Police investigate fake Buddhist monks demanding money

by Alex Nino Gheciu, The Toronto Star, Aug 07 2013

Spiritual pretenders aggressively seek donations, which goes against the tenets of Buddhism.

Toronto, Canada -- A group of men in Chinatown who appear to be Buddhist monks may be seeking much more than inner peace.

Police warn that men could be masquerading as followers of Siddhartha’s teachings in order to bilk money from passersby in the area.

The fraud unit at 52 Division is investigating reports of the ersatz abbots, who have shaved heads and wear yellow or orange robes, said Const. Victor Kwong.

They have been targeting tourists and members of the Chinese community, and tend to ask for donations only to aggressively demand more money upon receiving help, police said.

Amanda Girgis said she was in a car parked at Blue Jays Way and Front St. in June when a man in orange robes tapped on the window.

“He said, ‘I want to pray for you,’ ” said the 24-year-old woman. “I said, ‘thank you,’ but then he said, ‘No, no, no, I want donation.’ I gave him a toonie but he said, ‘No, no, no, more, more, more.’ ”

At that point, said Girgis, the man handed her a pamphlet indicating he wanted at least $100 to fund a new temple. She refused.

“So then he put this bracelet on my hand, closed his eyes and started saying a prayer,” she said. “I took it off and he started yelling at me. He got really frustrated that I wouldn’t give him more money.”

Keith Lao, owner of Fong Ngai Hin Arts & Crafts on Dundas St. W., near Spadina Ave., said fraudulent monks sometimes slink into his store to nag customers.

“Everybody (in Chinatown) wants to kick them out, including my store,” said Lao, noting phony monks are prevalent in China as well. “They say they are monks, but they still go drinking and partying.”

Area councillor Adam Vaughan urges residents to call police if approached by the impostors.

“It’s very disrespectful to the faith,” he said. “Most Buddhist temples have their own (funding) structures. They don’t go looking for anonymous donations on street corners.”

Kwong said investigators have called in “one of the head monks” of the Buddhist community “to talk about what it is that a fraudulent monk would look like and their beliefs as to what a real monk would do.”

Members of local monasteries say the impostors do not act in line with Buddhist principles.

“They are taking advantage of the Buddhist tradition to get money for themselves,” said Sanha Park, director of the Zen Buddhist Temple at St. Clair Ave. W. and Bathurst St.

“Monks in Buddhist Asia can accept alms, but they can never demand. . . . If these monks are getting angry because people don’t want to give, that’s not good Buddhist practice.”

Kelsang Lama, supervisor of Riwoche Tibetan Buddhist Temple Park in the Junction area, said monks who wear yellow or orange robes, such as those worn by the individuals police are investigating, tend to practise the Theravada tradition of Buddhism, in which monks are “not allowed to touch money.”

She noted that when monks give gifts, “there’s never an expectation of monetary funds given in exchange.”

Lama said her temple will be seeking out the pretenders to rectify the situation.

“It’s obviously difficult for Buddhists to be represented like that in the streets of Toronto,” she said.
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