The stolen bag did not contain much in the way of material value. But its sudden absence greatly distressed the Buddhist monk who had been victimized, and so the police were summoned to the scene of the crime: a Starbucks at the opulent Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue.
A police officer in a softball jacket sat down to take the statement of the tall man in a brown robe, whose decaffeinated coffee, no milk, was turning cold. Routine questions elicited complicated answers. For example, the victim’s name was Venerable Kassapa, but Venerable is a term of respect, not a first name.
”I’m a Buddhist monk,” the robed man confided. ”In case you’re wondering.”
”I knew,” the police officer said gently. ”I’ve been around.”
This is a simple tale that is not so simple, about a monk, a theft and New-York style redemption….
He sometimes travels to other countries and often speaks to very small groups about Buddhism. For the last few weeks he has been in the New York area, his trip sponsored by the New York Society of United Sri Lankans.
On Monday afternoon he sat on a stone bench in front of the Plaza Hotel and recalled how, as a young boy in London, he became disillusioned with the world. ”I wanted to find a way out of discomfort and uneasiness,” he said. ”A way out of suffering.”
His mother’s struggle with an illness may have prompted his brooding; he is not sure. But he is certain that the factors leading him to a Buddhist temple at the age of 13 included these: his mother’s interest in transcendental meditation, and his own interest in a popular television program of the time, ”Kung Fu.”
When he asked one of the temple’s monks whether they taught martial arts as well as Buddhism, he recalled, the monk laughed. ”Here we don’t tend to the body,” the monk told the boy. ”We tend to the mind.”
At 14, he became a novice monk and moved to Sri Lanka; at 20, he was ordained. ”And I’ve never, ever, regretted making this move,” he said.
With the sun slipping behind the Plaza, Venerable Kassapa agreed to take a stroll for a cup of coffee at the Starbucks in Trump Tower. Walking down Fifth Avenue in his simple cloth robe, a simple cloth bag clutched in his hand, he was a character out of context: a six-foot-four study in self-denial, ambling along the boulevard of acquisition.
”I am a beast out of its habitat,” he said.
He passed under the ”You’re Fired” advertisement that adorns Trump Tower and moved through the marble lobby, seemingly unaware of the effect his presence had on others. As an escalator raised him up to a floor redolent of coffee, he was asked whether he knew the name of Trump. ”I’ve heard of him,” he said. ”He’s a very wealthy man.”
Venerable Kassapa sat at a small table and accepted a cup of decaffeinated coffee. Soon he was sharing what he described as his ”vision” for the United States: that this great country, filled with energy and potential, would one day lead the world into a brave new era of truth and harmony.
Shortly after suggesting that American power ”can be harnessed for harm or for good,” he noticed that his cloth bag was missing from the chair beside him. He felt no anger when he realized that the bag had been stolen, he said later. Only shock, because such things do not happen to contemplative monks.
”This is very bizarre,” he kept saying. ”Nothing like this has ever happened to me before.”
Security officers were summoned, and then two police officers from the Midtown North precinct. They glided up the escalator and walked directly toward the monk. He was easy to pick out.
One officer went off to check garbage cans, while the other interviewed the monk. Finally, the time came to detail what was in the bag. No money, of course (”I don’t use money,” the monk said), but an eclectic list of items duly recorded by the officer.
Among the articles inside the cloth bag: a white plastic bag, a cellphone that someone had lent to him for his New York visit, a bottle of water, some white thread that he gives to people as a blessing and many pieces of paper. On these were written the names and telephone numbers of his supporters around the world.
”I would really appreciate it if you could do as much as you can,” the monk said to the officer. But the officer leveled with the monk. ”A lot of times, with nothing of value, they just throw it in the trash,” he said. ”It could be in Brooklyn, it could be in the Bronx.”
The officers left Venerable Kassapa to contemplate his loss, especially the bits of paper bearing the names and phone numbers of all those friends. ”This is a raw lesson in life,” he said, the kind of thing that ”I first became a monk to overcome.”
He descended the escalator, peered briefly into a garbage can — just in case — and then paused to study Donald Trump, who was standing at the elevator bank, talking on a cell phone. ”I’ve never seen a billionaire before,” he said.
Outside, on Fifth Avenue, the forest monk expressed a keen desire to go to that Manhattan forest called Central Park. ”I need a little bit of a breath of fresh air,” he said, and then he was gone.
That could have been the conclusion to the monk’s New York tale. But destiny would not allow it.
Late Monday afternoon, Riccardo Maggiore found a white plastic bag at the entrance to his hair salon on West 56th Street, just off Fifth Avenue. Yesterday morning, his wife, Eileen, did some sleuthing. And before noon, plans were under way to return the plastic bag — though not the cloth bag — to its owner, a forest monk.
There wasn’t much inside the bag. A cellphone. Some white thread. And what Ms. Maggiore described as ”a million pieces of paper.”