Sinhala Buddhists and Christians in and around London

Socialisation and Identity

Through extensive participation and observation by the researcher, it became evident that the second generation of Sinhala immigrants has created at least three clear structures in which they socialise. They are:

1. Other Sinhala young people in their schools, universities, neighbourhood and religious institutions. Often (but not always) Buddhists with Buddhists and Christians with Christians.2. Asian and African immigrants. White British young people.

Extensive observation revealed that the backgrounds of the young people were directly connected to the type of fellowships to which they belonged. Young Sinhala Christians who have made strong bonds of fellowship with young Sinhala Buddhists were often from the progressive and liberal circles of the Christian church. Strong exclusive Christian fellowships were from evangelical circles who were active in proclaiming the Gospel so as to convert people to Christianity. In these fellowships, there were many other African and Asian Christians who had the same vision.

Generally, British young people who have formed intimate relationships with Sinhala Buddhists and Christians were those who had a broader understanding of society. Often these relationships were made in colleges, universities and places of work where young people get involved in common activities, whether studying or working together. Some Sinhala Christians have made close friendships with young white British people through youth activities in their churches. On the other hand, some white British young people who attend Buddhist activities have created friendships with Sinhala Buddhists in the context of a common faith.

Observation revealed that, among multi-cultural and religious fellowships, Sinhala young people were keen to hold onto their sub-cultural identity. This supported the analysis of Warner on American situations: that, contrary to secularisation theory, religion continues to flourish because it has always been, and remains, the fundamental expression of sub-cultural identity in a pluralist society. It was evident that in this regard Sinhala Buddhist young people are more conscious of their ethnic identity than the Sinhala Christian young people in the UK. As Warner has noticed among Korean Americans, ethnic church participation may be strongly linked to the issue of ethnicity, the participation of Sinhala ethnic Buddhist temples tends to be accompanied by a high degree of ethnic identity.

There are no Sinhala ethnic churches for Sinhala Christians (except the Tri-Lingual Free Church where Sinhala and Tamil Christians from Sri Lanka came together), and so second-generation Sinhala Christians were not very interested in an exclusive ethnic identity. However, it was apparent that to move up the economic ladder these young people (both Sinhala Buddhists and Christians) were ready to assimilate into British society. In the process of this assimilation, in order to cope with the problem of marginality they reclaim their ethnicity enriched by their religion. This has shown that their assimilation did not entirely replace the ethnic identity that is often coloured by their religions.

The majority of Sinhala Buddhist second-generation young people felt that they were comfortable with both the British and Sri Lankan cultures they were exposed to. According to them, they could select either Sri Lankan or British culture for their way of life. They believed that a lot depends on the selection of their life partners or spouses. If they choose to live with a British partner they believe they could be more British than Sri Lankan, and vice versa. To date, many of these children have decided to marry Sri Lankan partners and their decisions have been heavily supported and influenced by their parents and elders. This revealed that up to now, through marriages, more of this second generation has been strengthening the culture of their parents than the culture of the host country.

In this research, the researcher did not find any single young Sinhala Buddhist or Christian who has converted to another religion in the UK. Confirming this, and raising concerns of the second generation SB-4 (woman) said,

According to my observation, though our second and third generations are losing their knowledge of Sinhala, basically they remain Sinhala Buddhists. So far I have not found any Sinhala Buddhists of the second or third generation who have changed their religion. I think what is needed is to find ways and means to keep them as Sinhala Buddhists. To do this it is necessary to have more religious activities in English.

On the same issue, one parent was confident that even if the second generation did not speak Sinhala they could remain Sinhala Buddhists. Commenting on this issue he (SB-3) said,

It is a big challenge to keep our children within the Sinhala Buddhist culture that we are used to. But if elders can give proper guidance they will remain Sinhala Buddhists even if they forget their Sinhala language.

Then when the question was asked whether it is possible for them to be Sinhala Buddhists without the knowledge of the Sinhala language his response was,

Yes, of course, this was proved in the 19th century in Sri Lanka itself.

It does seem that the latter part of the 19th-century Buddhist revival in Sri Lanka with English language and Western thought forms contributed immensely to the development of Buddhism in the UK. With this beginning and with the activities of Buddhists from other Asian countries, today there are many white British young people who are attracted to Buddhism in the UK. This has given young people psychological support to remain Buddhists even if they were not very familiar with Sri Lanka and the language of their parents.

On the other hand, it was observed that the second generation has been widening their horizons with facts such as enthusiastic active Asian Christians who did not fit into the traditional association of their universal religion. Already in America, sociologists have given their attention to the increasing participation of second-generation of Asian Christians in the Christian activities of colleges and universities. For instance, Chin-ho Chang, a senior at Columbia University and a leader of its chapter of Campus Crusade for Christ, one of the several large fellowships on the campus has said:

Even Asians are surprised at how many Asians there are in Christian circles.

Even in London, it was evident that this was visible in colleges and universities. In these evangelical Christian associations, there were Sinhala Christians from various denominations who were enthusiastically involved in the activities. Here it is necessary to note that Sri Lankan branches of these evangelical Christian associations, such as campus crusades, have been playing a vital role in understanding these young people and attracting immigrant Christians from Asian countries such as Sri Lanka.

However, it was apparent, as observed by Numrich in his study - Two Theravada Buddhist temples in the USA - one Sinhala and the other Thai - that these young people see their ethnic identity as a positive attribute in today’s pluralistic society.