Fake Buddhist Monks hit San Francisco

Fake Buddhist Monks hit San Francisco February 26, 2015

The fake Buddhist monks made famous (or infamous) last summer when they were featured in a story by the New York Times are back, and this time in San Francisco, “a city filled with newcomers to urban life,” according to sfist.com. As Terry Firma wrote for the Patheos Friendly Atheist blog last summer, quoting the story from the NYTimes:

They are mostly men of Chinese descent, with shaved heads, beatific smiles and flowing robes of orange, but sometimes brown or gray. They follow a similar script: Offering wishes of peace and a shiny amulet, they solicit donations from passers-by, often reinforcing their pitch by showing a picture of a temple for which the money seems to be intended. Then they open a notebook filled with the names of previous donors and the amounts given. The men appear to be Buddhist monks; a smaller number of similarly dressed women say they are Taoist nuns.

But they’re really just impostors, who prove that a demand for money can be successful if you slather it in religious sauce.

[T]hese monks tend to stand out, both for their attire and for their sense of entitlement. They offer the amulet and, in some cases, a bracelet; if they are not satisfied with the donation, they unabashedly demand $20 or more. … Now it can be difficult for authentic monks to walk around in Midtown without drawing negative attention.

My friend Danny Fisher also wrote about them over at Off the Cushion, noting that, “These fake monks and nuns have been a problem in Los Angeles as well — I’ve even seen one or two hovering around a coffee shop between my neighborhood and University of the West here in the San Gabriel Valley.” And Tom Rapsas, of the blog Wake Up Call, wrote of his own first-hand encounter with these monks in New York City:

So it was a bit surprising when about 3 years ago, I first noticed a different sort of panhandler. He was a man of Asian-descent sporting a nearly-shaved head, dressed in a golden orange robe. I spotted him from way down the street and could see him approach one person, than another. And as I came up along side him at a traffic light, he approached me.

He had a beatific smile and looked like he could be a second cousin to the Dalai Lama. He handed me a sparkly card with a picture of a Buddhist deity. And as I held it, he made his sale pitch in broken English, something about raising money to repair his temple in China. He opened a worn notebook and in it were scrawled the names of apparent donors along with dollar-figures, $20, $35, $50. Something didn’t feel right, I declined and moved on.

These fake monks (and occasional fake nuns, see video below) have been seen around the world, including in Melbourne, Australia and Hong Kong. I even had a hair-raising experience with one such fake monk when I visited Mandalay, Burma (Myanmar) in 2011. I was in a major temple, minding my own business, when a monk – indistinguishable from the dozens of others at the temple – steps out and invites me to walk and talk with him. It was all very pleasant and even though there were English-language signs and descriptions around the grounds, his presence and conversation added a fair bit to my time there.

At the end of our 20-30 minute tour he stepped in front of me somewhat abruptly and put out his hand and said, “donation?” I offered him the equivalent of $5, but this only made him angry, at which point he berated me for a good 3 or 4 minutes and demanded $100. To quote Tom Rapsas, “Something didn’t feel right, I declined and moved on.”

Given their ongoing geographical spread, it’s reasonable to believe that they’ll show up in a city near you before too long. So educate yourself and friends/family about this nuisance. As the NYTimes story pointed out, the presence of these fake monks only hurts the real monks and nuns who also occupy these spaces.

fake monks san francisco
A monk gets a warning for aggressive panhandling after grabbing a passer-by’s arm; screenshot from video below.


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