July 08, 2014

The Monk Scam

Faux monastics prey on tourists in New York City.Daisy Radevsky

New York’s Times Square is full of people asking for money. Although the neighborhood has lost just about all its grit, scams of all sorts still crop up in the area, evergreen as it is with vulnerable tourists. The latest breed of scammers, profiled in a recent New York Times article, come dressed in monk’s robes.

More than once, I have walked through the bustle of midtown and found myself with a shiny, golden amulet card in my hand. The trick that the “monks” have perfected is to get it into your hand before you realize where it has come from. Sometimes, it’s a bracelet slipped around a passerby’s wrist instead of a card. Then, a man or woman, usually in saffron robes, though sometimes in grey or brown ones, tells you that it is for “good luck,” and beams at you. Each time it happens, for a split second, I’m fooled: “How nice!” I think. “Well wishes from a stranger.”

But of course, the “good karma” comes at a price. The donation requests that follow range from simple and calm to elaborate and aggressive. Either way, if you don’t give (or give enough, in some cases), you lose your amulet and the well wishes that came with it.

For those who have any familiarity with Buddhism, this behavior seems highly suspect. Authentic Buddhist monks and nuns don’t beg aggressively or manipulatively, and they certainly don’t sling trinkets and charms. They can also answer questions about their temples and the dharma, which it appears many of these robe-wearers cannot. The Times reports that one nun, when pressed for answers about her temple, “grabbed at the sleeves of her robe and said, ‘If I didn’t have a temple, why would I be dressed like this?’”

It’s sad to see imposters cashing in on Buddhism’s cultural capital. The reason these “monks” and “nuns” are able to make a buck is that many dazzled tourists don’t know a whole lot about Buddhism. They see a shaved head, a yellow robe, and some mention of good karma, and they open up their wallets.

Daisy Radevsky, Editorial Intern

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reginaspencer007's picture

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Jia's picture

The beauty of spiritual work is that we joyously remember that it is possible to shift our lives, and that that shifting comes through a change of heart and mind.
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kirsten murray's picture

Is that true? Scams are indeed everywhere. Let me share something about door-to-door scam. Many individuals who are selling things door-to-door are completely honest and have a tough job. However, not all are, and some want to do more than just to get you hopelessly addicted to infernally scrumptious cookies. A number of door-to-door cons are being reported nationwide, so the amount of them active in many areas might be growing. It pays to be very vigilant to avoid different kinds of fraud.

wsking's picture

Whether they are monks or nunks or muppets, if they ask you to go with them one mile, go with them for two. If they ask for money, give. People are hungry. Its always danna, whoever it's for, desu ne?

Dominic Gomez's picture

Give a monk a dollar and you feed him for a day. Teach a monk to work and you feed him for a lifetime.

Metteyya Brahmana's picture

Teach someone that "working to make others rich(er)" is not the center of life and he begins to start living. Teach someone that "working to escape samsara" is the center of life and he will be liberated from suffering for countless lifetimes.

Father Poo's picture

Showing someone how to look after themselves is enough, the rest is for them to discover.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Unfortunately "working to ESCAPE samsara" is a cop-out.

Metteyya Brahmana's picture

Escaping samsara is the ONLY way out of your suffering according to the teachings of the Buddha. Chasing the workaholic "American dream" is based on a delusion - it requires you to trick yourself into believing that happiness is derived from external material objects.

Dominic Gomez's picture

If so, then why are Buddhists continually being reborn?

Metteyya Brahmana's picture

The better question is whether their rebirth is under conditions more favorable to escape samsara than the last? If they succeeded in reducing greed, hate, and delusion in their previous life, then, yes, the conditions should be more favorable. Samsara doesn't change, but our capacity to escape it grows stronger with sustained practice.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Wouldn't it be just as easy for you to pray to enter Heaven when you die? For sure you're guaranteed eternal peace free from life's hassles.

Metteyya Brahmana's picture

If you ever got to heaven you would realize that it really is not 'eternal' - it only seems that way based on the limited view of time here on Earth (i.e., one expansion of the expansion/contraction cycle of the universe seems 'eternal' to us).

The other myth about heaven is that there is no suffering there. Even if you could get all the chocolate cake your heart desires, at some point chocolate cake is no longer satisfying and makes you sick to your stomach. This is true with ALL sense-based gratification, and heaven is just a hyperextension of the sense pleasure found here on Earth. At some point it gets old and not very satisfying, and then what?

The goal is not to be free from hassle, it is to change how you think about the 'hassle' so it is no longer disturbs you.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Precisely. Enlightenment is how to proceed with life not how to escape from it. Buddhism is common sense.

phominh's picture

The NY Times article mentioned that none of these "monks" knew the Four Noble Truths or Five Precepts. Also they apparently threatened those that did not pay enough with a "hex." Must of missed that part of the Pāli Canon. =)

John Haspel's comment above really says something. He's right, they're suffering so much as to fake something they must know is a bad thing to do. Alcohol and other drugs or any other malities that arrive when one let's the lack of mindfulness take them away from better choices. Our society has taught them this is acceptable. That they are "actors" and nothing more. A lie that gets them through the night but not much further.

We are not alone: Last year two house burglars in Phoenix, AZ dressed as Mormon missionaries got caught breaking into houses.

phendricks4's picture

I have only one comment: What city - well, in the world - responds to the needs of its homeless population? If you were homeless, what would you do? What conditions leave a person in the position of such need that they pose a monk?

vsiefers's picture

I got taken in by this while on a visit to NYC in May. The young woman in the robes did not appear to speak English so I gave her a donation and took the gold card. It is always hard to tell when someone panhandling is really in need or just out to make an easy buck so I just keep some spare change in my pocket when I travel to a larger city so I don't have to open up my purse. I figure if they are desperate enough to beg for money they might really be in need. What if my child was in a desperate situation? Would a stranger give them a buck?

brooke.bertholet's picture

I am very sad about this, but I need to say something in the context of this discussion. Last February I traveled to India to visit Mahabodhi. It was very crowded with both the faithful and monks alike. Yet, right under the Bodhi tree I was scammed by a number of people identifying themselves as monks. There were many monks around, encircling the tree. I was asked to buy a well for a temple and to help orphans. I donated what I could. Later, I learned that were no orphans or children in need that were being taken care of. If only I would come to the shop to buy a soccer ball! Ok. Later the ball was sold back to the shop for half of the price. I was asked to purchase a cloth that was apparently used to cover the Buddha in the temple the day before. I bought it for 500 Rupee. My heart went out to everyone, only to learn that I was being take advantage of right underneath the Bodhi Tree itself. I had a wonderful religious experience sitting under the Bodhi tree. Praying, reading a sutra.Yet, so much was tainted by these false monks. One even claimed that I needed to pay for his dental work! I found this to be a sacrilege and hope that the organization which cares for this holy site would have some courage in controlling this. It is a disgrace to Buddhism. Maybe an international coalition can be formed to ensure the Bodhi Tree remains a sacred place and not a place for commerce. I was told that there are the real monks and the monks who conduct business. The latter seem to out number the former. Let us do what we can to see that this stops.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Meanwhile in other holy lands, Israel and Hamas agreed to a five hour cease-fire to allow humanitarian aid into Gaza, per a request by the UN Relief and Works Agency. People and times have changed in 2,000 years.

mralexander99's picture

They (phony monks) are also working the Embaracadero - Ferry Building - Fisherman's Wharf area in San Francisco!

ejbowtell's picture

This is rife in Australia as well, particularly in Sydney.

On my way to work some mornings I'm stopped by someone dressed in monk's robes trying to make me buy a bracelet, amulet or book. It's sad that the Dhamma is being exploited in such a way. It gives the Sangha a bad name and may even cause some people to have a negative view of Buddhism in general which is not what we want at all!

buddhajazz's picture

Or on the other hand, it makes the news and the public then becomes even more aware of the true nature of Buddhism, this my attention to possibilities.

John Haspel's picture

They are suffering too. Greed, aversion and delusional thinking drives all human beings to do foolish things. A warm and mindfully present "no thank you" is compassion informed by wisdom. Leave them (and your self) in peace. The Buddha spoke of false presenters and impostors to the Dhamma and taught that no view borne of ignorance can effect the Dhamma. Peace.

John Haspel

buddhajazz's picture

The Dhamma peace abides. The suffering, sometimes us, needs a softer view and a "no thank you" certainly illustrates the compassion we live and often mentor. Thank you.

Dominic Gomez's picture

I can pity them for the karma they're creating in deluding people unaware of the Law.

buddhajazz's picture

Or just love them, from afar. :) Their karma. Deluded folks eventually become undeluded or learn the lesson.

mralexander99's picture

NOT necessarily SO!!!

sharonstruthers's picture

This happened to me a few weeks ago in San Francisco, along the Embarcadero - an area filled with tourists. Two young men in monks robes were putting a small gold card picturing Buddha into the hands of passers-by and asking for donations to build their temple. I was instantly suspicious and refused to take the card, like a jaded commuter, then felt a little bad that I had made such a snap judgement. I watched them being very aggressive with tourists, saying "Buddha, Buddha" and they didn't seem to have much English. It is sad and I'm pondering how I should handle this the next time it happens. Thank you for sharing the New York Times article - I no longer feel guilty.

buddhajazz's picture

Yes, the next time. Watching for the first experience often prepares me for "the next time" in order to have some clarity about my role in an events such as these. Compassion practice comes all too easily and often. :)

Dominic Gomez's picture

Wolves in dharmic clothing. Bummer for Buddhists :-(

buddhajazz's picture

Wolves? Or just sheep struggling to survive. The real wolves might be bigger and more scary. :)

Dominic Gomez's picture

These are the real wolves' pups, struggling to survive.

zebu111's picture

well, we're all imposters aren't we?

buddhajazz's picture

Yes, in other ways. We turn up here with our best photos, totems and anonymity,,,proclaiming our personal truths, referencing Buddhism as if we were experts. ho hum....