Wednesday April 8th, 2009. Posted by Alex:
I have been thinking for a while that I would write about the website E-sangha, which is one of the largest forums for online Buddhists, but I’ve been putting it off because I thought it was going to be really, really long. However I now see that there is no need for anything long – there are entire sites out there devoted to the perceived problems at E-sangha. That might seem extreme, and perhaps some of those sites are, but the very point is that E-sangha is not the place for free and open discussion that it might at first seem to be – the controllers brook no criticism. E-sangha Alert, a blog for this topic alone, is one such site; long discussions have snowballed at Arcanology; while the ever-interesting Professor Richard Hayes has recently written at his blog. So there is no point in me doing more than relating one or two cases that I know directly.
I should now get to the point, but I must first mention that E-sangha can sometimes be interesting, and there are tit-bits of information to be found there that would otherwise be hard to come by. Some of the moderators are also without question both knowledgeable and kind. It is true that the site has many contributors, which is perhaps both good and bad – the proportion of material that could be described as “the blind leading the blind” is particularly high. But this is, after all, the Internet, so I don’t really see that as much of a problem.
The problem, rather, is the ethos. E-sangha presents itself as the guardian of the “correct understanding” of Buddhist teachings, and pursues that end by actively working to suppress dissent and criticism. In particular, Malcolm Smith, whose “handle” at E-sangha is “Namdrol”, has established himself as the authoritative voice in the Tibetan sections of E-sangha. Fair play to him, one might say – with an average of almost 10 posts per day over the last five years, he deserves something, though I’m not entirely sure whether sympathy or praise would be more appropriate. I must also say that I admire Malcolm for the knowledge that he has acquired, which is undoubtedly far greater than mine.
And yet… it is a shame that somebody can know so much and yet demonstrate such a narrow-minded attitude, and so often be arrogant and dismissive towards other users of the site. I have known Malcolm, in the Internet sense, since before E-sangha existed, when he used to participate in a semi-academic mailing list known as Buddha-L. I say “semi-academic” because, particularly in those days, there were a considerable number of real academics involved, and most of the discussion was of a nature appropriate to the academic purposes for which it had been set up. It was, however, open to anyone else who was interested. Although Malcolm was not actually kicked off Buddha-L (which was not really the way things were done there, anyway) he exhibited the same tendency to assume that his interpretation of a particular text that he considered authoritative was the final word on the matter concerned. He had started using Namdrol as a nickname even then, and became known as Numbskull. (Oh, those cruel academics!) But so much for opinion – I thought you should know where this is going. Now to facts.
First, perhaps, the case of “ChrisH”. A poster named KarmaDhawa had asked about receiving “empowerment over webcast” from Namkhai Norbu. I should mention that this is not in fact what Namkhai Norbu does – he does a “transmission via webcast”, which is rather different. However the questioner spoke of “empowerment over webcast”. You may not be very clear about what that might mean, but if you think of a Christian baptism by webcast you will be in the right zone for understanding why it would seem odd. ChrisH expressed scepticism, and was told by “Missouri-Sunyata” that:
“My opinion is that if the Buddha had means of global communication as we do, he would have been all for teaching through any means.”
“Your point about global communication and teaching in general is perfectly valid, of course. But, like the original poster, I was talking about “receiving empowerment over webcast”. It is not controversial to say that such empowerments are normally held to be given by the lama in person, not by the lama’s picture.
Perhaps the fact that it is a moving picture makes a difference – I can’t say that I’m convinced.”
A lashing with the pen? Sarcastic to the point of abuse? Hardly, but it may be worth looking at that quote clearly, because the result was that ChrisH was banned, immediately and without explanation or warning; mails to the site moderators asking for explanation were simply ignored. All ChrisH’s messages, not that there were many, have been weeded out of the database! Oh, had I mentioned that Malcolm is a student of Namkhai Norbu? In the nature of the case it is not possible to ask if that was the reason.
Another identity of interest went under the name of binroundablok. This identity was a bit more abrasive than ChrisH, expressing, for instance, wonder that Trungpa Rinpoche’s widow is called “Lady Diana” by the in-crowd of Trungpa’s remaining organization. But that’s another story. Binroundablok’s crime was to respond to Malcolm’s claim that:
“Otherwise, my positions about everything else has always been the same.”
“That’s why you are not a good scholar in spite of your knowledge.”
Malcolm did comment in reply that
“you have adopted a pathological obsession about me and my points of view.”
at which point binroundablok too was banned without other warning or explanation. In fact it was not at first clear that binroundablok had been banned – the site just reported various errors when binroundablok tried to log in. E-mails through the channels provided did not elicit even a brief “sorry you are banned”, let alone a “because you said a bad thing about Malcolm Smith”.
To finish, here is a gem. In the course of discussion, one Hayden Law suggested that Buddhists and Christians have:
“enough similarity in our practice and experience for us to have a helpful conversation. There is a fair amount in Buddhism about respecting the teachings of the variety of Buddhists, and also of teachers of other religions. That doesn’t mean throwing it all into a blender and coming out with some new uber-religion…”
Malcolm, however, declared that:
“There is no reason to respect the teachings of other religions”
Part of the reason, it appears, is that Christians, for instance,
“don’t realize emptiness because they do not have the view of emptiness.”
And here’s me thinking that we should learn to respect those with whom we disagree!
I could go on, but this is long enough.
Update on 20 April 2009:
In April of 2009 a longstanding thread on e-sangha on the tradition of tulkus and its future outside Tibet took a very amusing and revealing turn when the discussion was joined by Gesar Mukpo:
(Picture from Mahasiddhi)
Gesar Mukpo is one of Chogyam Trungpa’s sons by his English wife, Diana. As the slugfest that followed was very much to do with personalities and statuses, I should declare my own position vis á vis Trungpa: though I found some of his early books inspiring back in the 1970s, and though I’m grateful for some of the translations that were done under his aegis, I found that his later work became increasingly incomprehensible, presumably as he descended further into the alcoholic abuse that killed him. Whatever qualities he may have had, he set a terrible example through his antics – search for his favourite disciple, Thomas Rich, aka Ösel Tendzin, who was appointed and installed as his “regent” if you have any doubts about that. So I have, as you can see, no axe to grind in support of his legacy.
Gesar himself is a case of great relevance to that thread, since, as Trungpa’s child, he was recognized as a tulku. (The reconition of tulkus may sometimes have a spiritual basis, but it often serves to keep authority in the family – but that’s another story.) He is also in the process of launching a film about tulkus recognized in the west and who, like him, have not gone down the traditional tulku path of going into a monastery, studying, doing long retreats and in due course becoming a traditional teacher. There is a trailer for the film on youtube.
I spent too much time sifting the thread on e-sangha to prepare this post, but one benefit of that is that I can now throw most of my references out and cut to a few examples from the main spectacle. Essentially we saw a polarization – in the blue corner, Gesar Mukpo, with a few supporting voices saying things like “give him a chance”; in the red corner, Malcolm Smith aka Namdrol and his followers. It must be said that in his few earlier appearances at e-sangha, Gesar had perhaps annoyed some of the stiffer contributors to the forum with self-mockery such as:
Hello everybody, I’m a tulku and I can tell you that it is awesome. I can see through walls and do my own laundry. (Jan 2008)
Check out my movie about tulku’s … It’s a documentary and I’m in it. I use my ever-present luminosity laser eyes to cook up some smores for a single girl who only wanted meditation instruction.
So where, in my humble judgement of course, Gesar seemed to come in expecting the normal give-and-take of a conversation to which he most plainly would be able to make at least some relevant contribution, he was met with comments like that from Dragon379 who said that he should show “good manners” by reading “this topic from the beginning to the end“. I should point out that this is a rolling internet discussion, and that the thread concerned finally reached 1212 posts – the eqivalent of a few hundred book pages.
After Gesar said of Malcolm that “You’re angry, have a bone to pick and haven’t put your Dharma together“, “Pero” described this as “one big fail (sic)”. Pero feels that if one reads e-sangha long enough one will inevitably come to see the correctness of all Malcolm’s views.
It was said – with justification, no doubt – that Gesar had argued “ad hominem” here, by criticising Malcolm’s personality and attitudes rather than his concrete views. But if ever the pot called the kettle black, this was it: on April 15 Malcolm pronounced that “Gesar clearly thinks he is a highly realized person“, while on 18 April “Pintor” wrote “Look for the pride in his posts“.
At one stage Gesar asked which is more important: “Awakened mind or mastery of the logic?” This was siezed on as a false dichotomy. “thegiantalbion” described it as one of “the sorts of things my nineteen year old students weed out of each other’s papers“. (The point at which this internet conversation was supposed to become a closely argued piece of reasoning escaped me.)
In the end, shortly before the thread was closed, it was left to Malcolm to pull himself up to his full height with the following gems (all on 18 April):
MS: Just start reading the board, Gesar. I have 18,000+ posts. I am sure you will find something to chew on.
MS: To be a good historian, indeed to be a good scholar in general, one must be able to change one’s narrative when encountering new information.
(Has he been reading this blog, I wonder?)
MS: To be a good doxologist, however one merely needs to faithfully recite a fixed narrative that one has received.
And finally, most impressively of all:
MS: I am a good doxologist, I am also a good scholar.
What was that about looking for the pride?
Another, I hope final, update on 26 April 2009:
So Malcolm has been reading DangZang – he sent me a message! If I’m going to mention it at all, I should, in fairness, give you it in its full form. He begins by quoting from above:
“Malcolm pronounced that “Gesar clearly thinks he is a highly realized person”"
Yes, Because Gesar asserted that he felt he really was in fact the reincarnation of Sechen Kontrul.
You should learn how to cite things in context, rather than painting things your own particular shade of disapproval.
Also binroundtheblock was banned not because of criticizing me– he has banned because he used a proxy that matched the addresses of another chronic doublenick person i.e. humble.
The idea that people are banned from e-sangha because they disagree with me is ludicrous and false.
So get it straight, thanks.
I have really neither any idea, nor is it my place to judge, what Gesar thinks about this “recognition”, which was given to him by his father (and confirmed, so I believe, by no less than the 16th Karmapa) when he was young. I have no wish to trawl through everything on that sometimes unpleasant thread. What I did want to do is point out that this is an ad hominem criticism – precisely what Malcolm and his supporters accused Gesar of.
In the message above, Malcolm said that binroundablock was banned because he was in reality the same person that uses the nickname “humble”. But binroundablock was not that person. He was banned without explanation, inquiry, or the courtesy of an answer to his own questions, apparently because the e-sangha moderators mistook him for someone else. I replied to Malcolm that this showed that the moderators’ actions were ill-guided. I also pointed out that since no good reason for binroundablock’s suspension was ever given, it is hardly surprising that people would think that it was a result of his critical words about Malcolm. Frankly, it still looks like that, but who knows?
To his “So get it straight, thanks” I could only answer that “I could say the same to you“.
I suppose it would not have been realistic to suppose that e-sangha would admit that
1) to ban a poster in the mistaken belief that the poster was an alias for someone else
2) to do so without warning and
3) to refuse even to acknowledge inquiries from that poster
could be a mistake.
I rest my case. I have said my piece, and find that my interest in the issue has come to an end.