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If He Walks and Talks Like a Monk, but Has His Hand Out ...

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In Times Square, amid the dozens of Elmos, Mickey Mouses and superheroes who work the crowds for loose bills, new costumed characters have come to seek their fortunes.

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.

No one seems to know who they really are or where they come from. The police have taken no official stance, stepping in only when the monks become aggressive. Various Buddhists have confronted the men, asking about their affiliation or quizzing them about the religion’s precepts. The men remain silent or simply walk away.

They have become ubiquitous — so much so that the Naked Cowboy, the Times Square performer whose real name is Robert Burck, now simply refers to them as “co-workers.”

“They’re littered all over,” he said.

Even in New York, where people soliciting money are practically a tourist attraction, these 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.

This year, the police have arrested at least nine people who have presented themselves as monks, mostly on charges of aggressive begging or unlicensed vending.

But merely begging in the streets is not against the law. The police have largely left these men alone, to the consternation of Buddhist leaders in New York’s Chinese neighborhoods, who portray them as nothing more than beggars who undermine Buddhists’ credibility.

“They are damaging the reputation of real monks and damaging the reputation of Buddhists in America,” said Shi Ruifa, a monk in Brooklyn who is president of a confederation of nearly 50 temples.

Similarly attired men have attracted scrutiny around the world. They are a familiar presence in Australia, where the authorities heralded their reappearance in Sydney with a press statement, “Bogus Buddhists Are Back.” They have also been seen in Canada and New Zealand. In Hong Kong, their presence has merited a Facebook page, Fake Monks in Hong Kong. Overall, there have been few arrests, though the authorities in China recently arrested seven men dressed as Shaolin Temple monks on charges of swindling $26,000 from tourists.

In Toronto, the police received reports a year ago of monks asking for money and threatening to put a hex on those who did not donate, according to Constable Victor Kwong, a spokesman for the Toronto Police Service.

Toronto, like New York, prohibits aggressive panhandling. Although “people thought they were being duped,” Constable Kwong noted, “nothing is illegal about walking around dressed like a monk.” No arrests were made.
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In New York, the men have inspired a Fake Monks in New York City page on Facebook, documenting its subjects’ whereabouts, from Central Park to the city’s Chinese neighborhoods, where local monks have mostly driven them away. Last year, Mr. Shi confronted a man in orange robes in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, and quizzed him on the Five Precepts of Buddhism.

The man “didn’t know even one,” he said.

In another exchange, Harry Leong, a practicing Buddhist for 25 years, said he respectfully asked a robed man in Times Square for his religious name and temple.

“He did not give me any direct answer, even after I repeated the same questions to him several times,” Mr. Leong recalled. “I then asked him if he was a fraud, and he ran away from me.”

In interviews, the robed men were evasive about where they were from and generally refused to answer any questions about their background, temple or training. They tended to speak little English, favoring Mandarin, with accents hinting of provinces all across China.

One woman dressed as a nun said her temple was in Taiwan, but declined to give specifics.

“I cannot tell you where my temple is,” answered another woman dressed as a nun, who said her family name was Lin and that people called her Little Lin. “I won’t tell you. But it’s not that I don’t have a temple.” At another point, she grabbed at the sleeves of her robe and said, “If I didn’t have a temple, why would I be dressed like this?”

Another man dressed as a monk, eating a hot dog while three topless women and a Spider-Man nearby posed for pictures with tourists, defended his actions. “I’m not a terrorist,” he said in Mandarin. “I’m not an outlaw, I’m not a thief.”

With that, he got up and began walking toward the subway, saying, “I’m going back to Flushing.”
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Recent Comments
3 days ago

Monks do not ask random people for money! They are a scam!
3 days ago

Thanks for solving the mystery!I've long wondered about these so-called monks ever since they started traipsing up and down 42nd Street.Over...
Rev. E.M. Camarena, Ph.D.
3 days ago

Times Square is filled with gigantic advertisements from all manner of businesses seeking our money. In fact, the zoning requires such signs...

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On another afternoon, a mustard-robed man, apparently finished with his solicitations for the day, headed to the restroom at Bryant Park, emerging minutes later in street clothes, his robe apparently packed in a leather bag.

He eventually boarded a No. 7 train to Flushing, Queens, which has a large Chinese population. There, he and another man bought a $12.99 jug of red wine and repaired to a flophouse that caters to recent immigrants.

Begging is an important ritual among Buddhist monks: A begging bowl is one of the few possessions allowed, typically used to collect food.

“Aggressive begging is utterly unheard-of in the Buddhist tradition,” said Robert Buswell, director of the Center for Buddhist Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. The monks typically do not even acknowledge the offering.

“No thanks given, no or very little eye contact with the donor and certainly no active solicitation of donations, no requests for money and no selling of amulets or rosaries,” Professor Buswell added.

That was not the behavior of Wang Rongzeng, 64, who was charged with aggressive begging after a New York police officer observed him demanding cash in exchange for bracelets, according to records of a January court hearing. At the time, Mr. Wang told the judge that he intended to return to China in time for the Lunar New Year, then two weeks away. He was arrested again last month in a similar episode.
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On a recent Saturday, two women dressed in gray robes and beige baseball caps successfully solicited donations along Fifth Avenue near Herald Square in Manhattan. Ali Sawab, 47, in town on business, had just left a Burger King when one of the women offered him a shiny amulet card with the words “Work Smoothly, Lifetime Peace” on one side and the likeness of Guanyin, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, on the other.

She then gently slipped a bracelet onto Mr. Sawab’s wrist. “For luck,” she repeated as she caressed his arm. But after he gave her a dollar, the woman took back the amulet card.

Mr. Sawab said he assumed the women were inauthentic. “This is New York,” he said. “People just don’t go around touching each other.”

And now it can be difficult for authentic monks to walk around in Midtown without drawing negative attention.

Puttar Chansomboon, a 32-year-old monk from Thailand, had his recent sightseeing trip in Times Square interrupted by a man hawking tickets for a bus tour. The man, seeing Mr. Chansomboon dressed in an intricately wrapped yellow robe, did not ask whether he was interested in the bus tour.

As Mr. Chansomboon recalled, “The guy was asking, ‘Are you the same monks who are smoking and begging?’ ”