Shortly before I was scheduled to interview her in December 2019, Domyo Burk – the Guiding Teacher of the Bright Way Zen Center in Portland, Oregon – was arrested and spent the night in jail.
“I heard through my network of climate activist groups that something was going to go on and that if people were interested in civil disobedience to sign up, and that it was going to be run by experienced people. So I signed up, and we went down to the state capital and occupied Governor Brown’s office insisting that she come out against the giant liquified natural gas pipeline and liquification plant that’s a big project in Southern Oregon. A Canadian company wants to pipe fracked gas through the pipeline and then, in Coos Bay, liquify it, load it onto ships, then ship it overseas to be sold in Asia. It’s just wrong at so many levels. The pipeline goes through tribal lands, public lands, private land through the right of eminent domain, which should only be used when it’s in the public good. So that all hinges on that argument that it’s in the public good, besides the fact that this is just – in terms of climate change – the exact opposite of the direction we should be going. So there was a big rally out in front of the capital. Then everyone went inside, singing, and filled the atrium with song. And then a bunch of us went up the stairs into Governor Brown’s ceremonial office and just hung out there for eight hours.” She chuckles at the memory. “And after the building closed, and Governor Brown even came to talk to us, but she wasn’t willing to come out against the pipeline, so we stayed, and twenty-one of us stayed until past the point where the state troopers warned us that we would be charged with trespassing and arrested if we didn’t leave.”
Domyo’s academic training had been in wildlife biology, although, instead of working in the field, she became a Zen monk.
She was drawn to practice by a feeling she had had of the basic “dissatisfactoriness” of life. “Who knows when it first arose for me. Age 12? I don’t know. At some point I really started to ask, ‘What is the meaning of life? What is this all about? What’s the point?’ And I remember probably at age 14 I had my first summer job, and I remember this sense of foreboding. I felt like I was getting on a conveyor belt to death; I was signing up for this program that led nowhere and had no meaning.”
Her first encounter with Buddhism came years later when she was preparing to travel to India with her first husband’s family. A guide book she was looking at mentioned Buddhism. “It explained there’s not a lot of Buddhism in India now, but it was part of its history. And it talked about the Four Noble Truths, and ‘Life is inherently marked by dissatisfactoriness.’ I mean, I’m like, ‘Yay, man! They just say it right up front!’ And then the fact it wasn’t that the Buddha went on his spiritual search because his circumstances were so awful; it was because of the nature of dissatisfactoriness. So in a way I felt I was similar to him in the fact that I had very fortunate circumstances. I had no reason to be unhappy, and yet I was. I really resonated with that. And then, the fact that you didn’t have to believe in anything. It didn’t involve a god. And then it said, ‘All right. You can do something about that dissatisfactoriness, and here’s what you can do.’ So I was right there. I immediately looked up Buddhism in the phonebook.”
When she returned from India, she briefly joined a Pure Land Buddhist group. At one of their meetings, a member said, “‘I’m on the Pure Land path because I don’t have the wherewithal to do the self-development like they do in Zen.’ And immediately in my mind, I’m like, ‘Gotta look up Zen.’”
She discovered the Dharma Rain community, and very quickly became a monastic. She spent seven years in monastic training. And while she had originally told her teacher – Gyokuko Carlson – that she had no intention of ever becoming a teacher, when the time arose, she did begin working with a group of people on the westside of Portland, which eventually became the Bright Way Center.
“I did the turning inward, resolving of my koan and angst and gradually coming out of that darkness, looking around and thinking, ‘How can I serve?’ Figuring, ‘Well, I’ll do this Dharma teacher thing. You know, start a Zen center.’ And there was a number of years of doing that; of learning how to do that and devoting my energy to it. Then over the last five years at least, ‘What about that concern that led me to be a wildlife biologist?’ Right? I have to find a way for social and environmental justice to be a part of my life. Zen without it seems two dimensional and meaningless.”
Which led her not only to a night in jail but also a regular podcast entitled “Facing Extinction.” “I mean we are facing extinction literally, and I mean to be facing that fact.”
Portland has been in the news a lot, because of the protests over police killings of unarmed black men. I wrote to her recently to ask what conditions are like. She tells me that much of it seems to be media exaggeration. “I would guess that 99.999% of us don’t even notice (even if we should). Very small groups, contained area of mayhem. What’s crazy now is the fires. I’ve lived here 30 years, and only been impacted by wildfire smoke the last 3 out of 4 years. Right now it looks like Mars out there, all red and gloomy.” And that, too, is partially due to climate change.