Triratna News

In memory of Rob Burbea

On Sat, 30 May, 2020 - 15:27
satyadasa's picture

Rob Burbea, who died aged 54 earlier this month, was a Dharma teacher loved and valued by many of us in the Triratna community. His clear teachings on emptiness and the imaginal may prove to be of great significance for the development of Dharma traditions in the West. Rob was steeped in the Insight meditation tradition in the USA and Europe. He was also, among other things, a classical and jazz guitarist, a climate activist and a lover of Jewish and Christian mysticism. I met Rob just once on a Buddhafield Yatra shortly before he took up residence as a teacher at Gaia House in 2004. His sensitivity, playfulness and sheer love of the Dharma was evident in the short talks he gave around the campfire after a days walking.

For many though, their first encounter with Rob was in his seminal book Seeing That Frees, published in 2014. After a startling chapter laying out the connections between Samadhi and Insight practice, the reader is guided deep into the heart of emptiness and dependent arising. In his inimitable prose - gentle, precise and inviting of personal exploration - Rob sets out what he had discovered about how to use the wisdom teachings with skill, subtlety and without limiting the profundity of the Buddha’s core teaching to any single conception. Seeing That Frees joins up the dots and has become a classic manual for practitioners, one to take on a solitary retreat and really soak up. 

What people might not know is that Rob struggled with finishing his book and not only because had a heavy teaching round at Gaia House and many students to meet. By 2012 he had already begun on a new phase in his practice and thought. He said his experience of Dharma practice left various important questions unanswered. After all, one cannot spend all one’s time in the realm or neither-perception-nor-non-perception, can one? Rob had turned his attention to the much broader and possibly more vital matter of how we really breathe life or soulfulness into our Dharma practice, in an age which is dominated by modernist, reductionist and materialist assumptions about reality. 

Such questions will be familiar territory for those of us grown up in the Triratna tradition founded by Sangharakshita. He too was unusually insistent in stressing the need for a wide scale re-imagining of the Buddha and a re-animation of our understanding of the human in relation to the wider Cosmos. Sangharakshita taught that art was a spiritual path, that myth and ritual were necessary to engage the full range of our human potential and that imagination is an integral spiritual faculty. So pronounced was his syncretic approach, drawing on sources from East and West, that it lead some people to wonder if he was really a Buddhist. 

Rob Burbea went even further in stepping outside classical Buddhist terminology, including notions of soul, divinity, eros and even God in his teaching. He delighted in exploring and exposing what he saw as Buddhist dogmas that have taken root, particularly in the West, or at least pointing out the limitations of those views, as well as the ways in which they can usefully be taken up. For example, he thought the cultivation of “bare attention” and the cessation of prapañca was certainly a fruitful practice, but naive if conceived of as the goal of Buddhist practice, especially if one also believes that to have bare attention of sensory objects is coterminous with experiencing things “as they really are”.

One of Rob’s favourite pastimes was to unpick and expose the secular worldview fostered by materialistic science, which he saw as founded on beliefs, usually unexplored, and then to show in turn how these beliefs were shaping how many of us conceive of and limit the Dharma. Speaking personally, it has taken me 20 years to really open up to how conditioned I am by my secular education and upbringing and I expect I’ve hardly begun that journey.  Scientific materialism has defined truth as objective truth for such a long time now that other ways of knowing - such as imagination, myths, poetry, dreams - are denigrated to a merely subjective and unreal status. Thus many of us have grown up with an uneasy relationship to all that.  In the talks and retreats he gave and which are freely available online, Rob showed how many people come to the Dharma with an atrophied imaginal capacity. He encouraged his students to reclaim the realm of the Imaginal. He reasoned that if the core Dharma teachings of emptiness are sufficiently realised, then one sees that any perception or conception of reality is neither finally real nor unreal. That being so, one is free to take up different conceptions and images and even fantasies, so that one could, in one of his favourite expressions, “entertain the possibility” of angels, for example. 

Apparently some people saw Rob’s teaching and even Rob as dangerous. On one level at least, that is surely correct. Rob exposed underlying views. Who among us can say they’ve never found it uncomfortable when our clinging to a teaching or a conception of practice is exposed? The Buddha himself was surely a dangerous man to be around for the same reason. But maybe Rob was dangerous in another sense also. In the West and in other parts of the world, the Dharma is finding new forms. Any form of practice is always particular, with particular institutions and ways of doing things, as well as a common language and broadly shared understanding of practice flowing from a lineage of teachers. The form is what defines a tradition and we love our traditions and quite rightly hold them precious. How will it be if we all start bringing in angels, unicorns and the Virgin Mary or whatever pops up in our imagination after a morning meditation? Pandaemonium!

Rob was the first to admit that his teachings weren’t for everyone or even necessary. So long as there was eros, love, a movement of the soul, it doesn’t matter what you call it or whether you even know it’s there. He wasn’t trying to start a new religion. Yet for many people he voiced a crucial insight: that the profound teachings of emptiness give rise to the possibility of holding different perspectives on reality for different purposes and cultivating a range of qualities which enrich and deepen the journey of life.  I don’t know how to reconcile the creative tensions between innovation and tradition. Maybe it’s always just a tension. However, I do know I’m grateful to Rob for his teachings and his way of teaching. They have expanded and enriched the way I practice and conceive of practice and I’m sure they have impacted many individuals and communities beyond Gaia House and beyond even the Buddhist Sangha.

Rob died of cancer after several years of treatment. Despite his suffering, or maybe because of it, he poured out teachings during long retreats all this time. His body was buried in the grounds of Sharpham House, in a rolling green meadow leading down to the River Dart. We might think that Rob died too young or that his later teachings needed more time to develop, or another book maybe. But I can hear Rob questioning our views and reminding us that everything depends on the way we look at it.

Satyadasa, May 30, 2020

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Centre Team's picture

Here’s the piece as a PDF formatted for small screens.

Munisha's picture
Dear Satyadasa, Thank you so much for this very moving, beautiful and interesting obituary. Metta, Munisha
Padmasurya's picture

Thank you for this Satyadasa. I have greatly benefitted from Robs teachings and I miss him. To soon to go. Much metta to Rob.

satyadevi's picture

A beautiful tribute to the ever lively breath of fresh air Rob  breathed over many seekers of truth - and that in all its “aspects”  and ways of possible manifestation. A brilliant mind. Like our own founder … it’s not as if these minds and hearts GO anywhere. They just live on in another aspect. Thank you so much  Satyadasa.


Padmasurya's picture

Lovely put Satyadevi and I miss him. 

dharmamati's picture

Thank you Satyadasa for a beautifully written piece.

dharmamati's picture

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Vajracaksu's picture

Thank you Satyadasa for this articulate and beautiful tribute. I have marvelled at ‘Seeing that Frees’ for several years and haven’t even finished it. 

Kind wishes


Maitrisingha's picture

Beautifully written Satyadasa. Thank you.

Dhivan Thomas Jones's picture

Thanks Satyadasa for putting together such a lovely obituary for Rob Burbea. I never met him but heard so much about him. He seemed to be an extraordinary human being,  a beautiful soul, who touched people very deeply. I was curious to read in your obituary about Rob’s struggle to finish ‘Seeing That Frees’, and how the very different language of ‘soul’ was impatient to be expressed. His approach to ‘soul’, as far as I can understand it, reminded me of the powerful affect on many of us of engaging in Wolf at the Door creative writing workshops, in which Ananda and Manjusvara created an environment of opening up to the power of imagination and myth for deep integration and transformation. They were partly responding to Sangharakshita’s ‘Religion of Art’ but mainly responding to their own inspirations. Thinking now of Rob Burbea, it’s as if the language of poetry, myth, imagination and beauty is an authentic western expression of the truth, not quite the same as the Dharma, but so close to it that for many of us they cannot really be told apart. I hope Rob Burbea lives on, like Bhante, in memory, as one of the great pioneers of an authentic western flowering of the Dharma.

satyadasa's picture

Thanks Dhivan. Yes, imagination, myth and art were all part of Renaissance and Romantic understandings of how humans can reach towards truth and the divine. Lovely to remember those Wolf at the Door workshops, where I think we may have first met.

Dharmavadana's picture

Thanks Dhivan for making this connection. I haven’t read or listened to anything by Rob Burbea, but I hope I’m able to. You’ve reminded me here of some of the things that are going on when I engage with Wolf at the Door, and it sounds as though with Rob Burbea we have a wonderful ally.

Vaddhaka's picture

Thank you Satyadasa for a lovely , well written tribute to Rob Burbea and his exploration of the Dharma in the modern world. The spirit of exploration was something I picked up from my early connection with Sangharakshita and Triratna and it’s very important to my continuing engagement with the Dharma.

nagesvara's picture
Thank you for this well written obituary to Rob. As many others I have, and continue to, greatly benefit from his dharma teaching, breadth and precision. You mention his great dharma contribution in the areas of emptiness and imaginal practice. I would add to this list instruction in the jhana’s. The last retreat (three weeks) he lead last December was called ‘Practicing the jhanas’ and the transcript of the material is about 450 pages and the recordings you’ll find here: I mention this as it is the best teaching on dhyana practice I’ve come across and I’m sure many of us would benefit from studying it. He gives teachings on all eight jhanas and connects them to various insight approaches. Not of great importance but as far as I know Rob studied jazz guitar rather than piano at Berklee in Boston before he devoted himself full-time to the Dharma. Yet another great contemporary western dharma teacher has died but his grace waves and inspiration lives on as forcefully as ever!
satyadasa's picture

Thanks very much Nagesvara, I’ll check those talks out. I’m glad you mentioned he was a guitarist and I’ll see about getting that changed.

aranyaka's picture

Hi Satyadasa,

Thank you for this very thoughtful  eulogy.

Aranyaka x

akasajoti's picture

Thank you Satyadasa. I’m really glad to read this here, to be able to appreciate and witness Rob, his teaching and his death within the pages of our community. For me, listening to one of his imaginal retreats deeply enriched a solitary at Osel Ling; and in the last weeks I’ve been enjoying his last retreat on dhyana. There is so much richness and insight to be learned from.

Mahamati's picture

Thank you Satyadasa for, as others have said, a very well written obituary. I was struck a couple of years ago when reading ‘Seeing that Frees’ how hints of his further thinking on the imaginal and  limitations or partiality of a view of cessation appear only at the end of his book, and now you have explained some of the background to that. I also watched a couple of his video Q& A’s from last October and was impressed by his openness and non dogmatism and creative thinking. This one interested me: ‘Stream entry - conceptions, value and realisation’:… Anyway, it seems like you have captured something of Rob Burbea very well.

kimmitt's picture

I must admit I’m rather confused by this. I’ve listened to many of Rob’s talks and read some of Seeing That Frees. It seems to me like his teachings are completely contradictory to what is taught by Triratna. 

Certainly, when I’ve attempted to discuss his approach to anapanasati (which he learned from Thanissaro Bhikku of the Thai Forest tradition) it’s generally been discouraged by mitras. What am I missing?

satyadasa's picture

Hi Kimmitt. As the author of the piece about Rob I just wanted to acknowledge the “?” you raised. It points at interesting areas, probably too many for this format. I guess it would also involve more individual exploration of how you understand things. Rob’s teachings overall would, I think, present challenges to any Buddhist order I can think of, including the Thai Forest Sangha. As to whether they are completely contradictory to Triratna - well, I guess there would be different views on that! In a way, Rob was sui generis. His teaching offer, among other things, a critique of holding too literally to forms, which I think is useful for anyone who is inclined to find such a teaching useful. In any Sangha there is a form of practice - be it meditation, ritual, dress, community etc. To use one of Rob’s favourite phrases - there has to be a degree of “enchantment” with them for the individual. I’m always sorry to hear that anyone meeting with unhelpfully rigid views about practice. There is though a benefit for some people to simply have one way of practice presented, at least at certain stages of involvement. If someone is genuinely keen to be involved in Triratna and loves its basic forms, in my experience they normally find a way to practice that fulfils their desire and need to explore, and be understood and appreciated by others, eventually. Sometimes one has to hold one’s ground and wait! Sometimes though there is not enough basic enchantment. Then it becomes all about the forms themselves, whether they work, how good they are, whether that other group does it better or worse etc. No doubt we are all guilty of this at times. Good old third fetter. All the best, Satyadasa

Angie Lee-Foster's picture

I have only recently discovered Rob Burbea’s wonderful teachings and meditations on Dharma Seed, in fact I discovered them right around the time of his death. So I was deeply saddened to hear of his demise. But Rob seems to have left so many teachings to draw upon and for that I am very grateful. The ripples of his being continue to flow. 

Dharmavadana's picture

Thank you Satyadasa for this beautifully expressed and moving piece, not only an obituary but a fascinating introduction to Rob Burbea and his work, which I feel encouraged to explore. But your little piece in itself is full of inspiring reflections. There is so much in what you say that speaks to me very forcefully at the moment. 

ragalando's picture

As someone who was a dear friend of Rob’s ( and have been since 1988, when we met at Berklee College of Music in Boston),  I am here to share some personal reflections on his kindness, brilliance and gentleness.

Since we were both guitar players, both born in the U.K. and shared a love of Pat Metheny, Monty Python and Indian food, it became obvious early on that we were going to be great friends. At that time, we were studying improvisation ( he was a performance major, and my degree is in Jazz Composition ) loved going to local clubs to listen to jazz, eat at local restaurants, and spent time taking long walks where we enjoyed laughing at absurdity, reveled in the joys of unpredictability, and stayed loose and free. He was wound tighter than I was, but his tension was balanced by my release, and my desultoriness was reeled in by his focus.

He gifted me an album called ” Belonging ” by Keith Jarrett, which quickly became one of my favorite all time recordings. This record has a wonderful balance between the composition and the improvisation, which for those of you not familiar with the idiom are perhaps analagous to the horizontal and vertical threads of a tapestry. I think he gave it to me because he loved me, but also because he knew that this record would have a profound impact on me. He always lauded my compositions, and encouraged me to be more daring and to follow my own voice ( which I was wont to do anyway, but his faith in me was invaluable ). I was not sure of how to support him in return, since he seemed to not believe in his improvisational skills, and refused to simply accept a  positive response to his playing, dismissing it as a platitude. This imbalance caused us to talk more about the nature of confidence, and it’s role in Music, in Art, in Life. 

When it was clear that he was not going to pursue his musical journey in the same way that I was, we spent less time in each others’ company and over time we drifted apart. 

He has remained an incredibly important and cherished part of my journey, and even though I am sure I was probably a less significant part of his, he never made me feel anything less than critical to his life, and perhaps more significantly to my own.

Peace,Love and Music Rob <3