A most rewarding, near six decade long relationship came to an end as all earthly things must with the passing of Leo Devendra on Wednesday, February 24, 2010. He would have reached the milestone of 80 in July had he lived on.
In a world, sadly, too full of insincere persons, Leo Devendra stood out like a beacon. He was the very epitome of sincerity, simplicity and selflessness. He was as full of the milk of human kindness as a sojourner on earth could possibly be. He was as virtuous as only a true follower of the dhamma could be. It is difficult if not impossible to employ anything other than superlatives when speaking or writing of this great and good human being. Like the Buddha and other religious leaders, he was in this world but not of it. His sheer goodness made him seem almost other worldly.
The late Mr. Devendra was a superb school teacher of English and Mathematics. I, who first came under the spell of Leo Devendra the teacher par excellence as a mere four-year old way back in 1952 in the (then) sleepy coastal town of Hikkaduwa, am able to personally testify to his pedagogical brilliance. His fine narration of that hoary fairy tale Jack and the Beanstalk reverberates in my ears even today after more than half a century! I believe that that was the beginning of my love of literature. And it is also to Leo Devendra that I mostly owe what little I know of the intricacies of Mathematics.
His students adored and venerated him and in turn he gave to them his all whether it be in school, the Irida Daham Pasala or at the Subuddharamaya Pirivena close to his home in Katugastota at which he taught until his dying day. He was in the process of planning to send his Pirivena pupils, the bhikku novices, on a first time outing by train to Badulla in early March when the end came suddenly and swiftly.
Leo Devendra was always doing something for someone else. He was in the habit of writing a verse or a quotable quote (usually in green ink) on the top left hand corner of the envelope in which he enclosed his most thoughtful letters. One of his favourite quotes illustrates well his own life:
“The beauty of life does not depend on how happy we are; but on how happy others are because of us”.
He was eloquent and expressive without ever being loquacious. Like the late Ian Goonetileke, another wonderful letter writer I was privileged to know intimately, Leo Devendra preferred the written to the spoken word. Another gem that used to adorn the envelopes of his frequent letters to me goes like this:
“ A wise old owl sat on an oak tree
The more he saw the less he spoke
The less he spoke the more he heard
Why can't I be like that wise old bird?
Leo Devendra's was a most meaningful life lived well. The world in general is the poorer for the loss of a human being of his calibre and Sri Lanka's loss is more monumental than might even be imagined.
I wish to end this brief tribute by letting Leo Devendra speak for himself. In his last letter written to me a day prior to his death and received by me on my return from Kandy after attending his funeral on the 26th of March, 2010, he had written:
“ I trust you are sharing with your young daughter the experience and values we shared in our childhood. Without any of the so-called facilities and luxuries, both our fathers eking out an austere, meagre living , often struggling tenaciously to keep the wolf from the door, provided us supreme and serene happiness at home. Our two great and wonderful mothers slaved day and night behind the scenes to keep our voracious appetites even marginally appeased. Yes, Tissa, those were halcyon days .
I sincerely feel it is a blessing to be born in poverty and deprivation and to have had such divine parents as we did. I spent 40 glorious years as an unknown and humble schoolmaster. In honour of C.W. W. Kannangara, I chose to serve in remote outposts, and strove to do so with dedication and devotion and achieved supreme happiness. Kekirawa, Polonnaruwa, Elahera, Hasalaka, Minipe, Madulkelle and Mahiyangana are among those distant rural places.”
Only a few of us are aware that Leo Devendra conducted Seela Bhavana in the villages and that he used to give Saradharma talks as often as he could in the remote schools of our island home.
How many know that he visited nearly 900 schools and several thousand villages of Sri Lanka during his 40 years of service to his motherland? He had no worldly possessions, no home, no lands or any other material wealth. The only riches he had were his kusala kriya. This is how our true heritage could be preserved.
Those fakes among us who advertise themselves as the guardians of our national heritage and shout themselves hoarse from various platforms ought to take a leaf out of the true and real guardian Leo Devendra's book and seek to emulate the man. The Leo Devendras are our unsung and unheralded authentic national heroes.
May Leo Devendra attain the bliss of Nibbana.