Rob lived the last half of his life with death firmly in mind. Whilst he was resident teacher at Gaia House, he once drove a human skeleton in the back seat of his car all the way from London, in order to aid retreatants’ contemplation of mortality. He insisted that the skeleton wore a seat belt, for its own safety and also to placate the police in case they were stopped. The boney passenger caused some alarm for passing motorists on the M4 and at a traditional village tea shop near Taunton. On arrival, the skeleton turned out to be a controversial visitor, and so sat in Rob’s tiny room cross legged by his bed for weeks before finding a longer term place of abiding. If the skeleton could hear what was said to it during conversations at the time, more than a decade ago, it might have recalled Rob saying, “I could die tomorrow and it would be okay, as I am living as I am most deeply called, doing the work that I feel is most important”.
Rob’s book ‘Seeing That Frees’ was published in 2014 and quickly developed a worldwide cult following for its exceptional clarity on the most profound of Buddhist teachings, dependent origination. And yet Rob was a reluctant author. It took 5 years to persuade him to write a book and another 2 years for him to actually write it. Each page was painstakingly crafted, with Rob mostly working during the day and then writing late into the night. Full creative control was fundamentally important to Rob; early in the process literally 15 minutes was spent debating whether a comma in Chapter 1 should or should not be changed to a semicolon. More than one editor resigned in frustration due to their inability to influence any stylistic modification. Yet due to (or despite) Rob’s characteristic prose, the final work was widely acclaimed, and in the words of one Canadian reviewer: “There just is no comparison. This book is profound beyond belief”.
Rob was famously motivated to offer detailed and precise meditation teachings to his students. As part of this, over the last two decades of his life, Rob led many silent meditation retreats. The duration of retreats at Gaia House are usually one week or shorter; due to how demanding it is to lead them two, three or four meditation teachers usually share the task, plus trainee teachers. Rob’s final retreat, which ended in January this year, was three and a half weeks long. He led it as the only teacher, assisted by two trainee teachers. He offered original and extensive teachings virtually every day for this whole period. What few participants realised was that he suffered throughout with severe and increasing pain and fatigue due to his illness. However, such was his determination for the retreat to be valuable to others that Rob insisted on not taking pain-relieving medication during the day, in order to preserve the clarity of his teaching.
Rob used to say, “What defines great art is that it makes you want to live differently”. He certainly lived differently, desiring for his life itself to become a work of art. Beholding his commitment to beautiful values and brave choices certainly inspired hundreds of his students to do just that, live differently. By his own criterion then, Rob’s life became art, and great art at that.