Exposé in the Atlantic Reveals Many U.S. Zen Buddhist Teachers To Be Incorrigible Sexual Predators December 19, 2014

Exposé in the Atlantic Reveals Many U.S. Zen Buddhist Teachers To Be Incorrigible Sexual Predators

This paragraph in a new long-form piece in the Atlantic got my attention:

When we think of predatory clergy, we think of Roman Catholic priests. Their sins are far worse than what goes on in Zen circles. But the percentage of the Zen clergy implicated in sexual misdeeds is many times greater than that of the Catholic clergy.

Author Mark Oppenheimer, who also writes the biweekly “Beliefs” column for the New York Times, offers scant numbers, which makes his claim impossible to verify. And we should, I think, show more reticence than he does in comparing Roman-Catholic child rape to the overwhelmingly consensual exploits of randy Buddhist monks. But Oppenheimer does paint a convincing and pretty horrifying picture of a U.S. Buddhist culture in which the assorted Zen masters just can’t keep it in their pants (or robes, as the case may be).

His 13,000-word exposé, The Zen Predator of the Upper East Side, focuses mainly on 81-year-old Eido Shimano, a Zen Buddhist monk from Japan who arrived in New York in 1964, penniless but devout. Shimano’s timing was perfect. Influenced by the nascent counterculture of the sixties, swaths of Western society were eager to expand the definition of spirituality; like the Beatles and their Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, they looked toward the East. Downtown New York and even the posh Upper East Side were full of seekers and peaceniks. Within months, Shimano had enough followers to make a decent living, and after a couple of years, he had become a teacher to various moneyed acolytes. Dorris Carlson, the widow of the man who’d founded Xerox, ended up giving Shimano two million dollars, enabling him to buy 1,400 acres in New York’s Catskills, where he built a Japanese monastery and Zen retreat.

Some members were famous; others were rich. In addition to Carlson, with her Xerox money, the Bethlehem Steel executive William P. Johnstone, the publisher Barney Rosset, and the writer Peter Matthiessen were all students of Shimano’s. The Rockefeller Foundation gave money, too.

In the decades that followed, while he solidified his reputation as a teacher and businessman, Shimano was followed by whispers that he made aggressive sexual advances toward his younger female students, taking advantage of his pupils’ awe for him. Multiple women complained of sexual harassment, with at least one saying that Shimano’s advances had been a “barrage.” But because the victims considered themselves pioneers of American Buddhism and didn’t want to hurt their movement, they didn’t press charges or seek publicity.

Oppenheimer describes how Shimano betrayed one of his students in the worst way after she confided in the acclaimed Buddhist that she’d been relentlessly sexually harassed by a music teacher in high school. The Zen master put his arms around her and claimed that he wanted to help her heal — with his penis, apparently. He pressured her into sex, and she says she has always regretted giving in.

In 1979, one male student wrote the famously horny Zen master a scathing letter, but didn’t send it. It surfaced in 2011. One passage reads:

You were married, you were the teacher, you had submitted yourself to the precept of moral conduct … But then I talked with some of your paramours … Each had thought of herself as “the only one.” Each had been unceremoniously ditched.

Also in 1979, Buddhists familiar with Shimano’s practices alleged in writing that

[Shimano] knowingly takes advantage of girls in mentally unstable condition and emotional vulnerability who come to him seeking spiritual help and guidance.

Nothing came of it.

Finally, in 2010, one of his students publicly accused him of sexual improprieties. Then other, earlier allegations came into sharper focus, and the board that oversaw the Zen Studies Society, Shimano’s enterprise, felt obligated to oust him.

Apparently, it hasn’t put much of a crimp in Shimano’s style.

He has taken with him some of the wealthiest students, leaving the Zen Studies Society in financial straits — nearly broke, according to some people. Shimano is still living in the uptown apartment that the Zen Studies Society bought in 1984 and has always paid to maintain. And he is currently suing his old society for the pension that he says he is owed, but which the society’s new leadership says he forfeited with his decades of bad behavior. In response to those charges, Shimano is arguing that, first, he was never the womanizer that he is alleged to be, and second, even if he was, that is no grounds to void his contract. According to Shimano, sex with students is not a violation of Buddhist precepts. By sleeping with a student, he now says, he might have been doing her a favor.

If that sounds callous and arrogant, consider this:

His views of sexuality are widely held in certain precincts of American Buddhism. In this country, we have learned the hard way that religiosity is no guarantor of morality. But many Americans still imagine that Buddhists are the good kind of religious people — or that they are not religious at all, just “spiritual.” In Zen Buddhism, the story of Eido Shimano’s abuse of power is so commonplace as to be banal, a cliché.

Oppenheimer clarifies:

In the 1960s, four major Zen teachers came to the United States from Japan: Shunryu Suzuki, Taizan Maezumi, Joshu Sasaki, and Eido Shimano. Andy Afable, one of Shimano’s former head monks, called these four the “major missionaries” of Zen, as they had all received “transmission” from leading Japanese teachers: that is, they had been deemed worthy to be the heirs, to be responsible for the persistence of the teachings. And three of the four, Afable noted when we spoke, have caused major public sex scandals: first Maezumi, and more recently Shimano and Sasaki. Sasaki, of Rinzai-ji, a Zen center in Los Angeles, is now 106 years old and, as his board members finally admitted in 2013, was groping and fondling unwilling students well into his 11th decade. …

But there are many lesser-known yet just as randy Zen teachers. For example, Afable might have added that at Chobo-ji, a Zen temple in Seattle, Genki Takabayashi made passes at his female students. And after his death, several students of Dainin Katagiri, the founding abbot of the Minnesota Zen Meditation Center, in Minneapolis, reported having affairs with their teacher, who had been married.

Today, one could reasonably assert that of the 30 or 40 important Zen centers in the country, at least 10 have employed head teachers who have been accused of groping, propositioning, seducing, or otherwise exploiting students.

In a now-familiar pattern,

Buddhists protected Shimano to protect Buddhism itself. That was the earliest, and remains the most important, reason Shimano’s behavior was tolerated. … From the first inkling of Shimano’s problem to his final expulsion, the sangha [Buddhist community] failed for nearly 50 years to confront a sexual predator in their midst. For lethargy and indifference, it is a record to rival that of the Catholic Church toward its pedophiles.

Oppenheimer’s article at the Atlantic is a condensed version of his e-book, which, if you can stand further tales of sexual and emotional abuse, you can purchase here.

(Image via Shutterstock)

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