The Scandal of E-Sangha


For ages now I’ve heard complaints from folk within the larger Zen sangha that the enormous Buddhist web portal E-Sangha runs a quiet reign of intolerance enforcing a very narrow view of Buddhist orthodoxy, something many, maybe most actual Zen practitioners who post eventually run afoul of…

A Zen teaching colleague blew the whistle on this some time ago. But, while I really admire him, he also has a bit of a mouth and I thought perhaps his penchant for over the top comments earned him his banishment.

But, now, I’ve learned long time contributor to the site Roshi Nonin Chowaney has been banned.

I adore Nonin. If you don’t know him, read David Chadwick’s lovely memoir Thank You & Okay. The character called Norman is Nonin – to a “T.” Well, he had to be too big for the tree annecdote, but artistic license and all that…

Nonin is an authentic, highly respected western Zen master. And, I think it important to note he’s at the conservative end of the Zen Buddhist spectrum…

Below, I copy in full Nonin’s statement about his experiences. I believe it provides a necessary heads up about E-Sangha and what you will find there if you use it as a source of information about Buddhism…

PERSONAL STATEMENT FROM REV. NONIN CHOWANEY

TO BEGIN, I’m not surprised that E-sangha site owner Leo Leong is trying to have the E-sangha Watch site pulled from the net. He is acting according to form, for this is the way all dissent, opposition, questioning, unorthodox opinions, nuanced scriptural interpretations, and attempts to debate are handled at E-sangha. “Offenders” are either ridiculed, defamed, threatened, or intimidated by the administration until they silence themselves, or they are silenced by the administration through suspension or banning.

DURING MY YEAR of participation at E-sangha, I was constantly shocked and dismayed by these types of actions, mostly on the Zen Forums, for this I where I usually participated. I observed many good and sincere people post for awhile, run afoul of the powers that be, have their postings deleted, and then fade away or disappear. Whenever I asked what happened or why, I was met with silence by the power structure. However, there is an active grapevine at E-sangha that would pass on info, and there were always some good and kind moderators who, when questioned by private e-mail, would tell me what happened – as long as I promised not to say where the info came from, for I was told that the administration was extremely vindictive.

I always used private e-mail, for although there is a Private Message service on E-sangha by which members can contact each other, these messages are not private. I learned this when something I’d said in a private message was criticized by an administrator in a so-called “private” message to me.

The aforementioned good and kind moderators usually didn’t last long. Some did, but there was quite a turnover during the year I participated. Some of them just became too busy and quit, but a good number either got fed up and left moderating, quit in protest over administration policies and behavior, or were fired. Again, I found these things out privately either through the grapevine or from sympathetic moderators.

THIS IS BUDDHISM, I kept asking myself? This is a Buddhist Web Forum? These administrators are supposedly Buddhist practitioners? There is a long tradition of open debate in Buddhism. What happened to that? I can’t recall reading that Shakyamuni Buddha ever told anyone to shut up in an open forum or that specific opinions or points of view were not allowed to be expressed. In open forums, My master, a Soto Zen Priest and Master, let everyone speak who wanted to speak, even if they were criticizing him. At all the monasteries and temples I practiced at in both the United States and Japan, open inquiry, questioning, discussion, and coming to your own conclusions were always encouraged, not discouraged.

MY BANNING FROM E-SANGHA came about as a result of a statement that I made in a Zen Forum discussion thread about the nature of Shakyamuni Buddha in the Zen tradition. I originally said that Shakyamuni was a human being who woke up. Later in the discussion, I said, along with much else, that because he remained a human after he woke up, Shakyamuni was afflicted by the same things that all human beings are afflicted by.

At this point the most notorious E-sangha administrator roared in on his Dharma Police motorcycle and said: “This is an unacceptable position, these are the words of Mara, Adharma, False dharma, and may not propagated [sic] here at E-Sanga [sic], in any forum. People who present themselves as Buddhist teachers here should not enunciate such falsehoods, lies and slanders.” Then, he un-ceremoniously closed the thread and banned me permanently.

The thread remained closed for a few days, but was subsequently re-opened. However, all my comments and also the administrator’s comments that I quoted above had been deleted.

After I was banned, I carried on a brief discussion with two moderators and a founding member. They told me that they’d like to see me back on E-sangha and asked me to elaborate on the original comments I’d made about Shakyamuni. I told them that the Diamond Sutra states:

So you should see [view] all of the fleeting world:
A star at dawn, a bubble in the stream;
A flash of lightning in a summer cloud;
A flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream.

I also said that “Shakyamuni Buddha (in nirmanakaya body) was part of this fleeting world. That’s why he died. The few Buddhas that I have met cry when someone they care about dies, feel joy when viewing a beautiful sunset, feel pain when they are severely injured, and are angry when faced with the severe injustice suffered by many in this world, etc., etc. If we closely examine the Vinaya Pitika, we’ll find many instances where Shakyamuni was annoyed and angered by the behavior of “foolish” bhikkshus and bhikkshunis. If nirmanakaya buddhahood means that a person is turned into a stone, this is a definition of Buddhahood that I will never propagate or submit to and a Buddhahood that I am not interested in.”

SECTARIANISM and FUNDAMENTALISM. I don’t for a moment think that only one statement that I made led to my banning. Although many moderators do not exhibit sectarianism, the worst of the administrators do. Over the past year, I have observed their rampant sectarianism manifest in their antipathy toward Zen Buddhism in general, Soto Zen Buddhism in particular, and especially toward Western Zen teachers. I believe that my banning was a continuation of this process, although I couldn’t get anyone to confirm this. Subsequently, other Soto Zen practitioners have been also banned, and there seems to be a purge going on. I expect more.

All definitions (especially in translation) and interpretations are the product of one person or a small group of persons The commonly found definitions of what the three bodies of Buddha (nirmanakaya, samboghakaya, and dharmakaya) refer to vary in different Mahayana Buddhist schools; they are dependent on the interpretations and nuances expressed by the awakened practitioners of a particular school. Mahayana Buddhism is not a monolithic entity, no matter how hard the E-sangha administration tries to make it so. There will never be one governing body in Mahayana Buddhism or one overseeing all Buddhists, for whatever loose governance that has occurred and is still occurring throughout the Buddhist world is country and school specific. No one outside of the E-sangha administration accepts their attempts to be an on-line governing body.

The posting that led to my banishment referred to Shakyamuni Buddha as a nirmanakaya buddha. These views have differed from person to person and from school to school over the centuries. Regarding one form of Buddhist texts, ancient ones, as infallible is the same as evangelical Christians regarding the Bible literally as the word of God. This is fundamentalism in its ugliest form.

As I’ve mentioned, there are many good and kind members and moderators still active at E-sangha. Here are two statements, both from long-term E-sangha members and former moderators. First, from a Soto Zen practitioner:

“I have come to greatly respect your knowledge and experience, and I do not believe that you posted anything that my own teacher wouldn’t say.”

Second, from a Theravadan practitioner:

“I’ve never seen you post anything that would warrant even a short-term suspension of a couple of days, let alone a permanent banning.”

FINALLY, I’ve decided not to pursue reinstatement by continuing discussions with the moderators at E-sangha that I mentioned previously in this article. The only way that I would even consider returning would be if a couple of changes in the Terms of Service were adopted, a massive change in the culture of E-sangha was facilitated – such as total transparence, democracy rather than dictatorship or oligarchy, and tolerance rather than fundamentalism – and there were a complete overhaul of the administration so that tolerant, open-minded, kind, and compassionate people (true Buddhists) were in charge. This is obviously not going to happen at E-sangha.

I gave it a try for a year, and experienced much good there. However, the heavy-hand of the administration would inevitably come crashing down and spill poison over the cracked board. Enough is enough.

There is a group of people setting up an on-line Zen Forum. I intend to participate in as soon as it is set up and will work to develop in into an organization that I can be proud of participating in as a Buddhist priest and teacher.

Thank you for printing this.

With hands palm-to-palm,

Nonin Chowaney

Rev. Nonin Chowaney, OPW
Abbot, Nebraska Zen Center / Heartland Temple

http://www.prairiewindzen.org
heartland@prairiewindzen.org

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