91-Year-Old Meditation Master Ruth Denison

91-Year-Old Meditation Master Ruth Denison

In the California desert, a vipassana pioneer prepares for the next stage of her remarkable life.

Illustration by Shonagh Rae

Ruth Denison has spent 91 years learning how to move gracefully through life. A Buddhist elder and one of the first teachers to bring vipassana meditation to the West, she has spent long hours mastering breath and sensory awareness and literally dancing her way through life’s changes. But some changes are more daunting than others.

“I am 90 years old, and ahead of me is my death,” Denison says matter-of-factly. “I have no balance, sometimes not even in the mind, even though I am the master of that.”

The murky, mysterious conditions of one’s own twilight are frightening, even to a warrior woman who has bravely stared life’s horrors—war, imprisonment, the death of a spouse—in the eye.

“But now I have had enough of the stress, the stress that arises out of the conditions of my age,” Denison says with a sigh, visibly frustrated. Then we go outside to feed her favorite roadrunner, and she beams as she looks for him—the stress, it seems, has faded for now.

Denison lives at her meditation center, Dhamma Dena, in the Mojave Desert near Joshua Tree, California. The compound, which she founded in 1977, is named after a female disciple of the Buddha. It overlooks a sparse, eerily beautiful terrain known as Copper Mountain Mesa, a sandy landscape polka-dotted with green creosote bushes and sage scrub. She still teaches, hosting semiannual meditation retreats for her students, some of whom fly in from the far corners of the world.

When I arrive for our afternoon get-together, Denison is sitting behind her desk, which is piled with letters from friends and followers. Small and wiry, with deep-set eyes, her skin translucent and crisscrossed with fine lines, she issues commands and quips in the same breath, her thick German accent as dense and warm as gingerbread.

She used to have five wiener dogs, but now a lone cat with matted coat sits outside waiting to be fed along with the rabbits in her backyard and her favorite roadrunner, which dines on fresh hamburger meat. Denison likes to feed animals, but she also likes to feed people, so we sit down for some German chocolate and a cup of instant coffee, and she tells me a little of her story.

Ruth Denison, née Schäfer, was born in Germany, close to the Polish border in the region formerly known as East Prussia. As a child she heard the voices of saints and angels and learned to communicate with an entity that at the time she thought was God. As a young woman in World War II, she had already learned that she had the capacity for inner silence, even during the abuse she endured at the hands of Russian soldiers in occupied Berlin—she reasoned she was helping to pay off some of the debt of conscience owed by Germany for the atrocities of Adolf Hitler.

After the war, as a young teacher, she traveled to Los Angeles, where, in 1958, she met Henry Denison. A moody six-foot-four intellectual with an interest in radical thought, he was a friend of the counterculture icon Alan Watts, who would lead talks on Eastern philosophy and other spiritual topics in the living room of their house in the Hollywood Hills. “It’s one of the great wonders of life: What would it be like to go to sleep and never wake up?” Watts is often quoted as saying. “And if you think long enough about that, something will happen to you. You will find that it will pose the next question to you: What was it like to wake up after never having gone to sleep? That is when you were born. See, you can’t have an experience of nothing. Nature abhors a vacuum. So, after you are dead, the only thing that can happen is the same experience as when you were born.”

Psychologists, yogis, philosophers, gurus, LSD freaks, avant-garde authors, and Zen masters attended the Denisons’ salons. Guests included Fritz Perls, Lama Anagarika Govinda, and Aldous Huxley—thinkers brought together by a shared goal of spiritual awakening. The Denisons found themselves increasingly drawn to Zen Buddhism, and in 1960 the couple traveled to Asia, spending time at Zen monasteries in Japan and visiting the Philippines, Hong Kong, Singapore, and finally Burma, where they met Sayagyi U Ba Khin, who introduced them to a Buddhist practice thus far unknown in the West—vipassana. Centered on mindful breathing combined with a contemplation of awareness, the meditation practice is thought to develop “insight into the impermanence of all phenomena, and thereby lead to a permanent liberation,” according to Richard Gombrich in his book How Buddhism Began. Indeed, the Sanskrit word vipassana is often translated as “insight” or “clear seeing.” The Denisons stayed at Ba Khin’s meditation center for three months.

When Denison returned to Los Angeles, she resumed her Zen practice, helping build meditation halls in California and hosting darshan and puja ceremonies as well as lectures at her home. But her thoughts often returned to vipassana, and she went back to Burma to practice with Ba Khin, who by this point had decided that the West was ready to be formally introduced to vipassana. He gave four Westerners, including Denison, the transmission to teach the meditative technique.

Nervous, and feeling underqualified for the immense task ahead of her, Denison led her first retreat in Frankfurt, Germany, with fellow initiate Robert Hover. For the following four years she taught across Europe, taking vipassana to Spain, Norway, Sweden, and eventually California. “If you live in the present, there is no future,” she told her students. “Don’t let thinking rob you of your experiences.” In 1977, seeking a rural escape from Hollywood, she bought a cabin on five acres in Joshua Tree, about three hours east of Los Angeles. Her students followed her, and Dhamma Dena was born.

Today, she tells me the most important thing she tries to teach her students is an awareness of impermanence. “You have to remind yourself every day of that,” she says, “yet we hardly do it, because it’s so shocking when you mention something about it. But through Buddha’s teachings, now death isn’t such a big mystery or such a big horror. Impermanence is the natural thing.”

Sandy Boucher, a longtime student who also wrote Denison’s biography, first met Denison 30 years ago, and though she has since studied with many other teachers, including Pema Chödrön, “Ruth was the one who set me on the path,” she says. “It is understood that Buddhism is a path, and you have a teacher, and the teacher opens the door for you and invites you in. As an artist and as a writer I was drawn to the fact that she was so creative in her teachings and so inventive and spontaneous. If the practice wasn’t working, or if the energy was flagging, she would immediately think of some way to fix it, to the extent that we might suddenly find ourselves out in the desert dancing in a conga line. That was very unusual in the Buddhist world, the use of movement to teach mindfulness. She is the pioneer in that.”

Boucher and a few other longtime students led the most recent retreat at Dhamma Dena earlier this year. It was the first time in years that Denison wasn’t single-handedly running the show, although she was present. “When you’re 90 years old, the body wants to slow down, even though intellectually you may be completely there,” says Boucher.

Denison’s experience of old age, as she is sharing it with her students, has become one of her most important teachings, Boucher adds. “She is fully cognizant of her stage in life and talks about it, teaches us how to accept it as a natural unfolding.” Boucher says Denison helped her calmly face her own stage III colon cancer 15 years ago. “Then, and now, I hear Ruth’s voice in my head, especially when it comes to discomfort or pain. She will say, ‘It’s just sensation, darling. The pain is just sensation.’”

When I talk to Denison again, it is on the phone. It will be her 91st birthday in a week or so, and she sees little cause for celebration. “My mother was 92 when she died. And she is such a model for me.” She describes the day her mother died. “She had a little party, a kind of high-tea meeting with four of her friends. And they are sitting and enjoying their cakes and their teas and coffee, and she says, ‘Well, I’m not quite so comfortable. I feel like I would like to lean back on the couch.’ And the next minute she breathes out and dies.” The upsetting memories keep popping up these days, and sometimes Denison longs for the space to process them, without having to field the constant requests for wisdom or even look at the RSVPs to her own celebration. “I’m too much overloaded, without getting into birthday parties,” she says. “What is a birthday? What are we celebrating? Our lives having left us—and before us, one year left to live? That for me is ‘birthday.’”

But she continues to talk, teach, and share her chocolate and wisdom nonetheless, as she has done for so many years. It just so happens that, now, what she is sharing is also the experience of death, the thing with which she walks side by side, catching glances here or there and wondering at what point it will guide her off life’s path in another direction. That moment could be years from now, I point out, reminding Denison that people have lived to be 120. “Oh, but you know when the Lord of Death is touching you,” she says. “And as long as you have anxiety, you cannot respond to it in the right way, and you cannot provide yourself with the smooth and harmonious farewell.” She feels it most in the morning. “Carlos Castaneda says you have to just watch it as you feel it, and be in that space of taking apart from the world. Castaneda said, ‘Don’t get ahead of yourself. Just be alert to the touch of death.’ Otherwise the anxiety will take over, and you will be ahead of your dying.” She sighs. She worries that she is ahead of herself some days. But she can’t help it. “I have everywhere, messages. So I feel sometimes overrun, like I don’t have the time which would allow me to go more smoothly through this.” That is the challenge for Denison: managing the anxiety that will grip us all, Buddhist masters and laypersons alike, as we feel ourselves lurch into the home stretch.

The next time I call Dhamma Dena, Denison is not there. She is in rehab, having fallen and fractured a bone. The woman who answers the phone says Ruth is doing well and getting around as best she can. I wonder who is feeding the roadrunner while she is gone. Then I remember, it’s OK. She runs a tight ship. Whether or not Ruth Denison is at Dhamma Dena in person, you can be sure the roadrunner will be fed and that her students will still hear her voice anytime they need it.

A journalist who has written for publications including the Village Voice, New York, LA Weekly, and Cosmopolitan, Caroline Ryder lives near Joshua Tree, California.

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