When monks eat doughnuts and ustads sell raisins – By Fa Abdul

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I was on my way to Yangon International Airport a few days ago to fly home after spending two weeks in Myanmar when my driver and I got caught in Yangon’s morning traffic madness. As I waited patiently for the car to start moving, I noticed a monk walking from car to car, asking for donations. A few drivers wound down their window and dropped a note or two into his rice bowl while others declined to do so.

“Will you donate if the monk comes over to our car?” I asked my driver.

“Yes. A little money,” he replied in his limited English.

“But monks are not supposed to beg for money, right?”

“Yes, yes,” he nodded.

“Then why would you still give him money?” I asked.

My driver smiled.

The monk never made it to our car, but the incident reminded me of a series of events during my stay in Yangon.

It all began one afternoon when I saw a monk eating doughnuts and drinking iced tea at a cafe in Downtown Yangon. I was confused in the beginning as I knew monks were supposed to be men who dedicate themselves to Buddha and not indulge in the lifestyle of ordinary people.

I turned to one of my Burmese friends and asked, “Yadanar, are monks allowed to eat doughnuts, drink iced tea and hang out?”

Yadanar took a look at the monk and smiled, “He is a fake monk.”

“Fake?” I was shocked.

“Yes. They shave their heads, wear the robe and collect donations to help support themselves. And then they come to places like this instead of the monastery. Sometimes they even look at women one kind. They use Buddha to make a living,” she explained.

Thiri interjected, “According to the dhammadana or the teachings of Buddhist tradition, the monks cannot accept money or use money. So how could he have bought doughnuts and iced tea?”

“And also, monks are not allowed to eat after 12pm. It’s 5pm now and he is still relaxing here. Usually at this time they should be at the pagoda or at their monastery. So I think he is definitely a fake monk,” Thazin added.

But the ‘doughnut-eating-monk’ incident was not an isolated one, for I began bumping into more and more of these fake monks on the following days.

One time, during lunch break, I saw two monks taking selfies in the middle of the city – yes, they had smartphones. And then there was another time when I bumped into a monk who was relaxing by the pavement of a street while puffing his cigarette.

Besides that, on many occasions I have witnessed monks asking for money in food stalls by the streets.

I later found out there were many cases of monk impersonators in Myanmar. Not only are there groups of men who use public lavatory to change into robes on daily basis before roaming the streets for money, they also tend to disguise themselves as monks to conduct crimes.

One of the recent cases in Yangon involved monks found to be in possession of thousands of methamphetamine pills.

The fake monks in Yangon reminded me of the many ‘fake ustads’ we have here in Malaysia. While the monks beg for money and use them for doughnuts, cigarettes, handphones and support their livelihood, our ‘fake ustads’ dupe Muslims into purchasing their raisins, honey and special bottled water, claiming to have purified them with verses from the Holy Book.

These items which are ridiculously marked up, are marketed by people often claiming to be ustads, under the religion banner.

However, these days it is not only raisins, dates and special water that are being sold, but services too. Profiting from people’s disillusionment with religion, some ustads even offer ‘prayer valet’ (Valet Doa) to have prayers read in the holy city of Mecca for a substantial price.

Looks like people who use religion to enrich themselves are a plenty and not limited to a particular group.

One thing is apparent through – fake monks in Myanmar and ‘fake ustads’ in Malaysia have one thing in common and that is the support they receive from the people.

Clearly, these fake monks won’t be able to carry on conning people if the Burmese stop giving them money out of respect for the robe they wear. Likewise, the ‘fake ustads’ in Malaysia who exploits religion to create personal wealth, won’t be able to dupe Muslims if we weren’t so ignorant ourselves.

But the thing is, the Burmese fake monks only use their robes and their shaved heads to make a living – they do not in any way mess with the teachings of Buddha. Sadly, this is not the case for the Malaysian ‘fake ustads’ who use their knowledge in Islam to misguide the Muslims into trusting the products and services offered, with some claiming it could help them become better Muslims while some guaranteeing Bluetooth connection with the Al-Mighty.

Come to think of it, at least the Myanmar authorities have taken actions against many monk impersonators under their penal code as they believe these fraudsters are bringing shame to Buddhism.

However, in this so-called Islamic country of ours, ‘ustads’ are very comfortable hiding behind their beards and jubbahs, using religion to earn profit. Oddly, while there are ‘religion police’ who are always on the lookout to catch Muslims who do not adhere to syariah (such as those who do not fast, consume haram substances and allow themselves to be within the close proximity with a non-muhrim partner), those who misuse Islam are always on the loose.

At the end of the day, I guess fake monks roaming the streets to con people of money is far better than fake ustads hiding in mosques, religious schools and product/service banners, doing the same thing.

*This is the personal opinion of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Kuala Lumpur Post.