Eido Tai Shimano, who as abbot of the Zen Studies Society in New York established a substantial following for his branch of Japanese Buddhism, only to resign in a sex scandal, died Feb. 18 in Gifu, Japan. He was 85.
His death was announced on the society’s Facebook page. No cause was given.
Shimano helped fuel interest in Zen Buddhism in New York and beyond in the 1960s and ’70s, a time of alternative lifestyles and spiritual searching. But years later it was found that he had also been having sex with a number of women who had come to him to be taught, revelations that raised ethical questions that roiled Western Buddhism.
Although Shimano retained devoted followers after the scandal broke in 2010, he became a pariah to many.
Shimano was born in Tokyo in 1932. His given name was Eitaro; he adopted his Dharma name, Eido, when he became a monk. He practiced the Rinzai Zen school of Japanese Buddhism, which emphasizes seated meditation, among other characteristics.
Shimano went to Hawaii in 1960 under the sponsorship of Robert Aitken, who had established a Zen center there. In late 1964, Shimano relocated to New York.
According to “The Zen Predator of the Upper East Side,” an investigative e-book by Mark Oppenheimer published by the Atlantic in 2014, Shimano was pressured to leave Hawaii as a result of questionable behavior with two female Zen students.
Shimano told of arriving at John F. Kennedy International Airport with virtually nothing and proceeding over the ensuing months to attract followers. “All I did was simply walk Manhattan from top to the bottom in my Buddhist robe,” he told Oppenheimer. “Every single day I picked up two or three people who were curious. And that was the beginning of the ‘sangha’” — his community of followers.
He quickly became abbot of the Zen Studies Society, a Manhattan organization that had been founded in the 1950s but was not particularly active by the mid-’60s. Among his growing group of followers were well-off people like Dorris Carlson, a philanthropist who provided much of the money that enabled him to create the Dai Bosatsu Zendo, a monastery opened in 1976 in the Catskills.
Countless people made the trek there to meditate, study and be taught. Rumors that Shimano, who was married, was having sex with some of those who had come to him for enlightenment circulated for years, so much so that Aitken tried to raise concerns.
“Over the past three decades, we have interviewed many former students of Shimano Roshi,” he wrote to the Zen Studies Society board in 1995, using the Japanese honorific that means teacher. “Their stories are consistent: trust placed in an apparently wise and compassionate teacher, only to have that trust manipulated in the form of his sexual misconduct and abuse.”
The matter flared into the open when, at a group dinner at the Catskills monastery in 2010, a woman rose and announced that she had been having an affair with Shimano for two years. He resigned from the board in July of that year. Two months later he resigned as abbot as well.
“Over time, I took your kindness for granted and arrogance grew in my heart,” he wrote in a letter to his followers at the time. “As a result, my sensitivity to feel the pain of others decreased. Now, as I reflect on the past, I realize how many people’s feelings and trust in me were hurt by my words and deeds.”