The Zen Predator of the Upper East Side: Our Longreads Member Pick

The Zen Predator of the Upper East Side

Mark Oppenheimer | The Atlantic Books | November 2013 | 88 minutes (22,700 words)


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EIDO SHIMANO, a Zen Buddhist monk from Japan, arrived at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport on December 31, 1964, New Year’s Eve. He was 32 years old, and although he had just spent four years in Hawaii, part of the time as a university student, his English was poor. Besides his clothes, he brought with him only a small statue of the Buddha and a keisaku, the wooden stick a Zen teacher uses to thwack students whose posture sags during meditation. Before flying east, he had been offered temporary lodging by a couple who lived on Central Park West. Not long after he arrived—the very next day, according to some versions of the story—he began to build his sangha, his Zen community. He did this, at first, by walking the streets of New York. The followers just came.

“It was the middle of the 1960s, full of energy,” Shimano recalled when we met for lunch in 2012. “And all I did was simply walk Manhattan from top to the bottom. And in my Buddhist robe. And many people came. ‘What are you doing? Where are you going?’ So I said, ‘I am from Japan and doing zazen practice’”—Zen meditation. It was a kind of Buddhism, he told the curious New Yorkers. Now and again, somebody asked to tag along. Yes, Shimano told them. Of course. Before long, he had a small space to host meditation sessions, and all were invited. “Little by little, every single day, I walked entire Manhattan,” Shimano told me in his still-fractured English. “And every single day I picked up two or three people who were curious. And that was the beginning of the sangha.”

Within weeks, Shimano had an enthusiastic sangha of perhaps several dozen novices, who met daily for zazen. They rotated from one follower’s apartment to the next, learning to sit and meditate. One day a Canadian woman in her 60s, who had been sitting with Shimano every day, said she was returning to Canada, and she handed him an envelope. “I opened it, and there was a check for $10,000!,” Shimano said. He used that money to rent a five-room apartment at 81st Street and West End Avenue. Very soon thereafter—this is still early 1965—a friend told him that he might try to affiliate his growing organization with the Zen Studies Society, which had been founded by D. T. Suzuki, the Columbia University instructor whose English-language books had helped popularize Buddhism in the United States. Suzuki had returned to Japan, and his society was now moribund. Shimano went to see the society’s lawyer, George Yamaoka. “I said to George, ‘I came here about the ZSS,’ and he said, ‘Would you like to join?’ ‘Yes!’ I just signed. And then he immediately resigned, and I became the only ZSS!”

The followers, and the money, kept coming. An anonymous donor gave enough to purchase a carriage house on East 67th Street; in 1968 the renovated building became the home of what Shimano named the New York Zendo (a zendo is a hall for meditation). Another devoted student, Dorris Carlson, the widow of the founder of Xerox, gave him $1 million. “This is for you to establish your monastery in the country,” Shimano said she told him, “where regardless of the racial background, national background, man or woman, everybody could come, and could practice meditation.” In 1969, with Carlson’s money, which she soon doubled to $2 million, Shimano purchased a 1,400-acre property, in the Catskills town of Livingston Manor, that had once belonged to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s brother James. There, Shimano led the construction of Dai Bosatsu Zendo, which opened on July 4, 1976. That October, a writer for The New York Times Magazine marveled at the “consummately Japanese” monastery. Dai Bosatsu’s architect had, the Times reporter wrote, been sent to Japan to get the details right, and had hired Japanese carpenters for the finishing work. Inside Dai Bosatsu, students were assuming Japanese “dharma names” and eating Japanese delicacies like pickled plums. The opening ceremony had been conducted first in Japanese, and only afterward in English. Shimano was now the abbot, or head monk, of the first authentic Zen temple outside Japan.

By 1976, membership in the Zen Studies Society, which had been near zero in 1965, was close to 300. With an elegant Manhattan headquarters and a Japanese-style monastery in the mountains, Shimano led one of the largest sanghas in the United States. 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. Over the next 35 years, the Zen Studies Society continued to flourish. Its two locations, one perfectly situated to attract wealthy Upper East Siders, the other an idyllic escape from the city, hosted all the important Zen teachers from the United States and those visiting from Japan. By 2010, there were several dozen Zen centers in the United States, and although a few others had residential monasteries like Dai Bosatsu, none of them could match the combined age, beauty, and prestige of what Shimano had built—not to mention its proximity to New York City, with its supply of educated spiritual questers, the perfect audience for Zen.

For Shimano’s disciples, being at Dai Bosatsu—gardening there, sleeping there, meditating there, and eating those pickled plums—was the purest form of Zen life one could achieve in the United States or, perhaps, anywhere in the world. Thousands of eager students studied with Shimano and his monks. Many attended the grueling seven-day sesshins, intensive sitting retreats where people meditated the whole time, except during meals, and were entirely silent, except during short breaks for private counseling with the teacher. Some students moved to Dai Bosatsu for months or years. Monks abandoned their old careers, even their families, and became new people: shaving their heads, wearing their robes, becoming so commonly known by their one-word dharma names that their friends forgot their given names, had no idea what they had been called in their previous lives. For these devotees, such things hardly mattered now. The sangha was the community that mattered.


ON THE NIGHT of June 21, 2010, a Monday night, about 20 members of the sangha were eating in the dining hall at Dai Bosatsu. After dinner, a student I’ll call Daphna, who was then in her late 20s, with pale, rather Goth looks and a husky alto voice, stood up and asked for everyone’s attention. She then gave a long, disorganized speech about secrecy, shame, and the need for openness. A filmmaker who had directed one low-budget movie, Daphna had been practicing Buddhism off and on at Dai Bosatsu for about two years, and had been keeping a secret for nearly that whole time.

“At the end of the meal, she sort of cut in and said what she wanted to say, and everyone else was quiet,” Stefan Streit, who was sitting next to Daphna at dinner that night, told me. Streit, who is now an organic farmer outside Philadelphia, was then a resident monk at Dai Bosatsu. The night before, Daphna had told him and two others what she was planning to say at dinner. “So I knew what the topic was as soon as she took the floor,” Streit said. As for those not in the know, they could tell that Daphna was angry, but at first they weren’t sure why.

Fred Forsyth, an artist who now lives in New York City, remembered that her speech “was very long, and she had clearly been preparing it.” She spoke of “authority” and “power,” and how she was “secretly in a relationship” with someone who wielded much more power than she did. As Daphna spoke, Forsyth realized that his fears were being confirmed. It was clear that Daphna was describing a prolonged sexual affair with Eido Shimano, who was sitting right there. A monk named Bonnie Shoultz recalled that Daphna was particularly upset that she’d had to keep the affair secret, for close to two years.

When Daphna was done, everybody was silent except for one man, a relatively new resident who had been at Dai Bosatsu, working and sitting, for about six months. “Thank you,” the man said. Shimano himself said nothing. As Stefan Streit remembers it, Daphna left the dining room first, followed by Shimano, who “got up according to his normal routine, and his attendant bowed him out of the room”—offering a gassho, placing the hands together: a gracious move that must have seemed ironic, even grotesque, given what had happened just moments before.

Daphna’s allegations, it turned out, were not the first hints that Shimano wasn’t the man his followers hoped he was, and that the world he had built was not what it seemed. One week earlier, the Zen Studies Society board had met to discuss allegations of several decades of sexual impropriety, allegations that had surfaced on the Internet. The charges were damning, and well sourced, and Shimano had not denied them. The board had drafted a new set of ethical guidelines, the text of which included an acknowledgment of past indiscretions by Shimano. The hope had been that this new ethics statement would resolve the online rumors, which largely referred to events many years in the past. But news of this more recent affair spread quickly, and it forced prompt action. On July 19, 2010, Shimano resigned from the board of the Zen Studies Society and said that he would step down as abbot in 2012.

But in early August 2010, I got an e-mail from a member of the sangha who believed that Shimano’s phased retirement, with attendant honors, dinners, and valedictory speeches, would only forestall the necessary healing in the sangha. This member hoped that, as a journalist who covered religion, I would tell the world about Shimano’s behavior. On August 20, I wrote an article for The New York Times in which I described the online allegations, recounted Daphna’s bombshell at Dai Bosatsu, and quoted several sources discussing the board’s deliberations. My article seemed to hasten Shimano’s departure: on September 7, he announced in a letter that rather than waiting until 2012, he would step down as abbot at the end of the year.

Shimano did leave, but he did not go quietly. 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 were, 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.

Shimano’s defense, as outrageous as it may sound to some, is worth inspecting. Not because I side with Shimano, but because 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.” Buddhists, they know, or think they know, do not have the Jewish, Christian, or Muslim beliefs in “dualism,” in good and evil; they are not censorious, always worried about sin and shame. Drawn to what they imagine is a kinder, gentler way of being, imported from a more pacific part of the world, Buddhists themselves, confronted with the worst things a teacher can do, may choose to be willfully naive. It can be especially hard to face demons in a tradition that promises that there are none.


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