Okay, “Enlightenment or bust” might be a bit dramatic, but…

"Dang Zang" is an empty name. The blog has to do with the dharma; material related to Buddhist teachings (Tibetan style in particular, Kagyu in even more particular), meditation, gurus and lamas be they genuine or flaky, books and events. I do have a more personal blog, Pica Pica, and a site for my work.

Oh yes, it's by Alex Wilding


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Saturday August 1st, 2009. Posted by Alex W:

I think that’s it for me and E-Sangha

I thought I had finished complaining about E-Sangha, but the latest thing to happen to me is getting near the last straw.

A regular poster by the name of Sunsimao had submitted a post, primarily consisting of a letter said to have been written by Thubten Jamyang Gendun of Ba Sengtri Monastery. In it, he reports that:

… the Khenpos and Tulkus here at the Sengtri monastery have requested that the faithful people of the Domed area perform the following virtuous actions for a period of ten years:
870,000,000,000,000 recitations of the Mani mantra;
1,500,000,000,000 recitations of the Siddhi mantra;
35,000,000,000 recitations of the Tara mantra;
200,000,000,000 recitations of the Vajrasattva mantra;
160,000,000,000 recitations of the Amitabha mantra;
13,000,000,000 recitations of the Refuge;
1,230,000,000,000 recitations of Arapacana;
300,000,000 recitations of the Bhadracarya Pranidhana;

… and to perform other actions including, for instance “lighting 130,000,000,000 butter lamps and more”.

Now I am not sure what the “Domed” area is, and don’t know whether it as small as a village or extends throughout the world, but even in the latter case the numbers make no sense at all. Perhaps they were misunderstood, perhaps they were properly understood but simply mistyped.

This was so glaringly obvious to me that, although there were a couple of pious comments saying how wonderful and inspiring this was, I added one saying that on the face of it the numbers are bizarre. I looked at just the first one, starting with the wild assumption that a full million people would take part. I assumed that they could recite one “round” of the mala, which is 108 recitations, every minute. This is fast, but not unreasonable when this short mantra is recited as an ongoing buzz. I then assumed that these people would recite for 10 hours a day and take no holidays. A quick calculation will show that this would take 40 years. On the more reasonable assumption that only 1000 people take part, they would of course be going for 40,000 years each before moving on to the second mantra.

Having pointed that out, I asked what it was that I was missing. I might, after all, have in some way misread or misunderstood the letter, or that there might be a reply like “oh, sorry, I have put in too many noughts”. There were one or two brief replies like “perseverance” and “a long life” – actually I can’t quite remember.

End result? The next day my comment and its replies were deleted and the thread was locked down. No comment, no explanation, no request for clarification. Now if that is not petty and narrowminded, I really don’t know what is. What are they afraid of? Is it that amongst the many possible explanations, one is that the good Thubten Jamyang Gendun is not very good with numbers? Or that he has inflated the numbers just so that they are bigger than those from the next Rinpoche? Or has the translator of the letter (I don’t know who that was) got muddled over the Tibetan numbers? Is he or she someone who shall not be accused of making a mistake? Are they worried about contributors who will say BOO when something is patently silly? Whatever – it is astonishingly childish.

Of course, I asked the moderator of that thread, who goes under the name of Dechen Norbu (a lot of people use pseudonyms there), what the reason might be for deleting the question and locking the thread down. I asked:
Are you able to tell my why it is unacceptable to the E-sangha moderators to point out that 870,000,000,000,000 recitations of the mani (I think that’s 870 trillion) is not a realistic number?
Or were the posts deleted and the thread closed for some other reason?

The answer was as follows:

Perhaps there were too many zeros in the number, perhaps there were thousands of people doing the accumulations. Who knows?
Why is it so important? A million or a billion or a trillion? What matters is the intention behind these accumulations and the discipline for doing them.
Why making a good thing a source of polemics? Don’t you have something better to do with your time?


  • not only does “Dechen Norbu” think that having some awareness of what these numbers really mean is unimportant (an opinion you may share – it’s not a problem)
  • and not only does he see fit, without comment, explanation or question, to impose his opinion by deleting the question and prevent futher discussion (which to my mind is the act of a petty control-freak)
  • and, incidentally, not only does he also fail to see that even if many thousands of people are taking part, 870 trillion is still not remotely do-able
  • but he sees fit to berate me for “polemics” (though he does not explain why) and for not having anything better to do.

Now if my lama tells me to recite, say, the Dorje Sempa mantra one hundred thousand times over the coming months, I neither set out to do it a hundred million times (which I would never finish), nor do I think that just a single hundred would do rather than a thousand of them. And I rather imagine that most of us, “Jamyang Norbu” included, would notice if our pay packet was a hundred, a thousand or a million times larger or smaller than what we reasonably expected. There is, I submit, nothing polemical or negative about looking at what is actually being suggested.

But that’s probably obvious. It’s the attitudes of the E-Sangha moderators that are just beyond the pale. I shall be reluctant to return.

11 comments to I think that’s it for me and E-Sangha

  • Linda

    My view on this,

    it will depend on each readers karma how they came to be reading the esangha message in the 1st place,

    the importance they place upon it

    and what impressions remain with them after reading it.

  • mantra practitioner

    The point to be understood from such numbers is that you’re not supposed to reach some “goal” at which point everything is made better, like a fund-raising “goal” of a certain amount of money. It also isn’t a scientific experiment. It is a request that aspirations be nurtured. This type of mantra request is related to the view of some esoteric paths (anuyoga, atiyoga) in which mere accumulation as a method has been surpassed and can be discarded except as a useful formality. The tremendous size of the numbers is intended to be overwhelming, and produce a focus upon process in the moment, rather than longing or rushing toward some distant point in the future when people can “feel accomplished” for having said a phrase many many times.

  • Linda

    Mantra practitioner, I love what you say here. Reminds me of a quote from a zen forum by Jundo Cohen

    “Dropping all need to “get somewhere” is truly finally GETTING SOMEWHERE! The True Home is here and everywhere! Abandoning all need in life’s race to cross some finish line over a distant hill, is simply arriving at the finish line which is our every step! “

  • Alex W

    So, “mantra practitioner”, I have to ask whether, when you did (or will do) ngondro, did you not bother with actually doing 100,000 of each item? Did you just take the numbers as aspirational, without any real intention to do them? And do you yourself feel justified in using numbers that are much bigger than the reality? Would you, for instance, tell your lama that you didn’t just do 100,000 prostrations, but that you did a full million, because you thought that was a better aspiration, even though in fact you only did a couple of thousand? Of course not! (At least, I assume not.)
    Why is it so hard to admit that there may have been a simple mistake made by the lama, translator or copyist? Perhaps the lama doesn’t have much grasp of numbers – he could still be a good lama.

    I’d much prefer to think that there is a mistake, rather than think that this number was really what was intended, as that would suggest that the lama might be trying to put a guilt trip on his followers. What is more, if the number is deliberately meant to be overwhelming, aren’t the followers likely to think “f*** that for a lark, I’m off to the pub” once they realize that they literally will not finish in a thousand years?

    In any case, the numbers are not of great concern to me. Lamas can urge their followers to complete any numbers they like, people can understand them in any way they like. If people want to find an explanation that avoids admitting that someone made a mistake – that’s up to them. What was of concern is the way the e-sangha moderators take it on themselves without explanation, without warning and without obvious reason, to shut down any discussion of the matter, to stop the expression of an opinion that is not one of starry-eyed piety, and then to berate me for pointing out that the numbers make no real sense.

    As an interesting aside, I see from the server logs that people have been arriving at this post from a new thread at e-sangha that has already been deleted! I wonder what that was about.

  • mantra practitioner

    Hi Linda, I believe that is a teaching given by Dogen. In any case it is just good sense.

    Alex, a single Tibetan “bum” is not difficult to accumulate. As for the rest, it seems clear that you’d prefer to think that there is a mistake, so, there seems to be no need for further argument. From my experience, E-Sangha policy is pretty straightforward. If your toes are feeling sensitive about small matters, try consulting Shantideva. Good luck.

  • Alex W

    “Mantra Practitioner”, when you say that “a single Tibetan “bum” is not difficult to accumulate” you are making very much my point. (For those who don’t know, a “bum” is the same as the Indian lakh, i.e. 100,000.) That number of manis can be recited in a few days or weeks, depending on available time and commitment; that number of prostrations can be done in some weeks or a year or so, again depending on available time and commitment. But 87 billion times that number is just not doable – even shared amongst a million participants, each has to do 87 thousand times that number. So either the number is a mistake, or it’s straight out of fantasy-land. A ten-year old can do this arithmetic. So yes, I prefer the simple and harmless explanation that it’s a mistake. Is there really a serious alternative?

    You also say that “From my experience, E-Sangha policy is pretty straightforward”. Good. But your experience is not shared by everyone. Where is the guideline that would have told me that to point out that the number of nearly a quadrillion recitations (I had to look that word up!) could not be serious? That it would be taken as “polemics”? That the messages would be deleted and that I would be berated for having nothing better to do?

    “If your toes are feeling sensitive about small matters, try consulting Shantideva.” You are right. I still find patronising advice irritating!

  • haydenlaw

    Hi Alex –
    Thanks for your post on the e-sangha vast-#’s-of-mantra thread. I appreciated your post there since the numbers sounded strangely high, but I didn’t take the time to work it out as you did. If the original poster made a mistake with zeros that is one thing, but your post helped to raise a red flag. And red flag it is – in my experience, real lamas (and monks, khenpos, etc.) are quite precise when they give out such requests/assignments. If they say 100K that what they mean. Even if they say some huge number – real lamas mean what they say – it’s not some weird Tibetan koan. The numbers are not metaphorical, or symbolic. And Lamas don’t give out larger numbers that any human or group of humans could complete even in an entire lifetime – precisely because there is meaning in doing this practice.

    E-sangha is becoming very very tiresome because of the way it handles threads like that one. This is a problem that seems to be growing – moderators are becoming more trigger-happy, and far less competent.

    Too bad there are so few places for reasonable, honest discussion.

  • mantra practitioner

    Alex, for sure its possible that there was some mistake in translation. One way to find out would’ve been to ask about the original tibetan without having to make the topic somehow controversial (who knows how).

    I think my experience has been the product of taking the time to figure out how to route suggestions and complaints in the way that’s preferred, and clearly indicated as policy. I also use emotions for practice. People, and yes, even buddhists, are only human right. Perhaps if you made a complaint in the right way you could accomplish something useful too.

    I don’t mean to be patronising, but in my opinion, complaining on the internet about the internet is about as classy as demanding to see the manager at a restaurant in order to yell at him. It doesn’t accomplish much, and at best you end up wasting energy better invested in practice. But good luck with the manager if that’s your thing.

  • Alex W

    “mantra practitioner”, thank you for your comments.
    You say “One way to find out would’ve been to ask about the original tibetan without having to make the topic somehow controversial (who knows how)”. Indeed that’s exactly where the difficulty starts. The moderator, Dechen Norbu as he likes to be known, decided to delete my comment and close the thread. How he came upon the idea that my query was “polemical” remains unknown and unexplained. The opportunity to pursue the question of at what stage the mistake was made, should anybody be interested, has been removed. No discussion is allowed. OK, I get it. Only starry-eyed piety is allowed, or so it would seem.
    “I don’t mean to be patronising..” I’ll take your word for that. You are doing it, however!
    Oh yes, Hayden, thanks for your comment too. It fits with my experience too, that real lamas mean what they say about commitments to perform a certain amount of practice. The class of tantra has no effect on that either – a million is a million, whether it’s manis or Cakrasamvara!

  • mantra practitioner

    No worries Alex – something else I try to keep in mind is that on the internet, vocal tone gets confused and lost really easily. People write how they think, people write how they talk, people write how they imagine other people think and talk, and people use funny words on top of it all. It’s a good furnace for heating people up!

    Dechen Norbu is from Europe I think. Europeans have really different cultures and customs. I don’t even try to figure out what makes them tick. It’s tricky enough dealing with different expectations inside north america.

    I’ll keep an eye on how I write things. Peace.

  • MDV

    E-sangha is not a sangha, it’s just an Internet forum with a lot of big egos. I think they (the moderators) actually think they are protecting members from ‘bad Buddhism’, which is sad, I guess. But it also has a lot of interesting information from the huge archive of posts. Seeing it as just another Internet forum helps me when I get irritated 🙂

    And just like any forum it had links to sites containing malware and it has been down for more than a day now. They seem to have a lot of technical problems. Karma? 😉

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