Open Buddha

Open Source Buddhism, Technology, and Geekery
Bay Area, California

E-sangha Drama Continues

Suushi_Mikoshi-nyudo Without a doubt, the entries on this blog that get the most traffic and comments over time are the ones to do with E-sangha. This is without any specific intention on my part but it seems to be where a lot of people arrive here. It may have something to do with the fact that if you search on “E-sangha” on Google, blog posts here are the sixth and seventh entries on the first page.

E-sangha is a web forum that promotes itself as being for all Buddhists of all traditions of practice. It has a large base of users and, in fact, its number of users is large enough, over time, that the very number and amount of activity acts to pull in online Buddhists who hear about the site. In reality, E-sangha is a very unfriendly place for many Buddhists. It is run by a small junta of moderators with a bit of an iron fist (not even with the velvet glove!). This group brooks no disagreement with their beliefs or methods. Members of the forum who don’t toe the line with great alacrity for this collective are quickly and quietly banned from the site.

Members of the moderator junta claim that they do what they do for the sake of Buddhism and the spread of the Dharma. In their opinion, incorrect beliefs or doctrines lead to trouble and confusion so their discussion is not allowed, even to show that they are wrong. At least one Zen priest has been banned, for example, for saying that he did not literally believe in or teach the reality of literal reincarnation as a Buddhist.

In additional to doctrinal control, only members of organizations or lineages of Buddhism recognized as legitimate by the moderators are allowed to state that they are monastics or other clergy (or to even have pictures of themselves in robes). If your organization or lineage is not seen as acceptable by the moderators, you cannot mention your ordination or speak as a monastic or cleric on pain of being banned from E-sangha. In order to prove credentials, E-sangha moderators demand all of the details of ordination from would-be representatives, including contact information. This is then processed and people are contacted, such as the ordaining clergy, in order to prove the bona-fides of the person. Those that don’t meet an acceptable standard or which are from an unrecognized group or lineage, are not allowed to represent themselves as monastics or other clergy.

Who are these moderators who run the site? Well, a list of them is present on the site but there are no details of their personal qualifications or backgrounds. They keep to their own hidden forums for their deliberations and discussions. There is no process to recall or remove a moderator available to site members and new moderators are chosen by the existing ones through a non-public process. Any discussion of moderator decisions is banned on the forums. The net effect of this is that there used to be days when I or others would log into a forum to check out a message thread from the day before only to find the entire thread was gone (and often the original poster as well). No messages would be available. Asking what had happened generally prompted a response of “Moderator actions cannot be publicly questioned.”

As it turns out, even saying in public that you are leaving E-sangha, as I did at one point, is grounds for banning from the site. Malcolm Smith, also known by the Buddhist name of “Namdrol” on E-sangha, is leader of the moderators and administrators of the site. He is a Vajrayana practitioner that (taking him at his word) underwent a three year retreat and is recognized to teach within the Sakya lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. He has been a bit of a lightning rod for criticism posted in comments on my previous entries here. Today, for the first time, he decided to come and engage with people. You can see his comments beginning here on a previous entry.

I give Malcolm a certain amount of credit for actually being willing to show up and challenge what people were saying in the comments on the post but he did a pretty poor job at presenting a case for how wonderful and neat E-sangha really is and how enlightened (pardon the pun) the moderators are on the site. Most of his responses seemed to really avoid any core criticism of the site. I won’t speak to his motivations as I don’t know them, but E-sangha is not well served by his stewardship and that of the current circle of pals there.

Why should anyone care? Well, there are very few decent places for Buddhists to gather online that have enough people to really sustain themselves. E-sangha has the potential to be one of these but not as it is currently operated. We live in a golden age, realistically, for Buddhists in many ways. People of a variety of traditions of practice have the means to communicate with each other in a manner which has not happened for many centuries, if ever. Every surviving tradition of practice can talk to and learn from all of our fellow Sangha members because of the combination of low-cost communication and a more globally connected culture. We should be taking advantage of this opportunity to communicate and not to use it as a mechanism for sectarianism, personal glorification, or politics.

For those interested, my previous entries on E-sangha are: