President, Servants of
the Buddha Society
The fifth death anniversary of the late
Deshabandu Alec Robertson falls on 31st December this year. A
popular lay preacher of the Dhamma, both in the English and
Sinhala languages, a recognised broadcaster, writer on Buddhism,
Member of Parliament and a regular contributor of Dhamma
articles to the newspapers and Buddhist journals, Mr. Robertson
passed away on the last day of the year 2002. His body lay at
Jayaratne Undertakers in Borella and was handed over to the
Medical Faculty of the University of Colombo on the following
day, 1st January 2003.
Born to a Christian Burgher family, Mr.
Robertson became a Buddhist as a senior school student through
intellectual conviction while reading books on Buddhist
philosophy of his father who was very much interested in
One of the most significant contributions he
made towards the propagation of the Buddha's incomparable
philosophy was the popularisation and effective organisation of
the weekly Dhamma discussions in English at Maitri Hall in
Lauries Road, Bambalapitiya. He was associated with the Servants
of the Buddha Society, which conducts these discussions on
Saturday evenings, for around half a century. No one has been so
closely connected with this Society, which has been functioning
for 85 years, for such a length of time. He commenced attending
and participating in these meetings while attending school and
became the Assistant Secretary of this Society at the age of 21
years. Later he was its Secretary and finally its President for
an unbroken period of 30 years from 1969 to 1998. He
relinquished this office when he realised that declining health
would not permit him to discharge the duties of this office
effectively. Nevertheless, he continued to be associated with
the Society as its Advisor until his demise.
The Servants of the Buddha Society was
established in 1921 at Maitri Hall, its Headquarters from
inception. Its first President was Dr. Cassius Perera, later Ven.
Kassapa Thera. The earliest years of Maitri hall and the Society
can be best described in the words of Mr. Robertson himself in
his contribution to the 75th Anniversary Souvenir of the Society
in 1997. "The Maitriya Hall the headquarters of the Servants of
the Buddha Society is named after Ananda Metteyya Thera (former
Allen Bennett) the first Englishman to become a Buddhist monk.
Ven. Kassapa Thera who was a layman the (Dr. Cassius Perera) was
so inspired by the talk given by Ven. Ananda Metteyya Thera on
the four noble Truths that he named the Hall as Maitriya hall.
Ven. The late Narada Thera, Ven. The Ven Mirisse Gunasiri Thera,
Ven. Piyadassi Thera, Messrs. late Victor Gunaratne, S.F. de
Silva, a former Director of Education and a host of others
received their training to speak on the Dhamma in English here.
Dr. Cassius Perera [Ven. Kssapa Thera] gave us a rigorous course
of training and was very meticulous in the pronunciation,
grammar, enunciation and presentation on of the Dhamma." In the
later years the Hall came to be called the Maitri Hall.
His voice and personality reveberated the walls
of Maitri Hall when he chaired the meetings of the Society and
delivered a talk on the Dhamma on the first Saturday of every
month and on rare occasions when the scheduled speaker was
unable to attend he delivered the talk on the subject for the
day or requested the audience to suggest a subject. Moreover,
his comments at the end of the talk by the visiting Lecturer
were a neat summary of the talk with his own comments to
illuminate and elucidate where necessary.
Mr. Robertson was fortunate to have a profound
memory. His knowledge of the Dhamma was extensive but it was not
gathered from formal studies in Universities but by his own
personal efforts to study Pali, Dhamma, Abhidamma and
commentaries as well as through his association with other
Buddhist scholars, both monks and layman. He revelled in
answering questions and responding to others comments and
observations drawing from his prodigious memory and deep
knowledge of the Dhamma.
His commitment and dedication for the
propagation of the Dhamma was such that in the younger years he
travelled to many parts of the country, often by public
transport, to deliver talks on the Dhamma mainly in Sinhala to
the interested Buddhist public. As an effective communicator of
the Dhamma he was invited to address many Buddhist organisations
both in the city of Colombo and the outstation. His talks were
well received for the reason that they were presented in simple
language, with copious references to Jataka stories, and spiced
with a relevant sense of humour. These talks, as at Maitri Hall,
were always followed by questions and discussions that proved to
be most valuable and interesting to the listeners.
Mr. Robertson also participated in the popular
Buddhist Forum programme of the SLBC for over 40 years, first as
a member of the Forum and later as its Chairman. This Buddhist
discussion programme in English goes over the air every Tuesday
earlier at 8.00 p.m. and now at 9.00 p.m. In his earlier years
in the Forum eminent Buddhist scholars participated and they
included Prof. Gunapala Malalasekera, Prof. K. N. Jayatilake,
Justice S.R. Wijayatilke, Mr. Siri Perera, Q.C., one time
President of the Colombo YUBA, and the late Dr. Rienzil Piyasena,
an expert, on Nuclear Medicine. Later, for a long period of time
he was the Chairman of the Forum and some of those who
participated with him when he chaired these discussions were
Bhikkuni Kusuma, then Mrs. Kusuma Devendra, the late Dr. Tudor
Senanayake, Mr. Dhamma Weerakoon, a former Director- General of
Irrigation, Mr. T. B. Ratnayake, a former Registrar of the
Buddhist and Pali University, Mr. Asoka Mahinda Jayasingha and
He contributed numerous articles on the Dhamma
to Buddhist journals, both local and foreign, as well as to
newspapers. For the annual Buddhist journal, Vesak Sirisara,
which I now edit, he has contributed articles in English for an
unbroken period exceeding two decades. In fact when we look back
on the history of that journal, which has been published without
interruption for the last 72 years, perhaps no one else has
contributed articles regularly for such a length of time.
His outstanding and exemplar services for the
cause of the Dhamma was recognised by the Government when the J.
R. Jayewardene administration conferred on him the honour of
Deshabandu. Later, the Premadasa Government appointed him as a
M.P. from the National List of the UNP. He served for five years
as a M.P. largely focusing his parliamentary contributions on
Buddhism, social welfare and education. The UNP allocated to him
the Avissawella electorate and his addresses to the constituents
were mainly on the Dhamma and its practice.
He was my teacher and guide for the
understanding of the Dhamma and its exposition to others. Rarely
did he fail to explain or clarify matters regarding the Dhamma
raised by me which is an index of his knowledge of the Dhamma
and his ability to readily recall that knowledge.
His death was an irreparable loss for the
propagation of the Dhamma especially in the English language.
May this deeply committed, resourceful and dedicated servant of
the Buddha realise early the peace and bliss of Nibbana.