Deshabandu Alec Robertson — A tribute

By Rajah Kuruppu
President, Servants of the Buddha Society

The well-known Buddhist preacher and lecturer as well as an indefatigable worker for the propagation of the Dhamma, Deshabandu Alec Robertson, passed away on December 31, 2002, at the age of 74 years. In a simple funeral, his remains were at the Jayaratne funeral parlour in Borella for around 20 hours from 7.00 p.m. on December 31, to a little after 2.30 p.m. on January 1 when the body was handed over to the Medical Faculty of the University of Colombo.

Born to a Catholic family in 1928, he became a Buddhist by intellectual conviction as a teenager. Although his mother remained a staunch Catholic to the end, his father became a free thinker in later life. Perhaps he inherited the inquiring spirit of his father, reading widely the literature of the main religions and subsequently embracing the Buddhist way of life.

Mr. Robertson was the President of the Servants of the Buddha Society for 29 years, from 1969 to 1998 when he decided to relinquish this office with advancing years and declining health. However, he continued to provide guidance and inspiration to the Society by being its Advisor until his recent demise. This Society conducts talks and discussions on the Dhamma every Saturday evening at Maitri Hall, Lauries Road, Bambalapitiya, for the last 80 years. Long before he became the President of the Society, he was one of its active members delivering talks and discussing the Dhamma at Society meetings. He cut his teeth as an effective Buddhist speaker under the guidance of well known Buddhist scholars such as Ven. Narada thera and Ven. Kassapa thera.

Although he had no academic qualifications as a Buddhist scholar his knowledge of the Dhamma, acquired by his own efforts reading Buddhist literature and discussing the Dhamma with erudite scholars, was deep and wide. Exploiting to the full his remarkable memory, he was able to draw freely from the teachings of the Buddha relevant material for his talks and even more to effectively respond instantly to questions, comments and observations of the numerous audiences he addressed.

He was also able to benefit from being a fluent speaker both in the English and Sinhala languages to fulfill the mission of his life of propagating the Dhamma. For this purpose, especially in his younger days, he travelled far and wide in the island to deliver talks and discuss the Dhamma on the invitation of Buddhist organisations in the outstations.

He also conducted talks and discussions on the Dhamma in Malaysia, Singapore and Australia at the invitation of those interested in Buddhism in those countries. In his addresses in the English language, the extensive knowledge of English literature stood in good stead being able to relevantly quote well known English poets, dramatists and writers.

He contributed numerous articles on the Dhamma to newspapers and Buddhist journals such as Vesak Sirisara; the Buddhist Vesak Annual, a publication of the Colombo YMBA; and Vesak Lipi. He was the author of four books on Buddhism and they were "Is Nirvana Extinction?", "Buddhist Attitude to Christianity", "Triple Gem and the Uposatha, and "Buddha: The Healer Incomparable".

Mr. Robertson could be considered a walking encyclopedia on Buddhism. Never armed with notes or books, his words were addressed directly to the audience, his eyes observing their reactions.

In his talks and discussions, Mr. Robertson emphasised the practice of Buddhism rather than rites and rituals. However, as a practical down to earth man he did not completely reject the value of some rites and rituals that had been developed over the centuries and which had much symbolic value and could be useful to some if practiced with understanding.

Mr. Robertson commenced his career in the Auditor-General’s Department and thereafter served for decades in the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation mainly conducting Buddhist programmes. Some influential persons recognising his potential as a good broadcaster and a competent disseminator of the Dhamma provided him with this opportunity that benefited him and the SLBC. Thus, Mr. Robertson was fortunate to have an occupation in the public service that was directly related to his main task in life of propagating the Dhamma. He was associated with the popular Buddhist Forum programme of the SLBC that goes on the air every Wednesday at 8.00 pm for 30 minutes, first as a member and later for a very long period as its Chairman. In fact, on the day of his death, which happened to be a Wednesday, the proceedings of the Buddhist Forum of the previous week chaired by him was rebroadcast as a mark of respect to him. The titles for some of the popular Buddhist programmes over the air were suggested by him such as "In the steps of the Sakyamuni" and "Has Buddhism the answer?".

For a period of about five years he was a Member of Parliament. He did not seek such office but President Ranasinghe Premadasa sought him out stating that he wanted honourable men in the supreme legislature of the country. So he was nominated to Parliament on the National List of the United National Party in 1989 and served as a legislator until 1994. While conducting himself with dignity and decorum, his contributions in the legislature were in areas he was competent, namely, the propagation of the Dhamma, education and Buddhist culture.

To me personally he was an effective teacher and a guide on the Dhamma and I learnt much from his wide understanding of the Dhamma. In my experience he was the only person when sought to obtain a clarification or an explanation of the Dhamma who never failed to responded positively. This was an index of his knowledge of the subject and his dedication to be helpful to those who are keen to learn the Dhamma.

In this hour of grief and great loss our sympathies are with his beloved wife, Mrs. Jayasumana Robertson, who served as a well loved teacher at Visaka Vidyalaya, Colombo, for many years and the five children, two daughters and three sons, whose progress and welfare he did not neglect although an overwhelming part of his time was devoted to the spread of the Dhamma.

Mr. Robertson pursued the mission of his life with relentless determination, indomitable courage and deep commitment.

May his forward journey in Samsara be smooth and brief and may he realise early the supreme bliss of Nibbana!