Friday, June 21, 2013

Beware of fake Tibetan monks!

While in Tongren me and my friend also visited Wutun temple, which is famous for being a major center for the production of Thangkas. A Thangka is a traditional form of Tibetan painting, usually depicting a religious scene. Thangkas are used both for educational purposes and as a tool for meditation. While visiting Wutun temple, me and my friend were accosted by what we later realized must have been a fake Tibetan monk.

Example of a Tibetan Thangka, c. 1758, depicting the Chinese emperor Qianlong
It started like this: it was a sunny afternoon, and the temple grounds were quite empty, with hardly a visitor or a monk in site. Perhaps the monks were having a nap. We wondered around the deserted temple taking photos and chatting. At one point we arrived at a large stupa, and walked up to the top. At the top of the stupa we found a lone monk, with the red clothes and the shaven head of all Tibetan monks. My friend started asking him questions about various aspects of Tibetan Buddhism, and he answered all her queries at great length. He seemed friendly and helpful, while maintaining the calm composure typical of a Buddhist monk. In all he chatted with us for at least half an hour.

He didn’t look very Tibetan and his Chinese was impeccable, so at one point I actually asked him if he was Tibetan. He replied that he was a Han from Gansu, but that in those parts many Han also follow Tibetan Buddhism, and some even become monks. This is in fact true, so we thought nothing of it. After saying goodbye to the monk, we went and explored another temple complex further down the road.

Once we had finished our visit and were waiting for the bus back to Tongren, we saw the same monk walking in our direction. We assumed this to be chance, but later realized that he must have followed us. He started chatting with us again, telling us that he was in Wutun temple on an “exchange”, and inviting us to visit his own temple in Gansu province. We ended up leaving him our phone numbers and names.

Over the next few days, the supposed monk started sending my friend a lot of text messages about Buddhism and the meaning of life. She would reply politely, and he would just keep sending her more and more. After a while it started to feel positively weird, but we didn’t know what to make of it. After our return to Beijing the text messages went on increasing, becoming quite irritating.

And then a few days later the “monk” finally revealed his true colours: he said he needed a pair of Nike shoes, and asked my friend to send him her bank card details so he could buy them, promising to pay her back later. At this point she told him not to contact her anymore, but he is currently still sending her text messages claiming that he was just trying to test her, while asking if she couldn't actually send him the money by any chance.
We met the fake monk in the room at the top of this beautiful stupa.

We had been warned that fake Tibetan monks exist, and try to scam tourists. However, it initially didn’t cross our minds that this guy might be a fake, partly because he was inside the temple, and partly because he seemed so knowledgeable about Buddhism. Looking back the temple was almost empty, which would have made it easier for him. Furthermore I don’t suppose the monks all recognize each other, and his disguise was impeccable.

I must say that the fake monk was very clever on the day we met him, giving long answers to all of my friend’s questions about the nature of the Buddha, and not asking us for money immediately. On the other hand, his later attempt to scam her was quite clumsy. At least he could have asked for money to buy a new prayer wheel or to help Tibetan orphans, rather than a pair of Nike shoes!
The lesson is to beware of fake monks if you visit Tibet. Tibetan temples are full of genuine monks who can be chatty and friendly. However, be suspicious of ones who are overfriendly and seem to follow you around, or who ask for you phone numbers. If they are obviously Han rather than Tibetan, this may be a further reason for suspicion.

The "monk" in question

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