“The Zen Predator Of The Upper East Side”

That’s the title of Mark Oppenheimer’s new e-book, detailing the troubling life and times of Eido Shimano, the Zen Buddhist monk with a history of exploiting the women who came to him for spiritual guidance. A teaser from the book:

Eido Shimano, the Japanese Zen Buddhist monk whose exploitative relationships with female followers over a fifty-year period were to tear apart the American Buddhist community, arrived in the United States in August 1960, at the age of 27, to study at the University of Hawaii. He moved in with Bob Aitken, a Zen teacher who had first been exposed to Zen as a prisoner of war in a Japanese camp, afterwards studying with leading Japanese masters. Shimano stayed in Hawaii for four years, then left for New York City, promptly to organize one of the country’s great sanghas, or Zen communities. Until the women he serially abused finally began to speak out, in the last two years or so, Shimano was a pillar—the pillar—of the New York City community of Zen Buddhists.

Jay Michaelson reviews the book:

As with many religious sex scandals, this is old news to insiders. Other Zen roshis with similar allegations against them include Richard Baker, Joshu Sasaki, Taizan Maezumi—the list goes on, really. The pattern is disturbingly familiar from Catholic, Ultra-Orthodox Jewish, and similar systematic abuse scandals: insiders made aware, positive values of spiritual teacher stressed, abuse hushed up, abuse repeated.

Yet in Shimano’s case, the facts are murkier.

First, all of his “victims,” if that’s even the right word, were adults; this was not a case of predation of teenagers, as in the Catholic Church. Second, none were raped, in the narrowest (and legal) sense of the term. And while some sexual acts are alleged to have been coerced, most of Shimano’s reported liaisons were consensual—that is, if there can ever be consent within a power relationship such as that between guru and disciple, which perhaps there cannot. Finally, while Shimano was married, it’s not known what his wife made of the allegations, or when she knew of them.

Then there’s the matter of culture. Shimano’s actions are inexcusable by Japanese, American, or any other cultural standard. Yet they did take place within a system of power and patriarchy that includes male sexual philandering within it. How different was Shimano’s behavior from that of a typical Japanese businessman? This is neither to excuse his conduct nor make generalizations about other cultures – but it is to recognize that Western terms such as “sex offender” may not completely fit.

James Ford praises Oppenheimer’s treatment of a complicated subject:

I don’t think it will prove to be the last word, it’s really too early for that. And the book, at sixty-seven pages really more an essay, is brief. So brief he doesn’t even mention the efforts on the part of Reverend Shimano’s Dharma successor the Reverend Genjo Marinello to address the issue, which would be required in any comprehensive review of what had transpired. But it shows enough, and it is devastating. …

And [Oppenheimer] avoids some of the possible traps for the unwary. For instance much has been made in some corners of the fact Reverend Shimano, who received his formal authorization in a public ceremony witnessed by perhaps a hundred people, turned out not to have been registered at the home temple in Japan. This is significant. But people have gone on to suggest therefore he didn’t actually have Dharma transmission, the critical authorization for a Zen teacher. Oppenheimer simply cuts through this as “arcane controversies…” And, instead, keeps his focus on the confusions of the heart that allow such things to happen, both for victim and perpetrator.