THE LIONESS OF THE DESERTOur car bounces across unpaved sand roads for several miles, a group of teachers on a visit of affection and respect to Ruth Denison, one of the founders of Insight meditation in the West. Ruth began her practice in Burma in 1961, and studied under the great lay teacher U Ba Khin. Her meditation center, Dhamma Dena, established almost 30 years ago lies in a vast and harsh part of the Mojave desert adjacent to the country’s largest Marine Base at 29 Palms. Looking out across miles we see distant mountains, occasional scrub bushes, and as we sit quietly the semi-hidden wildlife of the desert appears, the roadrunner she has tamed, the bunnies she feeds, the few tended trees amidst the indigenous lizards and cactus.
Ruth is nearly 90, and after repeated falls in which she broke her legs and hips several times, she leads us around the property with no cane nor walker. Her will and determination, like the Marines next door, is almost unshakable, and she tells us how for months she focused her meditative attention on each step until she could walk again. She seems to live and breathe Dharma, every difficulty and joy is a teaching, an opportunity to embody fearless and compassionate presence. She talks about being close to death in the hospital, and how after willing her breath to continue, she then had to surrender, and let go to see if her breath would continue on its own. It did. I think the King of Death found her a little too feisty to take yet.
Ruth’s bodhisattva spirit has wedded her to a life of natural unstinting service, and until this year she has continuously led retreats in the desert and at all the major Vipassana centers since their beginning. Over the years, whoever came to Dhamma Dena, ardent seekers and Buddhist nuns, homeless people and mental patients, all were embraced. Ruth respected their spirit, and fed them the medicine of the Dharma, expecting discipline, courage and lovingkindness. Her teachings were demanding and dignified and continuous. She taught that awakening and freedom of spirit is possible here and now. You can find freedom in yourself wherever you are. The Buddha called these teachings of awakening The Lion’s Roar. In the Lioness of the Desert you can still hear the Buddha’s timeless voice.