Beware of the monks.
It’s an odd-sounding statement. After all, Buddhist monks are popularly known for kindness, peacefulness and generosity. But the advice comes straight from New York City Buddhist leaders, who say that panhandlers have been dressing like monks – right down to the shaved head and orange robes – as a means to con tourists out of money.
The men reportedly hand passersby golden medallions or simply peaceful tidings before asking for donations to help build a temple in Thailand. Only there is no temple in Thailand, and the “monks” reportedly become irate and are unrelenting in their demands and occasionally aggressive.
The problem has become so common along the High Line Park, a popular waterfront elevated park in Chelsea, that Friends of the High Line put out a statement asking visitors to report this particular brand of “aggressive panhandling.”
It read, in part:
“Friends of the High Line is aware that there are aggressive panhandlers in the park, many of whom are dressed as monks, and we take this issue very seriously. While panhandling itself is legal in New York City – and therefore legal along the High Line – it crosses the line when our trusting park visitors are touched or their paths are blocked.”
On a recent Friday, WCBS cameras reportedly found 11 fake monks in the park.
Michelle Dunson of the Buddhist Council of New York, a group that represents nearly two dozen Buddhist temples, told the station, “They’re not authentic. They’re not real. They’re playing on people’s heart strings. It’s basically a scam like any other.”
Added Dunson, “It is very disrespectful for any religion for anyone to falsify who they are, and especially if they’re trying to make a gain.”
Early Monday, the Rev. T.K. Nakagaki, president of the Buddhist Council of New York, told the Associated Press, “The problem seems to be increasing. They are very aggressive and hostile if you don’t give them money.”
AP reported that its reporters approached several men dressed as monks in an attempt to learn about their background and the temple they claim to support, but all “ran off when pressed for answers” after refusing to give their names.
This isn’t the first time New York has been beset by fake monks. In fact, AP reported that they began showing up, particularly at the High Line, nearly three years ago. But Robert Hammond, executive director of Friends of the High Line, said it’s become “excessive” and has reportedly seen the monks physically accost tourists who didn’t offer enough money.
Nor is the problem relegated to the Big Apple. They’ve also been reported in other major American cities, such as San Francisco, and in other places such as Toronto.
In China, the problem of fake monks became so insidious by 2014 that Chinese authorities began issuing certificates of authenticity to its 33,000 Buddhist temples and more than 9,000 Taoist temples, the Xinhua News Agency reported.
Xu Kang, a deputy director of the regulation and publicity division of the Shanghai Municipal Commission of Ethnic and Religious Affairs, told the Global Times that monks in China are not allowed to ask for donations outside of the temple, but the impostors know most tourists aren’t aware of this.
When the first fake monks began appearing in New York in 2014 – a year in which nine were arrested for unlicensed vending or aggressive begging – the New York Times wrote, “No one seems to know who they really are or where they come from.”
“They are damaging the reputation of real monks and damaging the reputation of Buddhists in America,” Brooklyn monk Shi Ruifa told the newspaper.
Last week, New York authorities began posting signs warning of the monks. Hammond told Gothamist he hopes that will be enough to scare the impostors off. Otherwise, they might have to look into legal options similar to the new regulations in place in Times Square.
“We hope we don’t have to go to that point,” Hammond said. “But we’re trying this out, and we’re going to see how it works.”
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Travis M. Andrews