Deshabandu Alec Robertson - A Master of Buddhist Eloquence

Rajah Kuruppu
President, Servants of
the Buddha Society

Alec Robertson

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 comparative religion.

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 myself.

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.


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