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Robed Exploiters

In the previous issue of Sasanarakkha we featured an article which touched briefly on the subject of con-men dressed in robes. Now read on for a more in-depth look at the same problem.

 

It has been quite some time since Malaysians began to see shaven-headed men garbed in Theravada robes, females in Thai maechi clothing, and some in Mahayana robes going around with alms-bowls to collect money from the public. Some of them offer supposedly blessed strings and rosaries in return.

Some are said to be working for syndicates who provide them with tools of the trade and necessary instructions.

Out of ignorance and desire for merits or pure generosity, a great number of Malaysian Chinese, and some Indians too, have been exploited by these individuals.

The Buddhist response to this has been quite varied. While some give with no questions asked, others look upon them with disgust, particularly informed Buddhists who know what a member of the Sangha should and should not do. Some Buddhists are particularly embarrassed when questioned by non-Buddhist friends, and are at a loss in answering.

WHO ARE THESE PEOPLE?
This question is an important one if we want to be clear about the issue in order to effectively seek solutions that work. Otherwise, all our efforts to solve the roblem will be geared in the wrong direction.

Very often, we label them as “bogus monks”. While this may be correct in most cases, to call them thus can also be inaccurate.

Some of them are known to be real monks who are Thais, Cambodians or even Malaysians. Those from Thailand can even produce identification cards to show that they are registered monks. In fact, I was told that among a group of “monks” who were caught in Kedah begging for money, one had been a real monk for years.

So, suppose you were to see someone whom you regard as a real monk collecting money at a night market, would you not be just as uneasy—if not more so—as you would be if he were bogus?

Recently (13–25 November 2002), I conducted an informal survey through email to test
this hypothesis. The results from part of the survey reveal a clear picture. Among the questions asked were these two:

  • Would you be bothered/irked if a “monk” who is regarded to be genuine were to go to a market in the evening with his bowl and accepts money?
  • Would you be bothered/irked if a “monk” who is unknown were to go to a market inthe evening with his bowl and accepts money?

I have chosen to use the word “unknown”, instead of “bogus” because it is virtually impossible to ascertain if a “monk” on the street is real or not. Anyway, here are the results:

“Monk” who is..

Irked/bothered Not Irked/bothered

Total

  regarded to be genuine
accepting money in a
market in the evening

73

4

77

  unknown accepting money
in a market in the evening

72

5

77

A detailed report shows that all the 72 respondents who said that they were irked/bothered to see an unknown “monk” accepting money in a market, were also irked/bothered if the “monk” were regarded as genuine.

Going by the above analysis of the survey, the respondents who were concerned in such a situation were not really concerned whether the “monk” was bogus. This, I believe, is true for Malaysian Buddhists at large as well.

For this reason, identifying the issue as a “bogus monk” problem, for all practical purposes, misses the point. A more crucial consideration is that this also tends to mislead efforts to curb it.

Therefore, we need a more accurate label. At this point, I can’t think of a better one than “robed (Sasana) exploiters”.

WHY BUDDHISTS SHOULD DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT
In the same survey, only about 5% of the respondents say they were not bothered at all but the rest said that they were bothered. Quite a number added comments saying that Buddhists should do something about it.

Ven Dr K Sri Dhammananda Mahathera has often referred to these robed exploiters as “a public nuisance”—with good reasons, I think.

Buddhism Misrepresented
A major concern of the Buddhist community over the issue is the eventual negative public opinion of the Sangha generated by these exploiters.

From the scriptures, we know that the Buddha did not permit such behaviour from members of the Sangha.

However, most people tend to generalise. Thus, these offenders will tarnish the image of the genuine Sangha.

What the Buddha allowed, and even encouraged, was for monks and nuns to live as “almsfood eaters”. Such Buddhist renunciants choose not to accept invitations to meals at homes of families, but depend on food obtained by “going for alms”. Besides food, they may also accept other things that are suitable, but never money.

Our respected mahathera, Ven Dhammananda was reported to have said that monks who begged for money were violating the Buddhist code of ethics. (THE STAR, October 14, 2002) They violate the rule all the same if they give “holy” strings, rosaries, or any kind of things in return.

This, however, is not known to many Malaysians. By continuing to give money to these exploiters, they are actually encouraging and indirectly perpetuating such gross misrepresentation of what Buddhist renunciants do, and what Buddhism is about.

Faith Misplaced, Charity Misused
Some of those who have been giving money to these exploiters may eventually come to find out what they really do with the money. When that happens, it can be most disheartening to the givers. If they do not know of monks or nuns who are better behaved, it can result in long-term disillusionment with members of the Sangha in particular and Buddhism in general.

In an article “Preying on believers’ generosity” in THE STAR, (Monday, October 14, 2002), an Indian lady who had been giving money to a monk, purportedly for a temple in Thailand, found him …

smoking in a back alley using his alms bowl as an ashtray. “I was so angry, I wanted to hit him,” said Rajeswary. “All this while when I thought I was doing something good, he was spending my money on cigarettes and who knows what else.

Once a Burmese man, who was in the Subang Jaya Buddhist Association for a short-term monkhood, told me a rather unforgettable story. One day he saw a “monk” with a pimp at the reception counter of a hotel. Later on, the pimp left while the the “monk” went to the elevator with a heavily made-up woman.

Admittedly, we cannot be absolutely certain of what happened after that, but it is hard not to think the worst.

Therefore, it is not difficult to see that this is an issue which we should get our act together to solve.

POSSIBLE SOLUTIONS
Now, let us concentrate on solutions to this rather unhealthy phenomenon in Malaysia.

Quite a few ideas have surfaced in recent years. I gather that there has also been some serious brainstorming to seek solutions, and even actual attempts. How effective are these possible solutions? Let us look into them.

Sangha Member Identification Card
At least one Malaysian Buddhist organisation publicised its effort to introduce some sort of identification card for Sangha members so that people can verify their authenticity.

As mentioned earlier in this article, whether the “monk” is genuine or bogus has no relevance to the real issue at hand. Bearing that in mind, if we introduce such an identification card, how can it help curb the problem?

While the advocators may have good motives in embarking on such a move as a possible solution, it is a misled one. This is a good example how a misleading identification of the problem can mislead efforts to curb it.

Moreover, in the actual experience of countries where Sangha membership is acknowledged by the government through the issuance of special identification cards, it has not improved the behaviour of Sangha members. What effect then can we expect this practice to have on those who are not even true members? If carried out, this idea may also entail a host of problems problems, such as forged cards and need for card renewal.

With due respect to those who are working towards this as a solution, I think instead of solving a problem, it would only create more problems.

At any rate, this idea (as far as I know) never really took off; and, considering the reasons mentioned, I think Malaysian Buddhists should not waste their precious resources on this unlikely solution.

Have them all Arrested!
Quite a number of Buddhists are exceedingly disgusted with such misrepresentations of the Buddha Sasana. As they consider it to be utterly wrong, they feel that the exploiters should be arrested. I personally know of certain Buddhist friends who have seriously contemplated and even attempted to do just that.

Some have tried working on the issue with the Malaysian Police Department and the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) to have these offenders arrested. However, there seems to be a few problems, mainly: On what grounds can we have them arrested?

  • Exploiting Buddhist faith. There are no national laws on that.
  • Begging. There is a law on that. But what about legitimate monks legitimately gathering alms-food? Is there then an exemption in our national laws to protect them?

Furthermore, the police seem to have limited power over these exploiters, even if they are willing to co-operate with Buddhists to nab only the offending ones.

  • If they are foreigners (Thai, Laotian, Cambodian, etc.), they can be arrested and deported for abusing the permission granted to enter the country, but they can easily return.
  • If they are Malaysian citizens, at most we could have them arrested for begging—a minor offence in the eyes of our laws. A relatively small fine can easily be paid (possibly by the syndicate they work with) and they are free to get back to their “jobs”.

Therefore, even with all the sincere help that we might get from the police and the MCA to have all these errant people arrested, it does not look like a workable solution.

Educate People through Mass Communication
There have been some earnest efforts by some established Buddhist organisations to inform the public that they should not put money into almsbowls, that Buddhist monks do not go for almsround after noon, and of other relevant Buddhist monastic rules.

Among the tools of mass communication used were leaflets and posters. I have no idea how far it reached the targeted audience, but I believe the distribution was somewhat confined to regions where the publishing organisations were located, such as Penang and Klang Valley.

In Taiping where I stay, devotees from the Buddhist Missionary Society, Kuala Lumpur, brought some leaflets which did not go far beyond the hands of our society members who are already very much aware of the matter. A check with Lee Yu Ban, an
active Buddhist member, revealed a similar pattern in the Klang Valley.

As to why these materials have not been properly channelled to places where the education is necessary (instead of among Buddhist temples and centres) is to me quite puzzling. How can we expect that to bring about the desired effect?

There have been quite a few newspaper articles about the matter as well. It is good to see that the press is also keen to do its part in educating the public.

I do think that efforts to educate the public are heading in the right direction direction. However, since there are still many robed exploiters doing good business in many places in Malaysia, we know that the efforts still fall short of being successful.

The idea of proper monastic conduct — that is contrary to what these exploiters are presenting — should be deeply impressed into the public psyche. Buddhist organisations and the media should keep up this effort and see to it that there is enough resonance among the public on the matter.

Lee Yu Ban, who has been in crusade against robed exploiters, has some good ideas:

  • Print fairly large sized posters on the scam. (I would like to add that they should be eye-catching too.)
  • Send them in sufficient numbers to all Buddhist and Chinese temples and organisations in the country, with a request that they be prominently displayed. This must be done before Wesak so that it will be seen by the large throngs of ‘once a year Buddhists’.
  • For added results, have these posters also sent to coffee shops, restaurants, etc.

I think these proposals are viable and deserve consideration by Buddhist organisations.

Same Method, Different Approach
The method is there, but perhaps we should reconsider our approach.

The strategy that I have seen appears to be twofold: to tell people

  • not to give money to “bogus monks” begging in public, and
  • to report to the police or other relevant authorities of such activities.

My disagreement with that kind of approach is that it appears (to me at least) to have an underlying motivation of anger. It appears somewhat unkind, somewhat “un-Buddhistic”.

I was told that once someone expressed his irritation over these “bogus monks” to Ven Suvanno Mahathero, and guess what the response was?

“Good lah! Last time when I went for pindapat, nobody gave me anything!” [Note: Ven Suvanno is known to be the pioneer in pindapata practice in Malaysia.]

Truly, giving is a virtue that is hard to fault. On the other hand, according to the Buddha, to discourage giving has negative results:

… whoever prevents another from giving a gift… creates an obstruction to the merit of the giver, an obstruction to the recipient’s gains, and prior to that he undermines and harms his own self.
… even if a person throws the rinsing of a bowl or a cup into a village pool or pond, thinking, ‘May whatever animals living here feed on this,’ that would be a source of merit, to say nothing of what is given to human beings. But I do say that what is given to a virtuous person is of great fruit, and not so much what is given to an unvirtuous person…

[Extracted from Vaccha Sutta (AN III.58), tr. Thanissaro Bhikkhu]

Many people like to offer alms to Sangha members. A person in Buddhist robes collecting money in a market may actually be a thief of the Sasana, for he disguises as a Buddhist renunciant to deceive the faithful. Still, what is given to him is a “source of merit”.

So, are we in a dilemma? Not necessarily.

What we can do is this: Instead of telling people not to givewe can tell them what to give. We can encourage people to give food or other things that are useful and allowed by the Buddha for his ordained disciples.

Regardless of who that robed person is, the giver gains merit and can rejoice over his giving. Furthermore, the receiver gets something to eat. And we who encourage righteous giving gain merits too for encouraging an act of good.

Even if he refuses it you would still earn some good merits for making the effort to give. I must give credit to Ven. Kusala for this marvelous idea!

So, perhaps we could try another round of mass effort to educate the public. This time, instead of an unfriendly approach, why not try a friendlier one?

Give them food, or other things allowed by the Buddha. If they refuse it, you can eat it yourself yourself, and still earn merits.

If you would rather not give, that is fine. But there is no need to work yourself up over it. For all
we know, they might have been shoved by oppressive circumstances into such an unacceptable way of making a living. If they were as fortunate as most of us are—materially and spiritually—what need is there for them to get involved in this?

At any rate, we as Buddhists should know that expressing our anger is not the way. Experienced teachers know that a far-reaching method to change a student’s bad behaviour is to express pity, and not anger. Perhaps this applies here too.

So, let us take a kinder approach. If the Buddha were still around, I think he would approve of it.

To those who are making efforts to educate people through mass communication, may I suggest that you consult those who are better informed about the Buddhist doctrines and discipline first before having the material publicised? It would certainly help to make the information more accurately, properly and effectively conveyed.

Genuine Alms-round
Having presented some possible solutions that have yet to be proven efficacious, let me now relate to you a proven one.

For some months, Ven Kusala stayed here in Sasanarakkha Buddhist Sanctuary near Taiping as a visiting monk. Although we had arranged pindapata, he preferred to go to markets and food stalls. This is considered a “high-class” dhutanga (ascetic practice). A monk observing such a dhutanga practice would simply go with the almsbowl with no prior arrangements to places where people inhabit and stand silently at suitable places with the purpose of getting food.

Before Ven Kusala began doing this, it was already common in Taiping to see “bogus monks” going around markets for money. So, in the beginning, people offered money, which he promptly declined. He would tell them that he was there to accept food only.

As days went by, he became quite well known among the people around. Later, some of our devotees asked him if he would like to go to markets where “bogus monks” were seen. To their delight, he agreed. So, on each Sunday, they would drive him to different markets in Taiping alternately, and this went on for the rest of the months he stayed here.

One Sunday, instead of going to Taiping Insight Meditation Society for dana, I went to a wet market for pindapata. My bowl was simply far too small to contain the food that I received. So, I had to repeatedly transfer food into my bag.

A lady at a stall requested that I waited while she prepared a few packets of tau-fu-fa. As she was about to give it to me, a man came over with some cash in hand, apparently wanting to hand it to me. The lady was quick to say (in Hokkien), “Ee boh siew looi eh; siew chiak eh nya.” (He doesn’t accept money; he accepts food only.)

I was glad. People there seem to have been quite well educated about proper pindapata. It is simply amazing what persistence in what is right can do, isn’t it?

Imagine a robed exploiter trying to make a living in such a place. He would certainly get more food than money—if any.

I asked a devotee sometime later whether he still heard of bogus monks. He thought hard about it and then said (in Hokkien), “Bar loo siang kah see boh har meek thnia tiok liao er… Ee’ang eh seng li hor Bhante Kusala phak phai khee liao lah!” (Hardly ever hear it now… Their business has been ruined by Ven Kusala!)

Although we cannot be 100 percent certain of that, why else would all robed exploiters suddenly cease operations in Taiping after a monk started to go for his daily alms-round there?

Just some weeks ago, for the purpose of the article, I asked another devotee the same question. Again, he said he had not heard of it anymore. I should add that it has been many months since Ven Kusala left here for Myanmar. Effective, isn’t
it?

So that was the wonderful success story, and a proven method of getting rid of robed exploiters. In fact, it did not even start with that purpose in mind. All Ven Kusala did was practise an ancient dhutanga custom, which was praised by the Buddha. Praise the Lord!

The circumstances surrounding the writing of this article have allowed me less time than I would have liked. On quite a few matters mentioned above, I was not able to carry out a more thorough fact-finding. So, there may be some lack of information and possibly some erroneous assumptions. If you spot any of them, I would be happy to hear from you. I also welcome any other useful comments on the matter.

Long live the good Dhamma!

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