New York’s Times Square is full of people asking for money. Although the neighborhood has lost just about all its grit, scams of all sorts still crop up in the area, evergreen as it is with vulnerable tourists. The latest breed of scammers, profiled in a recent New York Times article, come dressed in monk’s robes.

More than once, I have walked through the bustle of midtown and found myself with a shiny, golden amulet card in my hand. The trick that the “monks” have perfected is to get it into your hand before you realize where it has come from. Sometimes, it’s a bracelet slipped around a passerby’s wrist instead of a card. Then, a man or woman, usually in saffron robes, though sometimes in grey or brown ones, tells you that it is for “good luck,” and beams at you. Each time it happens, for a split second, I’m fooled: “How nice!” I think. “Well wishes from a stranger.”

But of course, the “good karma” comes at a price. The donation requests that follow range from simple and calm to elaborate and aggressive. Either way, if you don’t give (or give enough, in some cases), you lose your amulet and the well wishes that came with it.

For those who have any familiarity with Buddhism, this behavior seems highly suspect. Authentic Buddhist monks and nuns don’t beg aggressively or manipulatively, and they certainly don’t sling trinkets and charms. They can also answer questions about their temples and the dharma, which it appears many of these robe-wearers cannot. The Times reports that one nun, when pressed for answers about her temple, “grabbed at the sleeves of her robe and said, ‘If I didn’t have a temple, why would I be dressed like this?’”

It’s sad to see imposters cashing in on Buddhism’s cultural capital. The reason these “monks” and “nuns” are able to make a buck is that many dazzled tourists don’t know a whole lot about Buddhism. They see a shaved head, a yellow robe, and some mention of good karma, and they open up their wallets.

 

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