Jacob Robert Burbea was born on September 5th 1965. His mother was English and converted to Judaism before marrying Rob's father - a Sephardic Jew from Libya who had spent time, along with his father (Rob's Kabbalist grandfather) in Nazi concentration camps, including Bergen-Belsen. Most of his father's family settled in Italy after the war, and during his childhood Rob's family spent many summer holidays with the relatives there. Rob grew up in the strict Jewish religious environment of the family home in North London, with his older sister and younger brother. Alongside the religious rules and observance at home, Rob's childhood was also very ordinary - he loved skateboarding and bike-riding, was devoted to football (a passion he retained throughout his life), loved 70s and 80s British TV comedy and would do almost anything to get out of doing the dishes.
Rob's teenage years saw the relationship with his father become increasingly difficult and stormy as he explored his own nascent spirituality, particularly through music, nature and solitude. Rob discovered his love of the guitar, and was listening to a lot of classical guitar music as well as Jimi Hendrix and others. At eighteen Rob got a place to study physics at Oriel College, Oxford, but changed his degree to psychology after a trip to India during which he became interested in the mind and consciousness. While in his second year at Oxford, Rob attended his first meditation class and heard about the Buddhist 'five precepts'. He took all of them into his daily life without hesitation, reflecting later - 'they immediately made sense to me'.
By the time he graduated from University with a first in psychology, Rob had made up his mind to go to America to study jazz guitar, very much against the wishes of his father. Rob was a late starter in music and guitar, really just a beginner, so it was a huge and quite risky step to leave for the States. But he already knew that something wanted to come through him - 'I just trusted the love I had'. Rob travelled to the States and began a new life which would be dedicated to music and Dharma, two gods that were never to loosen their claim on him.
America - Music and Dharma
In 1986 at the age of 21 Rob moved to Boston to study jazz guitar at the Berklee College of Music. In 1993 he enrolled at the New England Conservatory of Music, majoring in Jazz Studies-Composition and Composition, and earning a Master of Music. Rob later became a doctoral student of composition at Brandeis University in Massachusetts. During his time in America Rob composed many original jazz pieces and modern classical compositions, many of which can be heard on the Music page.
Rob reflected much later in his life on his early years as a musician:
"I had this visceral desire, and I was really happy to be doing what I loved, but it was really, really painful. I would go and have a humiliating day in college, playing and being heard, and then hearing other people play and all that. I would sometimes drag my guitar case home. I’m not exaggerating. It was really, really difficult. Somehow I stayed fifteen years, and I developed as a musician. I worked so hard at it. And it was difficult in all kinds of ways. I feel really touched and blessed by what eventually manifested. But the main point is: if we really desire something, if we let ourselves feel that desire, and don’t just throw it away, and don’t just shun it, then I’ve got to find a way of tolerating that, tolerating, being okay with the pain that comes with it often, the cut of it, the burning of it, the frustration that comes with it sometimes, the setbacks of that whole journey."
Bert Seager, fellow jazz musician and Dharma friend at Cambridge Insight, remembers Rob:
“He would come to see me play - I had many more gigs and recordings and I think perhaps the direction I chose was a bit more practical and accessible than the music Rob was pursuing. He was interested in music that incorporated and explored the use of atonality, music that has no key centre at times, with melodic content that is hard to remember and not as groove oriented. His music was a bit challenging and over my head.”
Soon after he arrived in the States Rob began meditating at the Cambridge Insight Meditation Centre, an urban non-residential Dharma centre not far from his neighbourhood in Boston. There he met Narayan Helen Liebensen, one of the teachers at Cambridge Insight, and practised with her from 1993 to 2002. Narayan remembers “how unusual a student he was because of his fierce curiosity and compassionate heart.” She recalls the students in the experienced practitioners’ classes with him being “inspired and even awed by his passionate search for the truth.”
During this time Rob also began sitting retreats with Thanissaro Bhikkhu (Ajahn Geoff), an American Thai Forest monk and abbot of Metta Forest Monastery in California. Thanissaro strongly influenced his development, although Rob would eventually take his Dharma in very different directions.
While in the US Rob entered psychotherapy, working with the same therapist for about eight years. He has acknowledged how important this work on the psychological, emotional and 'self' level was for him, and how profoundly the whole experience shaped him. This included painful issues around the therapist's integrity which eventually caused Rob to end the therapy.
Rob's practice deepened greatly during the decade he'd been in America, and wanting to devote more time to the Dharma he returned to the UK for a year in 1998, living in London with his mum and going to Gaia House retreat centre in Devon for short retreats as often as he could. Rob then returned to the States to embark on his PhD in composition at Brandeis, continuing to sit retreats whenever possible. On a solitary retreat in the woods during this time, practising and deepening in the jhānas, Rob realized that the fantasy or archetype of the monk was becoming stronger in him, and he began to wonder if he should actually ordain in the Theravadan tradition.
Eventually he decided to sit a year-long retreat at Gaia House before committing to taking up robes, and in 2002 returned to Devon. Before he left America, Narayan asked Rob to reflect on whether he could see himself sharing the teachings with others in the role of Dharma teacher. “He was uncertain but said he would consider it.”
Rob's long retreat at Gaia House from 2002 - 2003 was supported by Christina Feldman, one of Gaia's senior teachers. That year was exciting and fruitful for him, a time of expansion in consciousness and marked by a characteristic need to deeply question and explore everything he was experiencing in meditation. He refused to be limited to or by anyone else's answers. Rob was realizing too by this stage that he did not need to become a monk to seriously pursue the Dharma. Visiting and sitting retreats at a few Theravadan monasteries had also made some of the drawbacks of monastic life apparent to Rob, and he had a sense that the ways in which he wanted to explore practice wouldn't be possible as a monk. When his retreat ended Rob was taken on as a trainee teacher by Christina, and in 2005 was asked if he would step into the role of Gaia House's resident teacher. He accepted the offer and moved into Room 32, a large bedroom with a wide window seat overlooking the front lawn. With something of the renunciate's humility Rob shared the bathroom facilities across the hall with retreatants for the full ten years of his residency. He left Gaia House in September 2015, on receiving a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer.
Gaia House provided the unique dharma environment within which Rob was able to develop his Dharma/s, rooted in the foundational 'ways of looking' framework and emptiness. It was there that Rob became deeply committed to teaching the Dharma, giving widely and deeply of himself and his gifts. It was at Gaia that he wrote Seeing That Frees, blazed a trail for climate action within the Buddhist community, and there that he birthed the imaginal work which would become A Soulmaking Dharma. Rob's presence in the house is still felt by many of his students. For many there will always be a pair of red crocs by the library door.
Meditation in Action
In the summer of 2003 Rob joined Christopher Titmuss’s annual Dharma Yatra in France as a participant - he had listened to hundreds of Christopher's talks and considered him an inspiring teacher. Christopher then invited Rob to join the Yatra as assistant teacher in 2004/5. On the second of these Yatras, Rob heard about a service retreat in Anandwan, a leprosy community in central India, and he joined that retreat in November. It was then that the vision was born for an organisation that would unite deep meditation practice with ethical action and service in the world. Rob went on to co-found SanghaSeva in February 2005 with Dharma teachers Zohar Lavie, Nathan Glyde and others. Rob then facilitated a SanghaSeva tree-planting retreat in Scotland in 2005. He continued to be a member of SanghaSeva’s core team, attending AGMs regularly, until his declining health made this too much. Zohar Lavie remembers:
“One of the foremost qualities that Rob brought to SanghaSeva was humility, along with curiosity and a genuine interest in every person he encountered. He was, unsurprisingly, willing to experiment, take on challenges, explore. His generosity stood out - with money, time, attention, and the capacity to bear personal discomfort - acknowledging it without making a big deal out of it or letting it limit what he offered. He was committed as well as willing to taking risks, and encouraged others to trust their aspirations.”
Whilst much of his teaching happened within the cloistered walls of Gaia House, Rob’s vision of the Dharma resisted any constraint. Through his talks and personal guidance he opened up conceptions of the Dharma that made students radically question everything they thought they knew, about what the Dharma was and where it could lead. He would advocate active and at times even disruptive participation in the world, in the spirit of the Bodhisattva ideal. Activism was effectively legitimised and encouraged as a profound avenue of practice, both for cultivating and for giving expression to the liberated heart. It was a talk from 2011, The Meditator as Revolutionary, that inspired so many of his students to take their practice off the cushion and into the world.
At a time when climate change wasn’t as commonly addressed in the context of the Dharma as it is now, Rob was already keenly aware of what he termed the global climate emergency, and would regularly include themes around climate and the environment on the retreats that he led. In 2011 Rob published Dharma Teaching and Dharma Values in the Age of Climate Change: An Open Letter and Proposal to all who are involved in the Dharma. This article was a challenging critique of the Buddhist tradition that he was a part of, which he felt was not (at that time) stepping into a conscious relationship of ethical integrity with the catastrophic and intersecting crises of global climate disruption. Rob made the point that Buddhism has as its central themes 'suffering and the end of suffering', and compassion, yet was doing little in relation to the almost inconceivable suffering already caused by climate change. Rob was particularly concerned about the normalcy within the Dharma community of teachers and yogis flying around the world to teach or attend retreats, and he himself stopped flying in 2010.
Rob often went on demonstrations, and in 2009 travelled overland with other meditators to Copenhagen for the COP15 meeting. This climate pilgrimage was a profound experience for the many practitioners who joined it.
In early 2013 Rob was one of the driving forces behind the creation of the Dharma Action Network for Climate Engagement. DANCE was initiated by a group of Dharma teachers, staff and friends of Gaia House as a forum for the wider sangha to explore what might be possible in bringing creative Dharma responses to the climate crisis. DANCE initiated its own actions and also joined forces with other organisations such as BP or Not BP.
Rob was impressed by the appearance of Extinction Rebellion (XR) in the UK in September 2018 - a new organisation whose aim was to use non-violent civil disobedience as a lever to force the British government into action on the global climate crisis. XR provided a new focus and locus of action for large numbers of practitioners and teachers in the Insight Meditation tradition. Rob felt it as a beautiful and often courageous collective response to political inaction in the arena of climate change - one that also bought a deeper ethics and activism to meditation and practice. Rob managed to travel to a couple of XR protests before his illness made this too difficult. Over time there were aspects of XR that he questioned, but he remained largely supportive of its philosophy and actions.
One simple act: Rob designed and had printed some climate stickers, and stickered the area in which he lived for the last two years of his life. Only one remained after his death - 'CLIMATE CHANGE KILLS' - on the 'Passing Place' road sign at one end of Staverton Bridge. After he died Rob's body was carried from his house in the converted Staverton Mill, across the bridge, and laid in the funeral van - right next to the sign. The sticker's presence and the image of the hand that had placed it there was a moving reminder of Rob's compassion and love for the world, as he passed out of it. The original sticker was removed some time later, but was ritually and joyfully replaced with another, and then another, and this beautiful duty will continue as long as there are stickers left on the roll. In Memoriam Rob
Soulmaking Dharma, Jhānas, and Rob's Illness and Death
While he was writing Seeing That Frees, Rob’s own practice began to go in new directions. He said later that he was being pulled by his angels and daemons - the possibilities that had opened up as a result of his emptiness explorations were calling him further. And so Rob embarked on what was the last major practice exploration of his life, which eventually became the elegant and rigorous body of teachings known as A Soulmaking Dharma - his final offering as a Dharma teacher. He read widely and practised intensively as he began to trace and map a path from emptiness to soulfulness. In addition to the Buddha, the Buddhist Asian lineages and his Buddhist teachers, Rob acknowledged many influences from Western and ‘beyond’ Western thought. These teachers, writers and philosophers at once fed and were woven into the roots of Soulmaking Dharma, together with an important, ongoing practice and teaching partnership with Catherine McGee.
Rob received a diagnosis of stage four pancreatic cancer in the autumn of 2015, just before he and Catherine were due to teach their first Soulmaking retreat at Gaia House. Rob left Gaia to have surgery, and never returned to his resident teacher role (although he continued to support retreatants there individually whenever he felt well enough). For the next five years Rob worked ceaselessly under the difficult conditions of his illness to refine and fill out these new teachings, recording many series of Soulmaking talks from his desk at home. He continued working in this way as long as he was able, recording his last talk, Perfection and Christ's Blessing, in March 2020.
Almost miraculously, Rob taught a three week retreat at Gaia House in December 2019 - January 2020. Rob had long wanted to teach a retreat on the Jhānas, and he did so in almost virtuosic form despite the worsening pain of his cancer. Experiencing Rob teach on Practising the Jhānas was like watching a master musician perform, holding as he did the kind of deep knowledge of his subject's form and structure that allows for organic and fluid improvisation. It was during this, Rob's last retreat, that the holistic nature and stunningly cohesive integrity of his teachings became clear through his full and deep exposition.
Rob died on 7th May 2020, at five o'clock on the morning of the Wesak full moon, after six weeks in bed at home. He is buried at the Natural Burial Ground at Sharpham, Devon, high on a hill overlooking the majestic sweep of the River Dart.
To the presences, seen and unseen,
the crazy gods who prod and push, who goad and guide me;
to their strange, harsh loving,
the priceless and holy torment of their unending demand