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Buddhadharma : Summer 2015
summer 2015 buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly 73 It was in the concrete meditation hall surrounded by cacti at Dhamma Dena that I experienced my first dharma talk and felt that blissful shock of hearing wisdom uttered aloud as if something I had yearned for all my life without knowing the nature of the longing was suddenly being served to me. Ruth, in her trademark full-length skirt that brushed her ankles, blouse with puff sleeves that reached her wrists, and a crocheted cap that covered her ears but revealed her thick fringe of graying blonde bangs (appearing as if she had just walked off the set of Heidi) was not one to mince her words. Her dharma talks went on and on, rambling from one subject to the next in an improvised journey of twists, turns, and lengthy detours. With a pile of notes stacked before her on a small wooden table, she carried on, her passion for the dharma utterly contagious. For in the tradition of all good teachers, Ruth was a master of transmission. She had received teachings from the renowned Burmese Vipassana master U Ba Khin, who recognized Ruth’s profound awak- ening and urged her to teach in the West. Off she went, guiding whoever showed up at her doorstep in U Ba Khin’s prac- tice of sweeping the body with awareness one infinitesimal inch at a time. Ruth was one of the first women Bud- dhist teachers to offer the dharma in the West, and women flocked to her retreat center to sit at her feet. Unlike all of the teachers I have studied with, including some of the greatest living Buddhist masters, Ruth insisted we move, refus- ing to abandon the body as the home of awareness. She led us in daily stretches, afternoon dances, and marches across the sandy desert in the frigid night air as she pounded her drum to keep our steps in unison. One night, she stopped mid-march. “Look!” she commanded. Free of the blinding light pollution that plagues more urban areas, the stars and planets shone forth in a dazzling multitude. “Look!” Ruth repeated. “Now look at the one who is seeing!” In that moment, my mind melted into a vast awareness that seemed to stretch boundlessly in all directions free of time and space and name. “Who is the one who is looking?” Ruth asked, her voice more a command than an inquiry. “See the one who is seeing!” After a moment of silence, she beat the drum and we marched back in uni- son to the meditation hall for our final evening sit. I had seen the one who was seeing. I had glimpsed the self that is non-self and free of impermanence, free of suffering. I had entered the stream. FOR MANY YEARS, I made biannual visits to Dhamma Dena for two-week silent retreats. One night, perhaps at my fourth retreat, a deep fear caught me in its grip. I dutifully followed the sensations of panic as they crawled through my belly and tightened my chest and constricted my throat. Unable to manage the anxiety, I crawled out of my bunk and in my pajamas made my way to Ruth’s trailer. I knocked tentatively, fearful of waking her but even more ter- rified of facing my terror alone. Ruth, in her nightgown and nightcap, her hair in braids, invited me in. Not just into her trailer but into her bed. I realize this sounds scandalous. How can a dharma teacher coax a student into her bed and have the exchange be anything but...well... suspect? Yet there was nothing untoward about our moment together. Instead what unfolded was a marvel. Ruth, smelling of perfume and toothpaste, took me in as if my fear were nothing special, a simple human experience that revealed its insubstantial nature in the light of her unconditional acceptance. “Dukkha,” she whispered in my ear and fed me a cookie. She was utterly maternal in a way my own mother had failed to be. In a way she had not learned from U Ba Khin. ➤ Ruth Denison guides students in a “follow the leader” practice at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts (ca 1990). If a student was not in synch with her, Ruth would ask, “Where is your mind, dahlink?” PHOTOGRAPHeRUNKNOwN Save 58% off the newsstand price and get Buddhadharma delivered to your door. Subscribe for the best of Buddhism today. Each issue of Buddhadharma brings you the best in-depth teachings from a wide variety of traditions — Theravada, Zen, Vajrayana, and more. Deepen your practice. Expand your view. Stay connected with the wider Buddhist community. Many Buddhists, One Buddhadharma Prices for a one-year subscription: US $19.95; Canada add $10 postage and pay CDN funds; international add $20 (US) postage. Get a full refund of unmailed issues if you’re not satisfied. 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