Today is the Full Moon of May. The Buddhist tradition marks the birth, death and enlightenment around 2600 years ago of Gautama the Buddha.
The facing of sickness, pain and death served as the trigger for Gotama, aged 29, to depart from the pleasures and privileges of the Royal Palace to explore the depth of experience.
Owing to this highly contagious, covid-19 virus, we live in time where sickness, pain and death seem never far away from our concerns. In the space of four months, nearly 4 million people have contracted the virus with 267,000 deaths.
Gotama made a quiet resolution to meditate through the night. During this night, he realised the essential truths of human existence – namely involving suffering, the causes/conditions for it, the resolution and the way to the resolution.
For around six years or so, Rob Burbea, a much-loved teacher in the Buddha-Dharma tradition, has engaged with facing sickness, pain and oncoming death. At 5 am this morning, this immense challenge came to closure. The body took its last breath in his rented cottage in South Devon, England with friends at his bedside.
A Statement on the Death of Rob Burbea
Beloved friends of Rob issued a touching statement this morning starting with the words:
“It is with tenderness and love that we are writing to inform you that dear Rob died this morning at around 5 am, just before sunrise and as the birds were waking up.”
Catherine, Kirsten, Nic, Sarah, Lea and Jane signed the statement.
In life and in death, Rob, aged around 54, remained exceptionally close to the heartwood of the Buddha -Dharma. The Buddha realised full awakening on the full moon of May at the end of the night -just as the birds were waking up.
I have known Rob longer than forever.
He sat on a retreat with me at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. He already had a wealth of experience with years of Dharma practice under his belt. We had precious exchanges on meditation, insights and the nature of liberation. He came across as exceptionally free of the so-called personal baggage. I knew nothing about him except he played the classical piano. He treated his personal history as irrelevant while maintaining a deep respect for the Jewish tradition,
Calm and composed, he loved the Dharma exchange. So did I. He sat with various Dharma teachers. He began long retreats at Gaia House meditation centre. With nearly 20 years of frequent formal practice, including long periods of solitary retreats at the centre, he finally agreed to offer teachings in 2004. He once told me that he had listened to 225 of my Dharma talks during the years of solitary retreat. I smiled. How on Earth did he know the number?
Word went around the international Sangha of the depth of his teachings. He offered directly the exploration of knowing emptiness and liberation. Meditators travelled from the five continents to listen to him. Gaia House would regularly put up times for inter-views with teachers. I heard that meditators would wait around the notice board to ensure they could get their name on his interview list.
Rob offered a remarkable vision, which included the expression of wisdom and compassion through service, environmental responsibilities and action.
In 2014, he wrote his celebrated book Seeing that Frees. Sub-title: Meditations on Emptiness and Dependent Arising.
Among friends in the worldwide Sangha, his book became the most discussed Dharma book of the last decade. Joseph Goldstein, the respected US insight meditation teacher, wrote a forward and several of us teachers wrote words of appreciation for the back jacket. Groups met, read sections of the book and shared experiences.
Ron stopped flying years ago in his work for a sustainable environment. I encouraged him to fly to Israel to teach. I told him Tovana would immensely his appreciate his presence and teaching for the Sangha, and this would offset emissions. He eventually agreed but the severity of the cancer stopped such travel.
Rob participated in one of our 10-day Yatras (Pilgrimages) in the foothills of the Pyrenees in southern France. After the Yatra, I encouraged him to come one year and teach with Zohar, Nathan and I on the Yatra. He kindly agreed to make time away from his full schedule at Gaia House, where he lived as resident teacher. We could travel together on the train through France. Again, Rob could not travel but gave all his energy to minimising the impact of the cancer and maximising his teaching. He never stepped down from teaching. He displayed a truly remarkable devotion to the service of others regardless of impending death.
A Major Change in Healt
Around 2014-2015, he started experiencing a major change to his health. He experience tiredness, weakness and then a jaundiced look in his eyes. He took blood tests. The doctors diagnosed pancreatic cancer, one of the most severe forms of cancer with a low survival rate.
It was the start of a journey of facing daily sickness, ongoing pain and knowing that Lord Yama (Death) hovered close at hand.
He told me of the numerous nights of enduring pain. He told me he sat up in bed and meditated on body sensations with equanimity. He said he felt very grateful for the practice in these long nights. His close Dharma friends stayed with him day and night. He could only eat small portions of food that could be held in the palm of the hand.
Leading oncologists as well as respected alternative medical doctors treated him. He had to make major decisions. One senior oncologist would advise him to stop taking chemotherapy. He said Rob’s body could not handle any longer the impact while another senior oncologist told him he might die if he stopped the treatment.
Every few months, Rob would put an update on his condition. Here is an extract from April 2019.
“It is clear the chemotherapy treatment I have been on for the last three months is not working – most of the tumours have grown, and there are also new tumours all over. Although she said that this is “slow progression” of the disease, it means nevertheless that they will stop that treatment. There is a standard alternative chemotherapy to try but she does not favour it for me.
“I don’t want to die yet. But I am somehow at peace with that possibility if that is what is coming soon. Knowing the deep emptiness of self, of world, and of time; a sense, almost perplexing at times, that I have received so much inexplicable gift and grace in this life, pouring over me so that I can’t help but bow; a sense too that I have done, or at least tried my best to do, my ‘soul duty’ in this life.
I will try to write again as next steps become clearer. Until then, know that you live like Spring flowers in my heart and soul, the perfume and beauty of your kindness a blessing on my days.
With so much gratitude and love,
He expressed constant appreciative joy (mudita) to those who devoted themselves to his personal support and many others of us, who cherished his presence in the world. People around the world constantly asked me about Rob.
Here is one example of Rob’s appreciation.
“I am so thankful that in a week off chemo I was recently able to teach (at least in part) a retreat with Catherine at Gaia House. I am very grateful to her for holding, because of my limited capacities, more than her fair share of the weight of the retreat. And it was profoundly nourishing for my soul to be with that beautiful sangha for a week.”
He had incredible powers of endurance despite losing much of his cancer ridden pancreas and intestines. He kept on teaching as much as possible. Rob discovered an immense passion and realisation about what he called the ‘Imaginal.’ He gave dozens of talks – radical, visionary and insightful. He used the word ‘soul’ and spoke of the power of consciousness, the creative mind and much more. This was the work of a visionary, a 21st century mystic, who had liberated the heart-mind into fresh dimensions.
His numerous talks were available at Gaia House and Dharma Seed in the US. He kept on speaking into a recorder until his voice faded away some days before his death. (The doctors and nurses were amazed that he lived for so long after major operations). Beneath the title of his talks on the Imaginal, he wrote:
CRUCIAL NOTE: It is highly unlikely that this talk will be properly or adequately understood without a prior very good working familiarity and competence – both in actual practice and conceptually – with Soulmaking Dharma teachings and practices, as well as with Insight Meditation. Without this background it may be that the talk will in fact be misunderstood, and it is unlikely that the talk will be helpful.
Quotes from Seeing that Frees
by Rob Burbea
ISBN 978 0992848 910
Hermes Amara Publications
Gaia House Meditation Centre
West Ogwell, Devon, TQ12 6EW. England
The book takes meditators on an exploration of Emptiness. From the first pages, meditators can relate to the range of experiences he describes and appreciate the specific practices he offers. He offers teachings on samadhi, awareness, expansiveness, non-self, dependent arising, emptiness and liberation.
The voice of first-hand experience shines through every chapter with regular quotes from the two Masters of Emptiness – the Buddha and Nagarjuna, the 2nd century Indian Buddhist monk, sage and scholar.
I offer a few quotes from Rob’s book,
Ultimately, it turns out we cannot say things are fabricated, nor that they are not fabricated. Page 19
A loose definition of insight: Any realisation, understanding, or way of seeing things brings about, to any degree, a dissolution of, or a decrease in, dukkha. Page 29
We come to know beyond doubt, that happiness is possible for us in this life. Page 41.
The whole area of social conventions is one in which we can experience all kinds of suffering. Yet, of with a little reflection, we can recognise the emptiness of some conventions that we have reified, and this realization can bring some freedom. Page 67
I need not conceive of myself as the Resident Teacher. I am at times friends to friends…I am musician, a poet, a writer, a citizen, a neighbour, a son, an uncle, a room cleaner, an activist, a cook…This seeing of the ‘holes’ in any role can be immensely helpful in exposing its lack of solidity. Page 73
Asking a friend or someone whose wisdom and care you trust, to help you see the wider conditions that you may be missing can be enormously supportive. Page 105
Notice if and how the sense of ownership is affected when the mindfulness is relatively strong and the mind is less taken by thoughts about the object. Page 185
Awareness is not ‘the Deathless,’ not unfabricated, that the space of awareness is not ‘Emptiness.’ and that the nature of awareness is neither separate from nor the same as objects. Page 207.
Through letting go of clinging more and more totally and deeply, the world of experience fades and ceases; and seeing and understand this is of great significance. Page 251.
For a ‘thing’ to be a ‘thing’ it depends on the mind’s relationship with it, on grasping and aversion. Page 279.
Mutual dependence entails mutual emptiness. Both the large image drawn and the individual dots are illusory constructions. Page 297.
If the object is void, attention is dependent on and inseparable from what is void. Then it too can only be void. Seeing this deepens the sense of emptiness of both attention and object. Page 361.
No matter how skilful, any way of looking at appearances which we employ is still in fact a relative view. Since for us, there is always some conceiving whenever there are appearances. Page 413.
The teachings of sunyata, as was stated in the beginning, exist only for the sake of this freedom. Page 413.
..conventional reality is merely pronounced to be whatever is the consensus of worldly view. Page 418.
Final words in the last chapter
In knowing fully the thorough voidness of this and that, of then and now, of there and here, this heart opens in joy, in awe and release. Free itself, it knows the essential freedom in everything. Page 421.
ROB BURBEA practised and studied the Dharma since 1985. He taught since 2004 and was a Guiding Teacher of Freely Given Retreats. He was a co-founder of SanghaSeva, an organisation dedicated to exploring the Dharma through service work internationally, and also a co-initiator of DANCE (Dharma Action Network for Climate Engagement). He is the author of Seeing that Frees: Meditations on Emptiness and Dependent Arising.
THANK YOU. ROB,
FOR YOUR EXTRA-ORDINARY DEPTHS OF SHARING
You leave us all with a wealth of inspiration
and insights for present and future generations of the Sangha