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One City

Zen and the Art of the Scam

Last Saturday, I fell victim to one of the oldest scams in
the book.  A young man came to my door
working on a “contest” and looking for my help. 
He said that in order for him to gain points to win the competition for a
$5000 scholarship, all I had to do was order a magazine subscription that would
be donated to the active military armed forces branch of my choice.  I must have talked to him on the doorstop for
over 20 minutes before I decided, “hey, this is just a donation for the
troops, I’ll go ahead and help him out.” 
I wrote out a check for $60 and he went on his
way.  When I got inside I looked up the
company on the receipt (Editor and Chief Review Inc.)
and instantly found out that this was a scam.  A string of thoughts
flashed in my mind
almost at once, “how’d I get hoodwinked so easily?” “why didn’t I look
this up before I wrote the check?” “can I stop him?” 
I immediately called my bank and set to work trying to make this
situation right and minimize its financial impact.  What I didn’t
realize was what this scam would teach me about myself and the


Once the initial shock of what happened began to
fade I was
left with a terrible feeling that he’d gotten me because of my Buddhist
practice.  I remember being approached by
these types before I learned anything about Buddhism and I never gave
them the
time of day, let alone a check.  At this
point in my life, I consider generosity to be a major part of my
practice.  I have a good job, I bring down a decent
salary and I feel that it’s part of my practice as a Buddhist to volunteer and give
charity when I can.  What snagged me in
this situation was the fact that he made clear that this would be
purely a
donation that would also help him with his scholarship competition.  I
wasn’t buying a magazine subscription and
the money would go to a good cause.  Of
course, being scammed had nothing to do with my Buddhist practice. 
I understood that these people prey on the
natural generosity of all good, kind-hearted folks out there, but that
make me feel any better about falling into his trap. 

I went to bed Saturday night with a gnawing feeling
that I’d made a huge mistake and I would surely regret it for a long


The next morning, before heading to the zendo for Sunday morning zazen, I
picked up Suzuki Roshi’s Zen Mind, Beginners Mind
and opened it to a random
chapter.  By some sort of auspicious
quirk, I turned to the chapter titled, “God-Giving” in which Suzuki
lays out
the teaching of generosity from the Zen perspective. 
In Zen, generosity is known as dana prajna paramita.  As Suzuki Roshi defines the term, praja paramita
is the “true wisdom of living”
and the six prajna paramitas are known as the six ways of true living.  The concept of dana goes beyond
simply giving monetary donations and deals more fully with how we
approach all
aspects of our lives – from material objects to zazen itself.  As I understand it, what the practice of dana truly boils down to is a practice of letting go.  This does not simply mean letting go of money or clothes for the poor.  It also means a deep non-attachment to any and everything we label as “mine,” including our past actions.  This brings me back to Suzuki Roshi’s teaching on “God-giving” and how it relates to my Saturday afternoon chat with a guy trying to rip me off.  Dogen-zenji
said, “to give is non-attachment”
and Suzuki Roshi goes on to say:


And we should forget, day-by-day, what we have done; this
is true non-attachment.  And we should do
something new.  To do something new, of
course we must know our past, and this is all right.  But we should not keep holding onto anything
we have done; we should only reflect on it. 
And we must have some idea of what we should do in the future.

As I sat there reading on Sunday morning, I struggled with this passage for a few moments. 
I didn’t particularly like the idea of
“forgetting” what I have done.  I made a
mistake that afternoon that I certainly did not want to forget or
repeat.  But when I read the passage more closely I understood
the teaching clearly.  What happened is
done, the mistake was made and the scammer left my apartment with one
of my checks in his pocket.  Still, despite that, I don’t need to beat
myself up about
it and get bogged down with regret.  Instead, I can practice dana prajna paramita by simply reflecting on the situation and taking steps to avoid this in the future.  In the end, the experience of being scammed inspired me to look more deeply at a teaching that I haven’t thought about in a long time.  As a result, my understanding of the practice has deepened and I feel like I’ve grown a little bit because of it.  At this point, now that all is said and done, I’m actually grateful to the scammer for
me look at my practice more closely.  It just goes to show: you
never know who your next teacher will be. 

Comments read comments(14)
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posted September 3, 2009 at 10:36 am

I understand.
I almost had the experience last week, except I ran into an old friend who very quickly pointed out the nature of the scam. I almost gave that crying man a $20 bill I could not afford to give.
I have to admit that my practice does set me up for it. If only because me heart opens up to all lot more things than before. I’m not accustomed to being so open and accepting. So open that it’s easy to lose sound judgement. In a way learning what is truly needed in the moment is a practice too.
I hear what your saying about practicing dana prajna paramita because in a way its not so hard to let go of the moments when we innocently fell for a scam. Don’t get me wrong the first few days are awful, the next few weeks uncomfortable but eventually life comes in and we move on.
What I question is how do you practice letting go when “others” haven’t. How do you continually do that when you see how you letting go actually gave the “others” advantage to do more harm.
You see I understand that smaller life lessons offer support for the bigger lessons in life. That’s very clear but the bigger life lessons are more complex and require more. Truth be told it’s the big stuff that effects us most of any way.
So what do you do when confronted the bigger stuff? I asked because when I encountered great difficulty I practiced dana prajna paramita. I also practice honesty and sincerity. I opened wide having faith that sanity would somehow rule but what I found is that insanity has a stronger hold. It’s more convenient to believe. Sometimes more beneficial to self.
What would Suzuki Roshi say about that? because a lot people need that teaching. They need that. I need that.

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posted September 3, 2009 at 10:45 am

don’t forget the law of karma applies not just to onesself but also to scammers and crooks who are … owners of their karma, inheritors of their karma, born of their karma.

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posted September 3, 2009 at 11:27 am

You’re correct, you don’t need to beat yourself up or be bogged down by it all. Usually when people do so, their heart becomes hardened, so “letting go” is very important, just as important as not having expectations when giving dana.
I’m sure most people are familiar with the Jataka tale of Mahasattva and the Tigress, a tale of selfless sacrifice for the benefits of others, which is rooted in the dana paramita. This is also echoed in a commentary attributed to Chih-I, where the following is said in regard to the dana paramita, the practice of bestowing joyfulness without stinginess or regret, without expecting any reward:
When Bodhisattva Mahasattvas cultivate this practice, they will make all living beings rejoice and have comfort. In every direction where there is poverty or need, by the spiritual power of their vows they will go and produce great wealth and inexhaustible treasure. In thought after thought there will be limitless, countless living beings coming up to them and saying:
“Benevolent one, we are poor and without resources or food. We are weak, tired and suffering and our lives are near an end. We only pray that you have mercy upon us and give us your flesh to eat so that we may live.’ The Bodhisattvas will give it to them, making them rejoice and be fulfilled. Hundreds of thousands of living beings will come to them begging and seeking their flesh like this. The Bodhisattvas will not turn and retreat, but rather will only increase the mercy and compassion in their hearts. Because these living beings come from everywhere begging and seeking their flesh, the Bodhisattvas become more joyful. Upon seeing them, making this thought:
“I will attain excellent benefits from this, for these living beings are my field of blessings. They are my good friends – without my asking them, they have come to me and taught me how to enter into enlightenment. I should cultivate and train like this without denying the wishes of a single living being.”

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posted September 3, 2009 at 11:48 am

I hear you and I often struggle with the same issues you brought up. Should we simply let go of everything we have and let people take advantage of us? I’m certainly no expert but I think this is where we bring wisdom to bear and realize that we cannot control the motivations and actions of others. I think the idea behind dana prajna paramita is that we do not become overly attached to the things we own to the extent that losing them would cause us a huge amount of suffering. On the other hand, we can take steps to make sure that our belongings are safe and not exposed to constant random theft. As usual, its the middle way.
In terms of dealing with others, I think cathyk rightly pointed out that their actions will produce their own kharma and that we really don’t have to be concerned with it. For example, the guy who took my check is (when you break it down) a thief. Odds are, eventually the law will catch up with him. Even if it doesn’t, I’m sure his scamming ways are bringing him additional suffering in other ways. So, I’m not saying that I have any negative feelings towards the guy, he was actually quite charming and likeable (thus the scam) but I also understand that his current path in life is not a good one and there’s a decent chance it’ll cause him problems in the future.
I encourage you to check out the book and look into it further. Whatever your tradition in meditation, I think “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind” and “Not Always So” are excellent additions to any dharma library. I also read Chogyam Trungpa’s “Meditation in Action” on the same subject.

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posted September 3, 2009 at 12:27 pm

But, you weren’t fully scammed, because you can cancel the check, right?

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posted September 3, 2009 at 1:24 pm

Yeah, I stopped the check. But, I still had to deal with the fact that he did get me to pay out. Ultimately, that’s what I regretted and that’s what I had to let go of.

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posted September 3, 2009 at 4:58 pm

Excellent article, Evelyn.
Some of us have been scammed even more deeply, including by spiritual teachers, or even teachers of Zen. (When I read the title to this post, I assumed that was what this was about.)
It can take quite a bit longer to see the good in deception that goes far deeper, but I appreciate your article in that perhaps it can show us a hint.

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posted September 5, 2009 at 11:59 am

Beyond the ideas you already present regarding attachment and generosity, I would pose a question. Why are you bothered or disturbed by the incident? It is not the loss of your money, as you have recovered that. From the tone of your writing I sense that you are not so much angry at the scammer as with yourself for being fooled. I hope rather than the situation making you less trusting of others, instead it allows you to look at your own reactions. I think in reflection on the answer to that question you may find growth and from that perspective perhaps the scammer gave you a gift.

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posted September 5, 2009 at 12:47 pm

I know of this situation,and have had the experience more than once. I looked past the act it self,but the person at door.They are always young poeple I think my have been scam them selves,and force to this thing.I came to know this after helping like you did,and listening to some of them talk of their situations.They have come to my door in cold and rain,and when I’ved declined their sales pitch,they haved asked for something to eat or to come out cold for bit.Although I’m not practicing Buddist at time,that period of my has the strongest influence some 25 years later. I try to have an effect on them as oppossed to the effect they are trying to have on me and my wallet.

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Anan E. Maus

posted September 5, 2009 at 11:51 pm

Yes, I think we can use our wisdom as far as giving is concerned. But we should never let the few bad apples spoil the beauty of giving.
Albert Einstein was, in some matters, very naive. And salesmen used to take him in, and frequently. His wife complained. Einstein replied that he would rather be taken in, then lose his innocent trust of humanity.

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posted October 3, 2009 at 2:08 pm

I dont think that $60 is too much to pay for a lesson like this. Especially if it made you look more deeply into your practice. I suppose you could say it was a good thing that the scammer choose you.

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Kirk Cornwell

posted April 22, 2010 at 5:59 pm

stress (shame on me), impermanence (money — always), not self (giver is the gift)

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John Smith

posted March 24, 2011 at 1:23 am

Very interesting post.

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posted April 11, 2011 at 7:51 am

Dear Everyone!! As a Muslim, i suggest there should be no money involved in any sort of religious practice whatsoever, and if you want to give donations, do not be fooled by those who are scam. As a rule, do not give money to those who ask unless it is confirmed proven that it is going to the one who you think deserves it. Religious practices must be free!

Also i request not to attach any religious practice such as the noble Zen path with corrupt practices, otherwise they bring bad name to that religious practice. Your title “Zen and the scam” is very disturbing. Mystic ideas are very deep and meaningful, they are not about little pieces of trash of our lives i think.

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