stop himself from asking philosophical questions designed to throw Ruth off balance. I watched in trepidation, but she did not falter. She would frown, take a breath and then point out to him that his question, while certainly intriguing, was unrelated to the vipassana meditation method that we were following. And she would direct him, once again, to practice with the bodily sensations.
Henry lived his last years in the house where Ruth is now living hers. At the end, he sat all day in an armchair, barely present, his handsome head erect, with Ruth and others in loving attendance.
I recall Ruth’s generosity as I saw her give money and goods to many Dharma projects—a monastery, groups of aspiring nuns, individual students signing up for graduate school or needing airfare to England or Asia to enter the monastic life. She supported young people’s efforts to establish their own Dharma centers—in the U.S., Germany, Canada, Alaska.
And she gave of herself without limit, at any hour of day or night, building Dhamma Dena room by room. She could be as demanding as a Prussian officer, and she could bring joy to many people—instructing, caring and engaging with an intense focus on life’s delights, its many snags and bumps, its sometimes glorious expansiveness, here on this desert soil.
Her teaching is finished now. I feel the weight of this awareness as I watch the sun ride higher in the sky. Now Ruth, who used to care for so many, is cared for by others—in “Las Vegas House,” ten minutes’ walk across the desert from here—with twenty-four hours a day of close monitoring, gentle nurturing.
First Visit to Ruth
Las Vegas House shines, newly cleaned and polished. The formerly wild tomcat, Mister, looking magnificently fluffy and content, lies sprawled asleep on the couch. Nicky, the caretaker from Joshua Tree, tells me Ruth is somewhat ill, will be going to the doctor soon, but I can have a short visit.
Having just met Nicky, I like her immediately. She is obviously a kindly soul, and competent, blown away by Ruth (“She taught me to meditate!”) before “the change.” The change in Ruth’s condition happened sometime in August—an abrupt plunge into serious dementia, perhaps connected with a stroke.
Nicky brings Ruth into the dining room in her wheelchair. Greasy straight hair (Nicky explains that Ruth had had a massage with oil the day before), vacant eyes that glance off—here for some seconds, then peering into space. Ruth addresses Mister as if she can see him, although he is in the next room, invisible to her. After both Nicky and I announce my presence, Ruth says my name but it’s unclear if she recognizes me or is just repeating what she heard, without comprehension.
I sit before her as, haltingly, Ruth tells me about something traumatic that happened in the middle of the night—how the “wind at the corner” was blowing in every direction. Then she drifts off into silence and her eyes search the walls of the room. What is she seeing?
She coughs, gripping her side in pain. Now she focuses, holding my gaze for a moment. “There’s not much left of what I call me,” she says earnestly. And adds, “It came very fast.” Then she is gone again. I sit back, brought up short by this clarity.
When I leave so that Nicky can get Ruth ready for the doctor, I stand outside the door in the desert heat and cannot move. My heart feels like a jagged rock in my chest.
When I can walk again, I go across the desert to the meditation hall. Sitting in a comfortable chair, I look at what Ruth has made. This space has been so carefully created over many years—the giant oriental rug before the altar, the two beautiful Kwan Yins and seated Buddha, and above them on the wall the five-foot-diameter, round mosaic made by Ruth of tiny squares of glass, some of them gleaming gold in the afternoon light.
Ruth’s commemorations hang framed on the side walls. We went together to Thailand to receive two of them: the 2006 Outstanding Women in Buddhism certificate and the 2009 Sawang Kuan-Im Thammasathan Foundation plaque for the opening of the majestic Kwan Yin temple in Bangkok.
Out the glass patio doors, the creosote bushes dance above the pale desert soil. A small pile-up of stones supports a Buddha head. Far out, the reclining shapes of mountains lean against the enormous sky.
Represented here in this beautiful room is forty years of tireless effort fueled by Ruth’s urgency to awaken us to the profound teachings of the Buddha, and to return us always to the reliable laboratory of this mind-body continuum we inhabit in order to directly experience and gain insight into our reality. What has happened to that history, that journey, that map carved out through rough terrain? From what I can tell so far on this visit, it’s all so very distant from Ruth now, except in random shreds. Yet alive in the reminders here at Dhamma Dena, alive in each of us, her students.
So much of what I do as a Buddhist writer and teacher is informed by Ruth’s example and teachings. She opened the door of the Dharma to me. I try to pass on her dedication and bright, joyful spirit.
Stepping outside the meditation hall, facing west, I sink into a metal chair to watch the sun drop behind the mountains. Slathers of white cloud float on pale blue sky, lit from below with gold. Then the light changes to pink and the clouds congeal into orange pillows against robin’s egg blue. Coolness in the air. Silence. End of the day at Dhamma Dena. Color deepens as great scarves of scarlet are flung across the horizon. Finally, the whole sky is on fire!
Second Visit to Ruth
Ruth and I sit out on the patio, she in turquoise jacket, white pants, large-brimmed straw hat. She smiles, as she tells me how much she likes singing, how her German caretaker Norma sings with her every night before she goes to sleep. She croons a German lullaby to show me. I am astonished by how alert she is.
She instructs me: “We go out into the world. I invite us for a different view. All of us can use a little bit of thinking about this.” It doesn’t make sense, and it does make sense: Pay attention. She teaches.
She is so cheerful and available that I take her for a walk in her garden. She holds onto the handles of what she calls her “motorcycle,” an upscale rubber-wheeled walker with a carrier basket, and we push around among the trees, I poised to catch her in case she trips.
And I remember my visit to her last year. We traversed the garden as she told me, “I’ve invented a new irrigation system that saves water; I just carry a big bottle around here in my basket and pour it only where it’s needed, so I don’t waste any.” Leaning, she reached to pull dead blossoms from a potted plant. That was before “the change.”
Now we move more carefully, more slowly through the garden, and there is very little commentary but she is proud of herself for this exertion.
We go inside Las Vegas House to sit at the beautiful cherry-wood table that Henry made and which graced their home in the Hollywood Hills for decades. I have brought tuna salad and tomato for lunch. Ruth talks of food, comments on her German caretaker’s penchant for potatoes. Classical music from the iPod speaker fills the dining room. After we eat, a young German filmmaker, Aleksandra, who has been shooting a film about Ruth, comes to say goodbye. They speak in German, and Aleksandra tells me they are talking about Ruth’s house in Germany, which her family lost during the war. “Am I homeless?” Ruth asks Aleksandra, who assures her that she is safe, this is her house, she owns it, no one will take it away from her.
When Aleksandra has gone, Nicky makes coffee for us and brings us pound cake she has bought at the grocery. Ruth tells me, “My mother made this cake. You must try it, dahling. Very delicious.”
My experience today is so different from yesterday’s. Where is her physical discomfort, her sadness? Ruth’s condition, her mental state, flutter as insubstantially as lacework doilies. In the moment, everything changes, shifts, falls apart.
Third Visit with Ruth
Ruth is in a pensive mood when I come over. She sits in the easy chair, wrapped in a wool shawl, and listens to music. I join her. We receive the deep-voiced Tibetan chant backed by an orchestra, and at moments Ruth brushes away a tear from the outer corner of her eye. She looks at me trustfully, as if to say, “Yes, you know why this music makes me sad.” I do not know, but that doesn’t matter.
I stay for an hour, most of the time just sitting with Ruth, listening with her, as the music changes to Gregorian chants. “Is that Tibetan?” she asks, and I answer, “No, it’s European, it’s Christian.” We don’t talk much, although she does tell me about the Russian officers who sometimes come to visit her. (This is a disconcerting hallucination, given her history of abuse by Russian soldiers in defeated Germany.) I think she’s just making sure I know about this visitation, not asking for my help with it. In our companionable hour, I realize how much I love this small, feeling person. I am content just sharing the music with her.
Walking across the desert after Ruth has fallen asleep in her chair, I wonder: Is this beloved meditation center coming to an end? Will Ruth soon disappear?
Dhamma Dena, well cared for by one resident, managed by another, will continue to offer residential meditation retreats, inspired by Ruth’s teachings but without her physical presence. And Ruth—so cradled by her caretakers American and German—goes on enjoying guests, food, music, her garden.
As for the particular style and depth of Ruth’s practice and teaching of the dharma, her powerful love of life, her spontaneity and her insistence on bodily sensations as the doorway to liberation live on in each of us who practiced with her over the years. My love for her is partly for the teacher, but also, more intimately, for a human being who is my own private, especially cherished person. When she dies, only some of that will disappear. The rest will belong to me until my own swift or gradual disintegration. In the meantime, Ruth Denison remains as alive as the desert sun touching the pale dirt and gilding the tough yet vulnerable plants, the essential animals in this difficult inner/outer landscape.
Ruth Denison died February 26, 2015.