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The Bogus Menace
Public needs to be empowered to eliminate "bogus monks"

Kuala Lumpur -- Coming out from a "night market" (pasar malam) from the fringes of the Malaysian capital city can be a culturally enriching experience. From the bargain hunting taunts of cheap imitation goods and the hoards of fresh produce as well as hawker foods, it is "de facto" an unique representation of the original Asian trading place.

But burrowing deep into the heart of some night markets also reveals a culturally "shocking" experience. In the midst of bargain hunting shouts, peddlar calls and mass of moving bodies, one may find a lone figure donning a Buddhist monk robe with a cloth sling-bag across the shoulder holding an alms bowl.

It may seem nothing at first, but if you watch your "watch", and look into the alms bowl, you'll find two distinctive concerns which question the legitimacy of such "religious characters".

First and foremost, night markets open only at night. Genuine monks (especially those of the Theravada tradition, the southern school of Buddhism that is prevalent in countries like Sri Lanka, Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia etc) only move about at public places for alms either before dawn or just about noon. They do not roam about after dark.

Secondly, these "monks" will usually hold an alms bowl which may contain items like money, coins, talisman, pendants, beads and strings. According to the Vinaya (Buddhist clerics' training rules), a monk's alms bowl should only contain food or medicine at all times. If an alms bowl is found to hold any materials or items other than these two categories as specified, it can be surmised that the person with the bowl is soliciting public donation illegitimately. Basically, what is contained in the alms bowl exposes the intent of the carrier.

Such "bogus monks" have recently become a common sight, especially in public places like the night and wet markets. Their sole aim and objective is to "beg". Their only difference with regular street beggars is that they don the monk's robe so that they can take advantage of public sympathies. Incidentally, some people never fail to give up a dollar or two to these unscrupulous characters thinking they have done a "good deed".

Threat to the Buddha Sangha's reputation

  "These 'con men' not only tarnishes our image, but more importantly undermines the purity of the Buddha Sangha," laments Ven. Dr K Sri Dhammananda, the Mahanayaka Thera (Chief High Reverend) of Malaysia and Singapore. "When the image and reputation of the Sangha is soiled, public's perception and faith in the Dhamma can be effected. This is so because the Sangha is the living embodiment of the Dhamma," he continues to explain. To deal with this scrouge, Chief Dhammananda's view is that members of the public must be educated on what merits the status of a Buddhist monk. "If it is not nipped in the bud," he warns, "it may grow into an uncontrollable syndicate because such illegal trade is so lucrative."

Although the "bogus monk" problem has been around for quite some time and is widely acknowledged by the Buddhist community, it does not seem to go away. According to Loka Ng, president of the Upakara Kalyana Mitta Buddhist Association (UKMBA), the issue lies in the sustainability and effectiveness of publicity campaigns mounted by various Buddhist organisations to counter the menace.

He is of the opinion that placing posters at temple compounds and making news statements in the media does not seem to be effective as public education tools. "Such 'bogus monks', he reasons, "do not stay at any one location for long. Mobility and nimbleness is their trademark. That is why it is so difficult for the authorities to nab them."

Given the nature of the problem, Loka and his team behind UKMBA have come out with an idea of producing a 'step by step' leaflet on how to spot a 'bogus monk'. "We do not wish to burden the public with technicalities to judge whether the person in question is a legitimate monk or not," Loka explains. "What the public needs to know is 'tell us exactly what to do when we see such characters'," he emphasises. He further clarifies that "what is critical is that such information should be placed in the hands of the public at the very places and time where such 'bogus monks' are spotted.

It is during these moments thay they can take the initiative to act by contacting the relevant authorities."

Using mobile means to fight a mobile menace

The simple leaflets produced by UKMBA basically outlines four simple steps on how to identify whether a "monk" is genuine or not. Visually driven, the leaflet uses strategic icons to drive home a point while providing simple guidance devoid of technical terms.

Content category of the leaflet is arranged as follows:

  • Step 1: Identify the monk or nun by attire

  • Step 2: Look at the time (this relates to the period where legitimate monks usually mingle with the public)

  • Step 3: Look inside the alms bowl (to see whether items found inside the container are permitted according to the Vinaya)

  • Step 4: If steps 1 to 3 verifies that the person in question is a 'bogus monk', information is provided on who to contact so that relevant action can be taken.

Ong Beng Chung, a council member of UKMBA (who incidentally initiated the idea of this using form of publicity) believes that it is only through public participation that the problem can be eliminated all together. He explained that public apathy and passivity are some reasons why the problem never went away.

He also opined that due to the lack of simple information guides which provide direct 'step by step' instructions on how to act, the general public are not empowered to take their own initiatives.

"We hope that with the availability of this leaflet, concerned individuals will have an easier task to assist and cooperate with the respective authorities to curb this menace," he says.

As a cost effective means to distribute the leaflet as widely as possible, UKMBA will be utilising the internet on a large scale. Strategic community leaders will be contacted to download and print the soft copy of the leaflet and then make multiple photocopies before distributing it to their respective locale. Some groups are expected to disseminate the leaflets at market places and spots where the 'bogus monks' are seen plying their trade.

According to Beng Chung, certain police stations will be notified about the dissemination of the leaflets. This is to ensure that the law officers will be in the know in case members of the public contact them.

Apart from that, the UKMBA will also notify officers from the Home Ministry and other Buddhist organisations as well so that a collaborative effort can be taken. Members of the Buddha Sangha, notably Chief Reverend Dhammananda, have given their approval with regards to the content of the leaflet as well as the strategic approaches initiated by UKMBA.

All said and done, the 'bogus monks' problem can only go away if (and only if) members of the public cooperate by not entertaining to give anything to them. This is not only a social menace, but has spiritual connotation as well. Culturally and morally, men donning the Buddhist monk robes not only rob it of its dignity, more importantly, as Chief Dhammananda emphasises, soils its spiritual dimension.

It is hoped that through the four easy steps defined in the UKMBA leaflet, members of the public can become more aware of the issue at hand. More significantly, the information empowers them to do something about it. Hopefully, by providing a mobile tool to fight a mobile menace, the Buddhist community will be propelled to become social activists to solve a problem which indirectly effects their spiritual faith.

Dhamma Times Editor Note: Recently, Singapore has also been a target for such bogus monks and nuns impersonating as members of the Buddhist Community, oftenly most people would pity such people while being caught or some are afraid that one will generate negative Kamma to report to the authorities. We as Buddhists ought to have the every initative to protect the image of Sangha members and thus benefiting more people.

The Singapore Buddhist Federation and Thai Sangha Council calls for all to report such cases to the Police immediately.


Updated: 1-8-2001

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