of fake buddhist monks and the buddhist culture

Faith is a funny thing. Alas it’s seldom a funny ha-ha but more a peculiarity that makes some of us go, what the… . The stories you’ve heard (and will continue to hear) just seem weirder and out-of-place everyday. This be the time to quote Mark Twain, “truth is stranger than fiction” — words that are often the subject line of mass-forwarded e-mails. When you receive such e-mails, you automatically brace yourself to read extraordinary (true or fake) accounts of… uh, I don’t know… grown elephant steps on boy and he miraculously lives or something along those lines.

I slightly digress, but that was what’s on my mind when I read today’s The Star report on fake monks. Surely you know what I’m talking about. ‘Buddhist monks’ in robes going around town with an alms bowl asking for money donations. In return for your (misguided) generosity, you’d get a threaded bracelet, a bookmark or an amulet. Then you go on your way, gleefully patting yourself on the back for having done a good, karma-redeeming deed.

Dude, you’ve just been conned.

First off, I understand that not everyone knows everything about Buddhism and its followers’ way of life. You were probably an out-of-towner, most likely a tourist from another country, not wanting to offend the sensibilities of local customs. I am like that as well, especially if the place I’m visiting is, for lack of a better word, exotic. My reasoning is more selfish — as someone who partially believes in black magic and the supernatural, I don’t want to slight anyone for fear of having evil charms placed on me. When I was in Bangkok, I was especially aware and mindful of my surroundings. You know, stories…

Or you could be a non-practising Buddhist/ Taoist, probably born into a Buddhist/ Taoist family and your grandparents/ parents offer daily incense to ze gods. You have no understand, knowledge or interest in the religion, but subconsciously you feel somewhat bad because of your upbringing. Maybe something is missing and by doing a small but good deed, Lady Luck might have sex with you. I feel that way sometimes (but not the sex part).

Or a myriad other reasons. I don’t know, maybe it’s just a small amount of money and it doesn’t matter to you in the grand scheme of things. Well, it does. As long as people continue to give money to these fake Buddhist monks, they unwittingly encourage the growth and expansion of the scam. When it comes to charities that you are not sure about, you could always give the excuse that you’d contact the charity directly should you wish to donate, then not feel too bad about it. Religion clouds people’s minds because that’s the nature of religion. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s bad, sometimes it doesn’t matter to me as long as it’s not in my face.

In this case it does matter to me, at least a little. Enough to upset me for a short while and to write this blog post. I don’t like it that something I believe in (philosophically at least) gets twisted like that. When I was old enough to make my own decisions, I voluntarily joined the Batu Pahat Young Buddhist Fellowship and became a rather active member, even holding certain positions in the society. Honestly it was more of a social thing — I participated because I had friends there and it was a great excuse to get out of the house. A big part of my teenage years involved a lot of YBF activities.

Of course it wasn’t all fun and games. We learned the basics of Buddhism, its history, the Buddha’s teachings and so on. I even sat for a a basic exam on Buddhism and I have no idea where the certificate is now. I consider myself lucky to have been surrounded by mentors and peers who are liberal-minded and taught me a lot of things. Imagine if I was in an environment where you have to follow everything they say to the dot and you can’t think or choose for yourself! True that there’s a lot of tolerance in Buddhism, but I know and have heard of people going to the extremes. Different interpretations, personalities and cultures it seems.

That was when I learned that the Buddhist monk’s alms bowl is only meant for food and not money. Back in the days, the Buddha’s disciples would go around town and country and people would give them food. At first they did this three times a day, then the Buddha limited it to two — once in the morning and the second at noon so the people would not be too burdened by the offerings. Even today, Buddhist monks partake in only two meals a day. When I asked my friend-turned-monk Bhante Sumana how he managed it, he said that it was difficult at first because you are so used to having three meals a day. At night if he got hungry, he’d make himself a cup of Milo. Then you gradually adjust yourself to a life of two meals a day and it ceases to be a problem. Dude lost a lot of weight too.

Point One: Genuine Buddhist monks will never ask you for money in lieu of food to be placed in their alms bowl.

I have a vague recollection about monks’ robes. In order not to misinform you who may still be reading this long blog post, I called up Bhante Sumana for reaffirmation. He said that at any one time, the Buddhist monk is allowed two saffron robes and a sarong in his possession. It used to be that the monks would have to make their own robes out of donated cloths, but these days worshippers would just buy ready-made robes. This self-tailoring vs ready-made topic is only cultural and has nil to do with the practise of Buddhism. The market price for each robe is RM 100 – RM 150, depending on the quality of the cloth. Once a year at the end of a retreat session after the rainy season (July – October), a new set of robes will be given to the monk who displayed exceptional qualities during the retreat as a reward. When Bhante Sumana entered monasticism, we presented him with a couple sets of robes as dana.

Point Two: Genuine Buddhist monks will never ask you for money for new robes. If you want them to have new robes, you buy it for them and not give them the money to buy it.

These days (in our country at least), life is a lot easier for monks and nuns. There are numerous temples, monasteries and nunneries with resident monks and nuns. A couple of years after becoming a monk, Bhante Sumana set up his own association above a shop lot near my house in Batu Pahat. He along with his committee members would organise activities — prayer sessions, talks, retreats etc. Maintenance of the place as well as him (monks need to eat too) are via donations from individuals and other associations. It’s doing very well actually, and I attribute it to the fact that Bhante Sumana is liberal-minded and well-liked and his gentle and witty humour often catches people off-guard. Reasonable, moderate and applicable — maybe that’s why my mom prefer his talks over others.

Point Three: Genuine Buddhist monks will not go out in public and ask for donations to maintain their temples, monasteries and such. If you encounter anyone doing this, get the address of the place/ building and call them up and verify the authenticity of the monk. If the story was real, then give them a piece of your mind and tell them that this is not the Buddhist way of doing things.

I suppose I have lots to go on about, but this blog post is a tad too long, even for my liking. Points I missed out are karma-redeeming, no time to visit temples hence the donation to bogus monks, amulets and bookmarks (often with an image of the Buddha or other Bodhisattvas) and threaded bracelet in exchange for money donation etc. Maybe another time.

Comments

  1. If you spot a fake monk this is what you can do.

    But food with fuck loads of gravy and just dump it inside his bowl, wetting his money in the process hehehehe.

  2. Suertes says:

    For me, Buddhism means the simple, mindful life. There!

  3. You’re right. I read about the real monks who doesn’t ask for money in their alms bowls and thus I stop giving them money. Despite that, many people still continue to give them money thinking they have just done some good deed. They all have been conned!

  4. Getting conned? Not. It is easy escape for some people to do “charity”.

  5. If the story was real, then give them a piece of your mind and tell them that this is not the Buddhist way of doing things.

    I understand and agree with what you (probably intend to) mean, but there’s a niggling thought that this statement has a wormhole into a can of worms…

    It sounds a bit like the nasty fanaticism/ narrow mindedness of people who thinks their particular variant of a religion is the right one, and all other variants are wrong.

    My made-up-on-the-spot opinion is that there is a risk (not a certainty) that in any religion, donated monies does society no particular good – it fattens the wallets of a few and goes towards elaborately expensive buildings of worship. Still, believers are probably convinced the donating money is good somehow- why else would they donate.

    Now, if there is indeed such a variant of Buddhism that says it’s ok to take money, I think your advice would be viewed as an attack on their way of doing things. Not to mention it reeks of “my religion is right, your religion is wrong” mindset.

    Gah seems like being politically correct and sensitive would mean you cannot say much. Screw PC – i agree with your statement.

  6. never know u r so into Buddhism previously. hate it when ppl uses religious to con money.

  7. Ah… The good ol days of YBF! When we were young(er), exuberant & the world was our oyster!!! Sniff, I miss those days really… Humbug! Whenever, you mention YBF, it makes me miss OSC even more… Jom bikin YBF gathering!!!

  8. yeehou: i think they keep their money in their pockets immediately after receiving it! heh. empty bowl to show that you are the first donor?

    suertes: agreed.

    eiling: i figure it’s not too bad to be conned once or twice when you come to the big city. i most certainly did, the first year i was here. not to fake monks though.. but fake charity

    moo_t: hah. that should be in the 2nd post, if i am rajin enough to write it :P

    yee wei: of course you may be right. it’s an angle i would have looked at if i wasn’t emotionally involved in it. having said that, there may be different buddhism sects as they spread through different countries, absorbing local cultures. however the fundamentals are the fundamentals. where they are different, it’s something like: in mahayana buddhism, it’s ideal to help others first before helping yourself (achieving bodhisattvahood), whereas in theravada buddhism, you have to help yourself first before being able to help others (arahant). the dhammapada, i.e. teaching of the Buddha remains the same. it’s okay to accept dana (donations, generosity), but buddhist monks are not to outright ask for it the way they want it. at least not in malaysia where the rules are clear and outright. in thailand where buddhism is so prevalent, i’m not sure how they do things, but because they are even better taken care of in thailand, shouldn’t come up to this.

    horng: hah. hate the stories of fake ustaz conning believers also. 2nd post

    meimei: i think of him often :) let’s hang out!

  9. Ah, understood =)

  10. Every time I see fake monk I will turned to people around me and say outloud “THEY ARE FAKE, dun give them money.
    Once I even put one otak- otak in his bowl.
    I miss YBF too… the old YBF… nice hymns?

  11. If you could make some big bucks being a fake monk, it would be worth shaving your head lah.

  12. i saw fake monks in SG eating Beef Kway Teow soup in public. beat that.

  13. I remember there being an article in the Star a few years back about this. It basically said all those things you said and have avoided these ‘monks’. Cindy’s suggestion is not that bad either XD

  14. Still wanna do some trekking ma? quickly head to Broga Hill with your friends then….. located at Semenyih….very very nice view to see sunrise as well

  15. I met one at Klang while eating BKT and just told him off “real monks never beg for money”, he simply walked away

  16. Normally I’ll just ignore them, if they try to be persistent, I’ll ask them which temple they are from and they’ll normally dash off.

    It’s quite bad that some of these people are taking advantage of the public.

  17. cindy: wow you are more ganas than i am :P great hymns. i can still sing them without referring to the booklet

    mad: quite a miserable existence though…

    ahseng: as far as i know, theravadian monks are not vegetarians. strict mahayana followers are the ones who don’t eat meat, and some don’t consume beef because they worship Kuan Yin more exclusively?

    Gzhang: hahah giving them otak-otak? what if the otak2 is delicious :(

    sim: funny you should mention that. i was just reading about broga hill moments before you posted this comment! looks good.. will think about it, heh

    ky: haha good for you!

    mike yip: they come in all shades and sizes

  18. There are all sorts of guises under which people make money. Religion is but one of them.

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