De-Europeanising of Christianity with De-Asianising of Buddhism

Warner (along with other sociologists) has observed that due to migrant religions in host countries traditional ethno-religious associations have been changing rapidly. In our research, it was evident that Sinhala immigrants belonging to two universal religions, Buddhism and Christianity, have been contributing to this trend.

Most of the Sinhala Christian immigrants belong to denominations such as Anglican, Methodist and Roman Catholic, which developed in Western Europe in response to theological, cultural, social and political realities. The traditional protestant denominations in Sri Lanka are closely associated with London, often with their head offices there or with international links. At the same time over the years, these denominations have been integrated into Sri Lankan realities.

Many Sri Lankan Anglicans are aware of the pioneering steps taken by the Sri Lankan Anglican Church in the first half of the 20th century to indigenise the Christian church outside Europe, making the theological claim that aspects such as indigenous music and idioms can and must be used in worship and other activities of the life of the faith community. Some Anglican Sinhala immigrants are proud of this contribution by the Sri Lankan Anglican Church to the worldwide Anglican Communion. Pioneering contributions of this nature by the Sri Lankan Christian church have given them a sense of dignity in the UK, giving them their unique identity in British society.

The participation of the Sri Lankan Christians in the de-Europeanising of Christianity in the UK has created a plus factor in the process of migration for the incomers who feel a sense of belonging on their arrival in the UK. This has happened with the contribution of Sinhala Christians who helped to bring about changes in the general Christian identity in the UK. Through participant observation, it was found that Christians who contributed to the de-Europeanising of Christianity are members of three Christian sub-cultures namely white British, other black and brown people and Sri Lankan communities with an understanding of the British society who welcome new immigrants with fellowship and help them to settle in British society.

In East London, there are churches packed with Asians and Africans. In one particular church, it was observed that about forty Sinhala Christians were worshipping along with white British and other Asians and Africans. Over the years in this particular church, the Asian population has been increasing with a decreasing number of white British people in the congregation. This particular Sinhala Christian community is very close to the Sri Lankan Buddhist temple in the area and some of them take an active part in the activities of the temple. This participation has been strengthening with a few mixed marriages between Sinhala Christians and Buddhists in this community. De-Europeanising of this Christian congregation has been attracting some Sinhala immigrants to this fellowship, making their migration smoother and more pleasant.

The position of Sri Lankan Christian leaders in important Christian organisations has been a facilitating factor in the influx of some immigrants from Sri Lanka. Christian leaders based in the UK, Sri Lanka and other countries have influenced the process of migration in a variety of ways. Leaders based in Sri Lanka are consulted by migrants before their movement in order to become aware of what they will have to deal with in the host country. On their arrival leaders in the host country are often contacted to arrange for them to be introduced to communities (the leaders working within the UK) In an interview, a Sinhala Christian immigrant (SC-6) from Sri Lanka made the following statement,

We are proud of our Sri Lankan Christian leaders in international organisations, especially the Christian priests in these organisations who were helpful before and throughout our migration. The support we got from them in Sri Lanka before our departure and after our arrival in the UK made our migration smoother, avoiding many problems faced by immigrants to the UK. In this regard, according to my understanding and experience the positive impressions they made through their association with influential people in the UK have been particularly helpful for us in making our first impression with British people in response to them.

Buddhism has been de-Asianising since the 19th century with the rise of Buddhist institutions in the West. England was one of the prominent countries in this, with London as the centre of these activities. According to available data today there are about a hundred Buddhist temples in the UK, including twenty-three Theravada temples. The following observation shows that, apart from these, many other Buddhist institutions have been growing in Europe over the years.

One notes also the rapid increase of Buddhist institutions in Europe, which in Britain shot up from seventy-four (1979) to about 340 (1997) and in Germany from some forty (1975) to more than 400 (1997) meditation circles, groups and centres.

The contribution of these temples towards their migration, one Sinhala Buddhist person (SB-6) said,

Long before our migration - indeed, even before we dreamt of migration - we were well aware of the existence of many Buddhist temples in and around London. Also, I am aware that there are nearly a hundred Buddhist temples in the UK from various traditions, including an order called “the Friends of Western Buddhists”, which is mainly a white British institution. Here I think it is important to note that while Christian churches of some denominations are closing at a steady rate, the number of Buddhist temples in the UK is increasing. The existence of these temples was a great source of strength for our migration. This was great in two ways. Firstly it was great to have our faith and philosophy of life along with the other Sri Lankan Buddhists. Secondly, it was great because we could relate to British people through British Buddhists who have often understood our faith better than us.

In understanding this process of de-Asianising of Buddhism the following observations by Almond could be considered relevant,

In fine, the Buddha was an ideal Victorian gentleman,…

By the middle of the Victorian period, the Buddha had emerged from the wings of myth and entered the historical stage. No longer identified with the ancient gods, distinct from the Hindu account of him and his mythical predecessors, the Buddha was a human figure - one to be compared not with gods but with other historical personalities, and one to be interpreted in the light of the Victorian ideal of humanity.

In a poem by Edwin Arnold called “The Light of Asia”. George Cobbold, an Anglican clergyman, described The Light of Asia in 1894 as the book which,

…probably more than any other work of the day has been the means of drawing the attention of English-speaking people to Buddhism….

There is no doubt that these changes in attitudes of British people (especially in the Victorian era) towards Buddhism have been a facilitating factor for some British people to embrace Buddhism. This in turn has become an enabling aspect to have a better understanding between Western and Asian people through Buddhism. It is manifest that this understanding has been an enabling factor in the migration of Sinhala Buddhists from Sri Lanka who firmly believe that their identity is inseparable from Buddhism.