Where The Mind is Without Fear: Denison, Nimoy, and Avijit Roy

American Buddhist pioneer Ruth Denison has passed away at the age of 92. She suffered a massive stroke a few weeks ago and was in hospice care.

Denison by Robert Beatty
Denison by Robert Beatty

Ruth Schäfer was born in Germany, where she saw first hand the horror of the Nazis and then immediately after World War II suffered abuse from Russian soldiers in occupied Berlin. She soon left her homeland, came to America, and settled in Los Angeles. There she met Henry Dennison, an independently wealthy intellectual who stimulated an interest in Ruth for the burgeoning counter-culture and Eastern philosophy. Gatherings at their Hollywood Hills home included such people as Alan Watts, Lama Govinda, and Aldous Huxley

In 1960, they traveled to the East, spent time at Zen monasteries in Japan and eventually found themselves in Burma where they met lay Buddhist teacher Sayagyi U Ba Khin and learned the art of vipassana or “insight” meditation. Ruth Denison was one of only four Westerners to receive permission to teach from Khin.

In 1977, she founded the Dhamma Dena Desert Vipassana Center in Joshua Tree, California where she stayed until she suffered her stroke.

One of her students, Sandy Boucher, who has written extensively on women and Buddhism, authored a biography Dancing in the Dharma: The Life and Teachings of Ruth Denison, in which she writes that “Ruth brought a strongly female, body-centered approach to Buddhist practice, when this was seen as radical and subversive.” As I understand it, what Boucher means by “body-centered” is that Denison encouraged “deep exploration of our body sensations, with great penetration and subtlety.”

I had always meant to venture out to Joshua Tree and avail myself of an opportunity to meet and learn from this pioneer Buddhist teacher, but I never did. That was a mistake. All I can do now is offer a deep and solemn gassho . . .

Star Trek was definitely a part of the counter-culture that exploded during the 1960’s and you didn’t have to be a sci-fi fan to enjoy the program. I am sad to learn of the death of Leonard Nimoy. He passed away Friday at his home in Bel-Air at the age of 83 from end-stage chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Because many of the Star Trek writers were of a certain frame of mind, traces of Eastern philosophy were occasionally woven into the scripts. Nimoy was Jewish by birth and I don’t know if he followed that faith or not, nor do I know the context he was speaking in when he made this remark: “I’m touched by the idea that when we do things that are useful and helpful — collecting these shards of spirituality — that we may be helping to bring about a healing.”

The LA Times described his Mr. Spock role as “transcendent.” I think it is safe to say that after Star Trek Leonard Nimoy lived well and prospered . . . If you ever come to Los Angeles, be sure to visit the Leonard Nimoy Event Horizon Theater at the Griffith Observatory.

Writer Avijit Roy, a U.S. citizen of Bangladeshi origin, and his wife, Rafida Ahmed, were attacked by machete-wielding assailants Thursday while returning from a book fair in the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka. Ahmed was seriously injured. Roy was hacked to death.

He was a engineer, writer and blogger. His website Mukto-Mona was “an Internet congregation of freethinkers, rationalists, skeptics, atheists, and humanists of mainly Bengali and South Asian descent.” [Wikipedia] Roy was also the author of a number of books and for his writings on human rights, philosophy, religion and science he received several death threats from Islamic extremists. One news report on his death described Roy as “the blogger who wouldn’t back down”.

Avijit Roy/Facebook
Avijit Roy/Facebook

The BBC writes, “Mr Roy’s followers argue that many of his secular ideas are in the tradition of the great Bengali writer Rabindranath Tagore, who died in 1941 and is often referred to as ‘Bengal’s Shakespeare’”. In the photo to the right, he holds one of Tagore’s books. Tagore coined the phrase “The Endless Further” that is used as the title of this blog, and no doubt were he around today he would have felt a deep kinship with Avijit Roy. I cannot do a complete profile of Roy here, so those who are interested in learning more, I suggest you follow some of the links embedded in this post.

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

– Rabindranath Tagore

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