MESSAGE FROM MELISSA PAK COATS
Dear friends on the path, friends of Dhamma Dena,
This email goes out to many of you whom I haven’t yet had the pleasure to meet in this life, many long time students of Ruth and Arinna, and many friends who I’ve sat retreats with or met in passing, so I’d like to share a little bit with you about my path.
I have been living at Dhamma Dena in grandma Ruth’s kuti since September 2020, and had previously come for retreats with Arinna, and a long work retreat where I helped start affinity groups for people of color and got the ball rolling for POC retreats to happen here. Arinna empowered me to teach last year and invited me to be the guiding teacher of the center as she goes into long retreat for 2021. Before I returned to Dhamma Dena, I was living at monasteries in Myanmar/Burma for a little under two years doing full-time meditation practice in the Pa Auk and Panditarama/Mahasi lineages. I lived for part of that time ordained as a nun, called a Sayalay.
In 2018, the call to do nothing but focus my life on Dharma practice and study had grown so great that I left my long time home in Oakland, let go of nearly all of my personal possessions, and invited myself to let go of the perceived need to accumulate and pursue conventional trappings of life—e.g. career/money, partner, property, car, insurance, etc. I was experimenting with the Buddha’s invitation to go against the stream of societal and familial conditioning that tells us that our safety, security, value and happiness comes from these kinds of worldly accumulation, and turning towards the Dharma as refuge at a deeper level than I had previously realized was possible.
With internally tumultuous vacillation between trust and doubt, fear and joy, confusion and clarity, I jumped off the Dharma deep end into traditional Burmese monastic life. I intended to be there for a minimum of a year with no maximum, with curiosity and openness. The faith I had to take that leap was experientially based in the transformation that had happened in my internal quality of life from my previous years of meditation practice, sitting and serving retreats with increasing frequency and duration over a 10-year period. I didn’t know what would happen and it was scary, and miraculously, over time, the mind realized it didn’t need to know, gradually the tension around not-knowing eased up and fell away, and all the imagined future scenarios became clear in their futility and falsehood. Regardless of our planning, we never know what will happen and so often we suffer based on our expectations of how we think life should be. (Caveat: ‘we never know’ isn’t exactly true— many advanced meditators I met in Myanmar developed the abhiññas/higher knowledges written about in many suttas/teachings of the Buddha. There are some who know.)
As a result of this unusual mind experiment, my internal understanding of what is truly valuable and where safety comes from has shifted. Through the cultivation over time of practices like kind mindfulness and loving-kindness (metta), our sense of abundance and safety and our empowerment grows naturally. The Buddha explained the deep truth that we are the owners and heirs of our mental, physical and bodily actions (our karma), borne of our actions, protected and supported by our actions. As we develop on the path, purifying the mind, brightening the heart, this becomes increasingly clear and refined at increasingly subtle levels.
Today, living at Dhamma Dena, I continue to intentionally live a monastic-inspired-life with greater simplicity, less material wants and needs than before, living in a donated space, and living solely on donations/dana/the generosity of others. The internal sense of abundance, of safety, security, home, lightness and happiness are so much greater than before. The quality of renunciation that the Buddha invites us to cultivate is often ignored in teachings or given a bit of a bad rap, but approached with skillful understanding and intention, without guilt, shame or self-denial, it has the potential to lighten the load of our attachments, help clear our minds, and lead to greater freedom.
I’m not at all suggesting that anyone needs to give up their lives and become a nun to experience this, but just that in trusting in the Dharma, orienting ourselves toward what truly brings freedom—cultivating wholesome qualities of mind like mindfulness, and embracing simplicity—the heart grows full and abundant and overflows, while the internal and external sense of scarcity and need for superficial things that we are commonly taught will make us safe and happy, naturally diminish on their own. The simple act of practice is so deeply radical and healing in this way.
There are a lot of other things that I’d like to speak of— especially the beautiful community here at Dhamma Dena cultivating safe space for people of color to do deep Dharma practice, but that is for a future time. For the meanwhile, in celebration of Black History Month, I’ll leave you with a Dharma talk by Venerable Pannavati, an African American Buddhist monastic and leader of the Heartwood Refuge in North Carolina, and this powerful talk by Akala, unpacking unconscious anti-black biases rooted in racism through Western history that has shaped the legacies of harm and oppression against people of African descent around the world today.
Wishing for all of us to awaken from all forms of harmful unconscious bias that perpetuate systems of oppression and the destruction of the earth. Wishing for all of us to awaken to the deeper truths of reality taught by the Buddha. Wishing you peace and ease in your heart. I offer deep bows of gratitude to everyone who has donated to support Dhamma Dena over the decades, anyone who has volunteered here cleaning, fixing, building things, anyone who has helped with admin, cooking, been involved in any way that has helped it to exist into this new era, everyone whose donations and efforts are sustaining my life and work here. Deep bows to the lineage— Arinna, Grandma Ruth, Sayagyi U Ba Khin, and all the ancestors to the Buddha. Sadhu Sadhu Sadhu!
Wishing you blessings on this day,
Mel (Melissa Pak Coats, Resident Guiding Teacher)