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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  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02907059387528435058 Stechjo

    Thanks for posting this, James.Attachment to being right is a danger for us all and not confined just to the e-sangha.I often suspect that the idea of the leader / founder is always “right” is something more particular to societies in which patriarchy, rather than democratic principles, is foundational.In my own school I was invited to lead the recitation, which also entails “shrine duty.” I am the last non-Japanese member still participating and when I was told to bring prepared rice for the offering, I said I would bring fresh soughdough bread. (I live in S.F.)I was told I should not do that because the minister is a “traditionalist” and wouldn’t like my offering anything other than rice.I will lead the service tomorrow and there will be fresh soughdough bread on the shrine.Tomorrow will probably be the last time I rent a car and drive 20 miles to participate in a service there.It’s very sad to see attachment to rightness of one’s position drive people away from the Dharma.I’m thankful that I have my fellow UU’s, even when it’s in a virtual environment.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04561666880371974930 Al

    Thanks for posting this. I’ve blogged with this statement as well since I receive a huge number of people on my blog who google “e-sangha” and see my posts on the ongoing issues there.I do wish someone would create a better forum online. I would happily create the site but I need the help of other people to participate and administrate it. I’ve tried this before and the site just never took off.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04125167790936883271 Richard Hayes

    Since 1991 I have been a moderator of a Buddhist discussion group. When it began it was a pretty wild forum, full of verbal conduct that often fell short of Buddhist speech precepts. Several times it has been set off balance by people with strong personal agendas and inflexible views about what constitutes true Buddhism, but it has always regained its balance somehow. It is moderated only to filter out personal messages sent by mistake (still a hazard on e-mail discussion lists), unsolicited advertizing sent in by automated mailers (some of which manages to get past the automated filters), and messages in which nothing at all is said except “Right on, brother!” or something of that sort. I have also suggested that when discussions stray very far from the original topic that they be carried on privately rather than on the public forum.There are civilized e-mail discussion groups to be found, but one must look hard, and on the way one will find quite a few that are unsatisfactory. I’ve never heard of this e-sangha outfit before. Now that I’ve heard of it, it’s not on my list of resources to explore further. (Color me prejudiced by bad reports from people whose judgement I have come to respect.)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05987195569156023040 Marcus

    Thank you for this,Although i’ve not (yet) signed up myself, I really like the look of the Treeleaf Forum:http://www.treeleaf.org/forum/From my browsing there it seems a very friendly and worthwhile place to be on the internet. Is it the forum Roshi Nonin Chowaney mentions at the end of his piece?All the best,Marcus

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03320860122104064884 James

    Several people have asked about the discussion group Roshi Nonin mentions in his article. I do not know what it is to which he refers.But he provides links at the end that go directly to the organizations he leads.I assume they will be posted there. And I’ll ask him directly and if there is a link, I’ll paste it into my blog post and note the change here in the comments section.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09952370531907525306 Christopher:::

    Hello friends,I’m a long-term E-sangha member and part of the group Nonin sensei mentioned. We are collaborating now by e-mail but hope to have an International Zen Buddhist forum up on-line within the next few weeks. The success of that forum will depend of course on how many people join us and help us to create a democratically organized online Buddhist community. It’s going to be an interesting experiment.Feel free to e-mail me if you would like more information. Myself or someone else will come back here and let you know as soon as the website is up and running. Concerning E-sangha, I think while much of what Nonin has said is true there is a lot of “perception” at work here. The present E-sangha management and administrators feel that they are under attack by Soto Zen Buddhists. They are being sued now, the E-Sangha Watch page is somewhat Fox News-like in it’s presentation (imo) and so I think they see Soto Zen members (and teachers) as particularly subversive individuals. That does not excuse their actions or intolerance, just I think there are many factors at work that have helped to create the present situation.We may simply represent two wings of Buddhism that cannot co-exist very easily in the same location, especially when one side seeks to dominate and either side offers strong criticism of the other. But, I really don’t know.I do know that I have learned a lot at E-sangha, my practice has deepened, and I have met many many serious and dedicated practitioners, from all schools of Buddhism. I am thankful to Leo and the E-sangha staff for creating the forum, imperfect though it may be (just like most of us humans). All the best,Christopher(aka, riv:::)

  • Anonymous

    The site reverend Nonin refers to is not the Tree Leaf Zendo. The site is forthcoming and does not exist yet.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04561666880371974930 Al

    It might seem like Soto Zen vs. E-Sangha except for the fact that many other groups have been affected before now. The Theravadan moderators who left have set up their own Theravadan forum for a reason. I know members of a variety of Tibetan Buddhist groups and other Japanese traditions who have been hounded off of E-Sangha as well. This is not limited to Zen practitioners.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02707970650668505482 Eric Hansen

    I’ve run afoul of the moderator of another forum (not Buddhist) and similarly learned about the discontented subscribers whose content is deleted, and the pervasiveness of bad behavior that can occur (beyond what one can imagine) with these kinds of situations. We become attached so it seems to the “reach” and “influence” of the sites we love most and it seems like a hardship to go off to our own corner on the net and start over… at first. My experience is that the more intimate start-up groups tend have more vitality and are worth the extra effort. Be careful how to set up which software – it invariably affects the politics.H A N S E Nalexandria, virginia

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13829911813257886445 Tao1776

    James,I am a survivor of a Christian Fundamentalist sect. I was never properly (in my view) deprogrammed and I still carry some emotional baggage from my days of being a Fundy. One thing that stays with you is the ability to smell a Fundy in a crowd, regardless of how it is dressed. During my few years of E-Sangha posting and Buddhist fellowship I quipped on the “stink of Zen” pervading a certain circle of members. My earnest and quite respectful desire for learning and dialogue seemed to be met with the same “Buddha in a box” mentality that I experienced with the Christian Fundies that told me, “You are in God’s army. Like any good soldier you follow orders and ask no questions.”I recently returned to E-Sangha after a long absence and found many of those that I once knew absent too.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09952370531907525306 Christopher:::

    Hi Ford sensei and everyone,I’d just like to let you know that our new forum is now up and running. The name is Zen Forum International. We’re still tweeking the design and board some, so the look may change slightly in the coming weeks but our doors are now open. Please feel free to stop by and join our discussions.http://www.zenforuminternational.org~Christopher:::

  • Floating_Abu

    Love her, or hate her, E-sangha runs a hostile ship to those it deems hostile – and it should also be known that they read PMs on the site so caveat emptor. Buddhism is great, sometimes us students not so good.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03320860122104064884 James

    Dear Floating Abu,I certainly know I’m one of those who falls short all the time, very much not so good…I don’t know what a PM is…

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04561666880371974930 Al

    A PM is a direct message, like e-mail, within the E-Sangha site between you and another user. It has been revealed in a number of instances that the moderators can (and sometimes do) read PMs exchanged between third parties. So, people think they are having a one to one exchange privately about, for example, why a topic or person just disappeared, and then they get suspended or a moderator warning mentioning their private conversation. It has happened to people that I know there.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14461977576679458008 floating_abu

    Dear James Without getting into a debate about perfection or otherwise :) yes a PM = personal message. These are basically as Al says, like an email system. Only this is within the particular site. Well wishes.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14461977576679458008 floating_abu

    James said: I certainly know I’m one of those who falls short all the time, very much not so good…My own experience has shown me falling is not the problem — in and of itself. Live and learn. (She says to herself) However much we are able I guess…Gassho and thankyou.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03320860122104064884 James

    As Dogen reminds us, life is one continuous mistake…

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14461977576679458008 floating_abu

    And yet the less the better.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03320860122104064884 James

    Yes,and a bow to you, Floating Abu,

  • Anonymous

    esanga moderators are subject to the same abusive treatment by admins as general members. admins frequently remind mods that esangha is an strict oligarchy, and that any concerns that a mod may have regarding an admin action or decision must be addressed privately with an admin (not in the mod forum) . the admin style of management is based on the total use of verbal abuse, secrets, lies, power-playing, and absolute power.admins routinely:- ignore the esanga terms of service rules, and ignore esanga’s formal moderatordecision-making process without announcement or explanation.- delete and/or edit mod post without pre-discussion or explanation.- overrule mods and delete threads that are in disagreement with the two head admin’sunique understanding of buddhism.- threaten mods in front of other mods – yell at mods in all caps in the mod forum- strip mod status over dogma disagreements or for questioning admin behavior that isinconsistent with forum rules- routinely read mod pms and disclose their private contents in the mod forum.- admins have issued a list of buddhist sites to mods that they are forbidden to post at,under threat of being de-modded at esanga.- mods are also managed by the point system – admins hand out warning pointswithout warning or explanation. same with suspension or banning. no warningor explanation.- One of the admins has a disgusting aggressive potty mouth when he’s posting in the mod forum and is mentally stable – paranoid and rageful.- Another one of the admins throws megalomaniacal tantrums in which he claimsthat anyone who disagrees with his understanding of Buddhism isn’t a Buddhist. Healso forbids that certain worlds be used when discussing Buddhism, at the threat ofbanning. One word on the list that comes to mind is “fundamentalist”. He alsoregularly issues new “rules” against things, shouting in all caps things like “XYZ IS NOLONGER ALLOWED. I WON”T HAVE IT”.this is just the very tip of the iceberg. esanga is always desperate for new mods because admins fire them so often. and because many won’t stand for being targeted by admins with abusive treatment. and some just get disgusted and quit. there are a few long-term mods that hang in there, despite the abuse, hoping that the two looniest admins will eventually leave.So think about this the next time there’s a temptation to rant about the mods at esanga. Modding isn’t easy work, and it is all volunteer. esanga mods try to do their best to maintain an orderly environment, in spite of ugly abusive work conditions under two crazy admins, too many admin-issued dogma restrictions, and hundreds of newbies with attitude that they have to deal with all the time.I won’t even touch on the profit issue.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14461977576679458008 floating_abu

    The bow is deeper to you, James.Thankyou. genkaku has mentioned you to me before, so it’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance. Apologies that it is on such a controversial topic – but you know they are the ones that get our attention more I guess :) Best wishes.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14461977576679458008 floating_abu

    Anonymous – sorry to hear _/_

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04782084046693185810 sangye

    hi all,it isn’t just the zen people who are in the admin’s sights, its anyone who voices disagreement with the particular opinions of mostly malcolm smith, in my oinion, and does not eventually toe the line like mods red dust, sunsimao and conebeckham have. your posts will be deleted, your simple polls will be deleted, you will be personally attacked. the recent thread “tulku tradition” exposed (there has been some recent cleaning up by deletion) the agenda behind with regard to Vajrayana. traditional practices such as circumambulation of stupas and spinning prayerwheels are seen as superstitious and medieval. its fine if you want to hold that position but in a Buddhist forum to call people who feel the need to defend a traditional Vajrayana practice a “FUNDY!” and threaten to ban them for that is simply wrong.i must say from a Vajrayana point of view that there are some subjects that cannot do anything but cause divisions and arguments, and these are better off being excluded from a public forum.

  • evesixtynine

    Haha. Yeah, I got banned constantly from Esangha, in the Dzogchen forum. There are many dummapada police there. What can you do?

    A religion appeals not to the best of us but those of us who need the most help. Unfortunately some of the help one acquires is often material and in the form of worldly powers.

    If it’s freedom one wants then one needs to remove themselves from any form of institution. Religion is mostly an institution through which much of what is common sense for the people’s well being is transmitted. For instance, the wearing of burka and dhoti are good for preventing windborn sand from scouring ones face and eyes. Should it then be a sin for a woman to not wear one? Those who sell the institution must act like it is, or they so believe. We often think that the Middle East promotes terrorism. But actually, what else can you do in a place without insane asylums? They are mad and even evil? Give them a bomb vest and let them blow up your enemies. Better them than us. Works for Western Governments to. Better to fight wars abroad than at home.

    Better to fight Buddhists at Esangha than in ones own sangha.

    Esangha isn’t really important. I lost nothing when I left. In fact I feel sorry for those who remain behind because they are always warring with The Sangha. Such is not good. Unless you’re mad.

    Anyway though yes there sure are some assholes over there. Some really cool people too. But better over there than over here.

  • evesixtynine

    I would like to disagree with the post before mine. I like all the people named, including Malcolm. I don’t think it’s good to name names specifically. That implies that those people are made of ‘nirmanakaya bodies of stone’ which will never change. At any time anyone can change some basic tenet of behavior. And some of the above mentioned have done so.

  • Moonwatcher

    I was there some 10 years ago for a while. E-sangha is the North Korea of Buddhist forums
    ( fora )

    • Taipan

      Hari Om Tat Sat,
      I too was left out in the cold by these so called ‘compassionate clowns’. A ‘Would Be’ Buddhist who confuses oneself with compassion will indeed be food for Hell Beings(Hungry ghost). The WWW is indeed a web of deceit and truth interconnected/interrelated\interdependent. Any spiritual seeker worth his salt would not make a fuss over it, less absolutely necessary. Relatives striving & trying to pretend they understand the Ultimate. Less is More!

  • http://- UltraBless

    It should not be the case for having such one governing body in on line Buddhism or one overseeing all Buddhists – Buddhism community is mutually supportive of one another to gain understanding & happiness based upon bodhicitta or ultimate bliss. It also supportive of all communities based upon bodhicitta of all – the compassionate bliss. Is ultimate emptiness can ever be logically monopolized? And is there really necessary for a grapevine in the forum for other decision process, is it necessary for buddhism forum! Having a grapevine in buddhsim forum means that the founder and its accomplice is not being open, and does not know buddhism or hidding the real motive of such forum. The sectarianism in buddhism is like different rivers that flowing into the same ocean – bodhicitta. Sectarianism in buddhism is not to be understood as many different oceans, but an ocean with a lot of rivers to ensure all different interests participated in their choice of sect in any corner of the world can ultimately developed this common ocean. Wishing all happy and peace!

  • UltraBless

    christopher::: wrote:
    alex jansen wrote:
    Not only that. Google’s now flagging e-sangha as a site that can harm your computer. Perhaps there has been a history of somebody using e-sangha to inject malware into other people’s pc’s.

    Indeed. Going to the e-sangha.com address this message now comes up…

    Reported Attack Site!

    This web site at http://www.e-sangha.com (<–dont press unless you are confident that your security system will block!!) has been reported as an attack site and has been blocked based on your security preferences.

    Attack sites try to install programs that steal private information, use your computer to attack others, or damage your system.

    Some attack sites intentionally distribute harmful software, but many are compromised without the knowledge or permission of their owners.

    There is then a button provided which leads over here to Google. Probably best to be cautious…

    Safe Browsing: Diagnostic page for e-sangha.com

    What is the current listing status for e-sangha.com?

    Site is listed as suspicious – visiting this web site may harm your computer.

    Part of this site was listed for suspicious activity 1 time(s) over the past 90 days.

    What happened when Google visited this site?

    Of the 11 pages we tested on the site over the past 90 days, 2 page(s) resulted in malicious software being downloaded and installed without user consent. The last time Google visited this site was on 2009-10-14, and the last time suspicious content was found on this site was on 2009-10-14.

    Malicious software includes 20 scripting exploit(s).

    Malicious software is hosted on 1 domain(s), including t-age.ru/.

    This site was hosted on 1 network(s) including AS3595 (GNAXNET).

    Has this site acted as an intermediary resulting in further distribution of malware?

    Over the past 90 days, e-sangha.com did not appear to function as an intermediary for the infection of any sites.

    Has this site hosted malware?

    No, this site has not hosted malicious software over the past 90 days.

    How did this happen?

    In some cases, third parties can add malicious code to legitimate sites, which would cause us to show the warning message.

    http://www.dhammawheel.com/viewtopic.php?f=12&t=1965&start=20

  • http://www.palisuttas.com Alexander Duncan

    I was really interested to read the foregoing because it sounds exactly like an experience I had on another forum called Free Sangha. Another forum called Ask a Monk also bars anyone from posting messages that are not approved Theravada, and of course there is a huge amount of heat directed at Aro Buddhism and Ngakpa Chogyam. And so and on it goes it seems. I am afraid that Buddhism online has become a sectarian war of words. Very sad.

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