The simple scholar who lived as he preached
~ Alec Robertson
The fifth death anniversary of Deshabandu Alec Robertson falls tomorrow, December 31. His passing away was lamented by all Sri Lankans as well as his numerous foreign friends and acquaintances, who had at some time or other benefited from his guidance, friendship and exemplary life, and more than anything else from his deep understanding and propagation of the Buddha Dhamma.
Sri Lanka has no dearth of Buddhist scholars, among both the Sangha and lay persons, but not many would claim to have all those and many other attributes found in abundance in Mr. Robertson.
My own association with Mr. Robertson at a personal level was short. On the other hand as a long standing Buddhist activist, I have followed his writings and radio broadcasts.
His son Prasantha happened to be a close friend of our eldest son and it was through this fortuitous circumstance that I was able to establish some personal association with Prasantha's father. On my few visits to his home I observed the simple lifestyle of the Robertson family.
Looking back on Mr. Robertson’s life, one could assume that he has been fortunate in many ways, the most important being his long sojourn as a servant of the Buddha and the Dhamma. His father, a Christian, worked in Dodanduwa close to the Dodanduwa island hermitage, the reclusive abode of Gnanahtiloka and Gnanaponika Mahatheras. They were both of German origin. Young Alec had accompanied his father on his occasional visits to the hermitage, and these encounters had left an indelible impression on him.
With that initiation to the Dhamma, while living and working in Colombo, young Alec had continued to seek the guidance of other religious dignitaries, including Ven. Pelene Vajiragnana Thera, Ven Narada Thera, Ven. Piyadassi Kassyapa Thera and Ven. Soma Thera, all from the Vajirarama, in Bambalapitiya.
Alec was too young to have known and interacted with Anagarika Dharmapala (1864-1933), but his adult life seems to have been shaped by his vision. Another person who may have inspired Alec was the late Prof. Gunapala Malalasekera, the doyen of Pali and Buddhist scholarship, and Buddhist activist of the time.
Practically all who have penned their appreciations of Alec and assessed his many contributions in the service of the Dhamma have highlighted his dexterity in responding to probing questions and clarifications on the Dhamma and the life of the Buddha. What was most remarkable about Alec was his unhesitating responses, and clarity of delivery. Let me end this short appreciation with the following quote by Asoka Jayasinghe (in 2005) who considered himself an adult Sishya of Alec:
"We are left with the memory of this great Buddhist layman whose life was that of an ideal Buddhist; both in erudition and practice"
"Sabba Danam Dhamma Danan Jinathi.”