Rob Burbea: Ordinary Guy, Werewolf, Eternal Wanderer

As my second training period at the Monastic Academy came to a close, I found myself longing for something different – something softer, gentler, kinder – something more playful. A number of my friends had become increasingly interested in the teachings of Rob Burbea. I’d heard him on podcasts previously, but his soft-spoken, gentle words didn’t immediately draw me in. The fervor that my friends had for Rob did, though.

In this post, I’ll paint a picture of Rob Burbea, and what he’s meant to me and a number of my friends and peers. I’ll also share some practical suggestions for how to listen to Rob’s talks, and where to begin.

Meet Rob

Rob was a British meditation teacher who passed away from pancreatic cancer in 2020. He was a classical and jazz guitarist who began doing Buddhist meditation practice, working with teachers like Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu, Christopher Titmuss, and Christina Feldman. He began teaching in 2005, and served as resident teacher at Gaia House, a retreat center in the United Kingdom, until 2015.

He shared teachings on traditional Buddhist topics like metta, jhana, and emptiness, but towards the end of his life, he began sharing teachings inspired by the likes of Henry Corbin and James Hillman. Incorporating imaginal practice and concepts like soul, divinity, and eros into his teachings culminated in what he called the Soulmaking Dharma, based in the Buddhist concepts of emptiness. The Soulmaking Dharma is concerned not merely with reducing suffering but with infusing a sense of soulfulness and meaning into one’s practice and life.

Rob Burbea’s “ways of seeing” or “ways of looking” opens up new perspectives on traditional Dharma practice. Exploring ways of looking can help the meditator notice fabrication, and fabricate less and less, resulting in a deep understanding of emptiness and a reduction in suffering. But skillful fabrication can also result in a sense of beauty, significance, sacredness, and participation in the world that is characteristic of Rob’s Soulmaking Dharma.

Understanding emptiness, and more than that, putting emptiness, a radical emptiness, full, thorough, deep, comprehensive, a radical emptiness at the basis of the path, and really letting that bear its fruit in what unfolds in terms of experience, in terms of meditation, in terms of practice, in terms of what appears, in terms of conceptions. What this does, for me, the deeper one’s realization of emptiness, the more it allows and legitimizes this play, this playfulness with ways of looking and conceptual frameworks, an ability to play with and to entertain ideas, metaphysical ideas, even, without holding them and believing in them as true, or ‘this is reality,’ or whatever.

In one of his talks, The Theatre of Selves, Rob describes himself using a number of vivid, provocative images:

If we talk about self-images and the way self can be imaged, I could say, speaking a soul-truth if you like, from a soul perspective, I could say, ‘I am,’ in inverted commas: ‘I am a lover. I am a mystic. I am a scholar. I am a preacher. I’m a theoretical physicist. I am a political revolutionary. I am a wild sexual beast who is definitely not monogamous. I am a researcher into consciousness. I am a jazz musician. I’m a crazy poet. I’m a serious composer. I’m just an ordinary guy. I’m a teacher. I’m a student. I’m a monk. I’m a clown. I’m a vampire. I’m a wild man. I’m a werewolf. I’m a healer and a shaman. I’m some kind of fugitive, some eternal wanderer, outcast. I’m the tramp on the outskirts of town. I’m a lone soldier in a forever war.’

Some of those I am or have been in my life conventionally. Some conventionally. All of them mythically. None of them really.”

I love this passage. It reveals Rob as a person, in all his complexity and multiplicity. The calm, gentle Dharma teacher. The fierce political activist, heartbroken by climate change. The devoted student of jazz guitar. The curious mind, leaving no stone unturned, trying to discover how the world works. The horny animal body. The poet, the clown, the werewolf. The eternal wanderer.

This passage also gives you a taste of the breadth of practice afforded by imaginal practice and the Soulmaking Dharma – and a sense of what it might look like to honor those possibilities within yourself.

I’ve been interested in the specific topics Rob taught about: loving kindness, samadhi, emptiness and the relationship between traditional Dharma and Soulmaking/Jungian psychology etc. But even more than that, I’ve appreciated Rob’s vibes: gentle, soft, kind, flexible, playful, nerdy, experimental, imperfect, endearing, erotic, sensual, human. They empowered me as a practitioner, and inspired me as a teacher.

A lot of my current projects are aimed at teaching and spreading loving kindness. Rob taught beautifully and deeply about loving kindness, but his presence and character made the biggest impact on the way I teach. The structure of my guided meditations is influenced by teachers like Shinzen Young and Cedric Reeves, but Rob influenced the tone and voice of my guided meditations. Rob showed me that I could be gentle, sweet, and supportive as a teacher. The loving, accepting, playful presence he brings to guided meditations is what I strive to embody, in my own way.

Beyond my meditation teaching, Rob demonstrated the possibility of acting in life from an integrated whole. He wasn’t just “a Dharma Teacher,” he was also an ordinary guy, with passions and curiosities and foibles and mistakes. Seeing Rob for who he was, an ordinary guy, with all of his extraordinary depths and his many facets, pointed to that same possibility as something that was available to me.

His example demonstrated that I could show the world all of the facets of myself, and that not only would it be ok, but it would be a gift to the world. I realized I could share my awkwardness, my sexuality, my interests, my oddball sense of humor, my imperfections, my anger, my deep love for the world – all of it. While I’ve studied Rob’s teachings, I’ve tried to reveal these aspects to myself, and to express them more and more, to show them to the people I love, to share them publicly where it seems appropriate and skillful.

Rob’s teachings also made me fall in love with the Dharma again – he opened up the familiar into new depths, and made a bridge into foreign territory. He made the Dharma beautiful and mysterious for me, like it was when I first encountered it. The possibilities he shared are endless, and I plan to explore them for the rest of my life.

I asked a number of my friends what Rob and his teachings have meant to them. Here are their words:

Daniel Thorson

“What do Rob’s teachings mean to me? It’s too big. I can’t actually express it in words. I feel like I can only express it in art, or my life, but… probably more than anybody else, maybe with the exception of my parents, he has made me who I am and who I aspire to be.

The kind of freedom he showed me via the emptiness teachings was priceless; then the freedom on top of that that he showed me with the soulmaking teachings is also priceless; and then the qualities of being that he opened up for me with his approach to jhanas is… priceless; and then his approach to ethics, and what that has opened up in my life is just, again, priceless.

I imagine that I’ll spend the rest of my life attempting to be good to his vision, in a sense, or trying to… carry him forward in my own way. Of course I do that with Soryu, and others who have impacted me, but… there’s something about the flavor of Rob, how he held his work, like what a Dharma talk was for him as a mode of expression. All of it is just so precious, powerful, meaningful.

Everything I do: Emerge, going back to the Monastic Academy – probably going there the first time, too, but more so the second time, returning to the Monastic Academy – this program at Willow, all of it is just so deeply reflective of him and his work.

It’s really hard for me to find any area of my life that he hasn’t profoundly and meaningfully informed and impacted in a positive way for me.”

Sky Hubbard

“He’s given me the keys to the playhouse of perception, permissioned me to see my experience of self and world in ways both informed by longstanding spiritual traditions and by the curious concoctions of my own imagination, the alchemical outputs of my own unique soul. He’s helped teach me to kiss the ground, breathe fire at injustice, revel in silence, put ethics at the fore of who I am and how I live, and simply not take the hindrances so personally. His teachings have been one of the biggest blessings to my spiritual life. I love him. I’m also pretty sure he loves me, too.”

Jake Orthwein

“The biggest thing I got out of Burbea’s work was the discovery that bare, uninvolved mindfulness was not some kind of ideal standard against which all other ways of looking should be judged. His emphasis on “ways of looking that bring liberation” gave me an integrated frame within which to view all sorts of practices, from metta to vipassana to maranasati. And even at the micro-level, it gave me more freedom to ask, ‘how might I change my stance here to allow the mind to let go more?’ (This needn’t always mean ‘less involvement’ — it could mean anything, and that’s the freeing bit.)

His shamatha instructions, which emphasize savoring pleasant sensations and working with the energy body, transformed my experience of that practice — and of how pleasurable meditation is ‘allowed’ to be. This is a little nitty-gritty, but especially:

  • his emphasis on wide awareness encompassing the whole body, to keep the samadhi from becoming brittle and contracted
  • his emphasis on experimentation, and the engaged stance that requires

…both were extremely helpful to me.”

Giorgio

“I think it’s fair to say that Rob Burbea’s teachings have radically transformed my spiritual practice and the way I see the world. Before coming across him I was unconsciously, deeply entrenched in a sort of scientific materialist view, and in what he would call ‘Modernist Dharma’, which despite being tremendously helpful to increase my base level of calmness and serenity, it was also (unbeknownst to me) stripping me of the more passionate, driven, fun, imaginative parts of myself. Rob’s talks have given me a much-needed wake up call at a time when my practice was stalling. His approach to the Dharma was key to open me up beyond the standard modernist view and gave me permission to explore possibilities and ‘ways of looking’ that had seemed forbidden before. A few examples of ways in which he opened up my view:

  • ‘it’s ok to orient meditation towards the pleasure (of Samadhi)’
  • ‘desire is not always a defilement, there’s a beauty to it, maybe even need to protect and allow desire to grow’
  • ‘understanding the emptiness of self and of all things doesn’t make everything meaningless, rather opens up infinite new worlds (or ways of looking) to explore and play with’

For example, re-considering concepts such as ‘soul’ (aware of its emptiness), which I had buried away from my Catholic childhood, opened up a whole new way of seeing life, sensing and seeking beauty, passion, strong emotions and much more.

I’m sure that it’s impossible to convey how much freedom and opening each of these ideas generated for me, and what’s even more exciting is that I’m just getting started.”

A Guided Introduction to Rob’s Teachings

There are hundreds and hundreds of hours of Rob speaking available on Dharma Seed, an online archive of recorded Buddhist teachings. Dharma Seed hosts 458 recordings of Rob, from 46 separate retreats or series of recordings.

These recordings are a tremendous gift, and I am so grateful to Rob, Gaia House, and Dharma Seed for making them available. However, they can be a bit overwhelming, even if you are interested in listening to Rob’s teachings. Here are some suggested starting points for listening to Rob’s talks:

Jhana Practice and The Energy Body

Imaginal Practice and Soulmaking

Practical Advice for Listening to Rob’s Talks

When I started listening to Rob’s talks, I set a rough trajectory for listening to his work. I started with the topics that were most familiar to me (mettā and jhanā practice), because I wanted to hear how Rob talked about them. Then, over time, I’ve branched out into topics that were less familiar to me (emptiness, imaginal practice, and the Soulmaking Dharma).

This trajectory might not work for you in approaching the vast body of work Rob produced. But plotting a similar trajectory based on your own background and interests might be a useful strategy.

Know that you don’t necessarily have to listen to every retreat Rob ever did, or even every talk in a particular series. It’s fine to dip in, following your own interest and curiosity.

Many of the talks on Dharma Seeds have labels in their descriptions, stating many prerequisites needed to listen to or benefit from a specific talk. In my opinion, these labels are more cautious and conservative than need be. The worst thing that’s happened to me personally is to be a bit confused about something Rob was talking about – but you can usually figure it out from context.

Each retreat or series on Dharma Seed has a separate podcast feed available for it. You can put these feeds into a podcast client and listen to retreats that way. This is helpful because it lets you use all of the features of your favorite podcast client – including changing the speed of a recording.

If I’m listening to and practicing with a guided meditation, I’ll listen at the normal speed – but I find it’s fine for me to listen to talks at advanced speeds. It’s a non-traditional way to listen to a Dharma talk, but it does work for me.

You’ll have to find whether or not that works for you, but for me, it has made the prospect of listening to many recordings less intimidating and more feasible.

It’s a small thing, but I also like to sort retreats by oldest “episode” first, which Overcast lets me do. Unlike most podcasts, it’s helpful to listen in chronological order.

There is an enormous database of transcripts of Rob’s teachings. Alongside the recordings available on Dharma Seed, this library of transcripts is a tremendous gift. It is extremely useful for finding and referencing specific points that Rob made, or for reading his talks instead of listening to them.

Further Explorations into Rob’s Teachings

Rob wrote a book, called Seeing that Frees, about his approach to emptiness practice. The book is also a helpful prerequisite for his teachings on imaginal practice and the Soulmaking Dharma, because those techniques are predicated on his understanding of ways of seeing, fabrication, and emptiness.

Rob was interviewed on several podcasts, by Daniel Thorson and Michael Taft on the Emerge and Deconstructing Yourself podcasts respectively:

I love listening to Rob speak, but I found myself wanting to watch videos of him speaking, to see what he looked like and what his presence was like visually. There’s a series of videos of him talking for an online seminar available on Google Drive. He also did a 20 minute interview in 2014 that’s available on Vimeo.

Before he died, Rob created the Hermes Amāra Foundation (HAF), a group designed to “preserve and develop Rob’s vast Dharma teaching legacy”. They have a mailing list that you can join on request, by emailing [email protected].

Although Rob has sadly passed, there are a number of teachers who are teaching in ways that are inspired by and continuations of Rob’s teachings, including Catherine McGee, Nathan Glyde, Susy Keely, and Yahel Avigur.

Further Resources:

Thank you to my friends and Sangha for exploring Rob’s teachings with me. Thank you to Daniel Thorson, Sky, Jake Orthwein, and Giorgio for sharing their love of Rob with me and the world in this post. Thank you to Hormeze for reviewing this post, and to Sílvia for illustrating it.

The art in this post was created by Sílvia Bastos, and is licensed under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license. You can support her work on Patreon

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