Integration of Sinhala Buddhists & Christians in and around London

With the shift of identities in their ethnicity and religion Sinhala Buddhists and Christians undergo a process, which is explained in sociological terms as discovery, invention and diffusion. These terms are used with the understanding of the following definitions.

A discovery is a human perception of a fact or relationship which already exists. An invention is often defined as a new use of old elements of the culture. In 1948 Gillin pointed out that an invention might be new in principle, form, function or meaning.

Even the most inventive society invents only a modest proportion of its new elements. Most of the social changes in known societies have developed through diffusion, the spread of cultural traits from group to group. Diffusion operates both within societies and between societies. Jazz originated among Negro musicians of New Orleans and became diffused to other groups within the society. Later it spread to other societies and has now been diffused throughout the civilized world. Diffusion takes place whenever societies come into contact. Societies may seek to prevent diffusion by forbidding contact.

In this process, it is noticeable that these two religious groups of the same ethnic origin influence each other in the UK. The roots of this process can be traced to the land of their origin. In Sri Lanka due to Christian influences, Buddhists started organisations such as the Y.M.B.A. imitating the Y.M.C.A. model and founded Buddhist Sunday schools again influenced by Christian Sunday schools. These influences are evident in Sri Lanka. Both Christians and Buddhists were able to make new discoveries having received another perspective on things, and made new use of the old elements in their culture.

On the other hand, after independence Christians made efforts to contextualise the Christian church in Sri Lanka by theologising Christian existence in Sri Lanka within the Sinhala Buddhist context. For example, Christians have adopted local music in their worship originally from the Sinhala Buddhist background and an attempt is being made to integrate customs from the Sinhala Buddhist origin such as removing shoes in Church and greeting each other by bringing hands together in front of the chest. From the data available it is observed that these processes of discovery, invention and diffusion are being continued in London by these two religious groups of the same ethnic origin.

In the London Vihara bilingual religious activities are held. These bilingual worship services resemble the Christian bilingual services held in Sri Lanka and the way in which Christian bilingual events are conducted in and around London. The way in which Christians tried to localise Christianity by sitting on the floor, and replacing chairs or pews (in some churches in Sri Lanka) is reversed in some temples in London by sitting on chairs. Christians as they come under umbrella organisations such as the Sri Lankan Christian Association and the Sri Lankan Catholic Association in the UK are greatly influenced by the cultural reproduction of the Sinhala Buddhists in London. They are faced with a challenge to keep their Sinhala identity in those organisations as they share the membership with Tamil Christians and Burghers (Eurasians) from Sri Lanka.

Here the Sinhala Tamil ethnic tensions in Sri Lanka and the activities of Sinhala Buddhists in and around London inevitably influence Sinhala Christians to reflect on their Sinhala Identity in and around London. The influence on each other is further strengthened by the fact that these two religious groups meet each other in a number of places and situations. In their day-to-day life, they meet in Sri Lanka shops, institutions, restaurants and other locations and venues in and around London. At family functions such as weddings they come together and at times make new relationships through marriages. Cultural activities such as Sri Lankan musical shows, and the Sinhala New Year festival bring them together as they share the same language and cultural practices. Although these people profess two different faiths on the grounds of common ethnicity and shared culture they face similar challenges with the change of their identity from their home country to host country.

In analysing the shift in identities of these two Sinhala religious communities in and around London, the sociological concepts of cultural relativism, cultural universals, real culture and ideal culture may be used appropriately to clarify features of the integration of this ethnic community in London in a clear and coherent manner. As these immigrant communities settle in and around London, they understand the culture in and around London in relation to the culture of the country that they have come from. The place of religion in society may be given as an example as religion is more of a community phenomenon than an individual concern in Sri Lanka.

Therefore these immigrants expect a similar place for their religion in and around London where religion functions as an individual concern. Yet because of cultural relativism, it is not possible to judge one culture arbitrarily from the standards of another. This creates tensions among immigrants as inevitably these immigrants expect the ideal standards of their own culture. In Asian countries, during colonialism, something like this happened when the colonial masters and Christian missionaries despised the cultural values and practices of the local people of Asia. This became prominent in relation to their religions with the colonial Christian missionary understanding of the religions of Asia as devil worship.

Where immigrant communities are concerned cultural universals facilitate the process of the settlement of immigrant communities. The universal happenings such as death and marriage can be viewed in this way. Although the practices and customs of these events differ in home and host countries because of the universality of these events these immigrants find it easier to relate to those events in the host country in a positive and healthy manner. As the immigrants shift their identity in the host country their ideal culture and real culture become important as often these two create tension in their process of settlement.

According to the culture of Sinhala Buddhists it is expected of people that they remove their shoes inside the Buddhist temple. Because of the cold climate in the UK they are often unable to do that. It is disrespectful for Sinhala people to call the elders by their name, yet according to general British culture it is perfectly acceptable to call people by their first names. These immigrants face the tension between ideal culture and real culture every day as they shift their identity in the host country.

This research project is expected to broaden our understanding of the importance of ethno-religious identities among Asian immigrants in the West and how these identities have shifted and been reshaped so as to be effective and meaningful in the new environment. The experiences of this immigrant community are closely linked to the realities in the home country. This is important for analysing the current behavioural patterns of this community in the host country meaningfully and effectively. The effort is made to highlight the responses of an ethnic group from a particular country with their different religious beliefs in settling in a Western country such as the UK. The impact that this ethnic group makes in British society is analysed by showing how these ethnic minorities can be influential not only quantitatively but also qualitatively by enriching British society.