From Zen Buddhism to Preying on Vulnerable Women

The chilling story of Eido Shimano—a new ebook from The Atlantic

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.

Bob Aitken, Shimano’s first host in America, is now dead. But in a handwritten note dated May 4, 1964, apparently for his own records, he recorded the reason for Shimano’s departure from Hawaii. This note, haunting in retrospect, foreshadows all the abuse that was to come. 

Aitken and Shimano had jointly decided to volunteer at Queen’s Medical Center, hoping to learn a bit about mental illness. Two female Zen students from their sangha had recently been hospitalized there for “mental breakdowns.” That’s when a psychiatric social worker noticed something curious: a name from their case records—Shimano’s—was the same as one of the hospital’s volunteers. This coincidence was passed along to Dr. Linus Pauling Jr., a psychiatrist at the hospital, who investigated the matter, then reported back to Aitken that Shimano had played a role in the women’s breakdowns. Aitken claimed that he made his own inquiries; he was vague about what he found, but he became convinced that Shimano “had indeed played such a role” in the women’s breakdowns and was guilty of “ruthless ... exploitation” of the women.

“I felt,” Aitken wrote, “that if I confronted him with the evidence, he would deny everything, and the Sangha members generally would support him. Further, I was concerned about protecting the two women.” Aitken asked the advice of  senior members of the Buddhist community. He even flew to Japan to consult with his own teachers, the legendary Nakagawa and Yasutani—neither of whom, it turns out, doubted that Shimano was capable of sleeping around, but both of whom seemed unwilling to accept that this behavior was really a problem.

Aitken never went public with what he knew about Shimano, not in 1964, and not for the next half century until his death.

Tormented, Robert Aitken saved his correspondence with and about Shimano. He must have made it known that he was keeping the definitive dossier on Shimano, because over the years insiders leaked to him copies of private letters to the Zen Studies Society board, minutes of board deliberations, and other documents that helped complete the story of Shimano’s predations. In 2003, Aitken gave the papers to the University of Hawaii at Manoa, and in 2008, just after his 90th birthday, he agreed to allow public access to the papers he had been saving for 45 years.

The papers might have just sat in boxes at the university archives in Manoa had not a former Shimano follower, a Zen priest named Kobutsu Malone, requested that photocopies of the entire archive be sent to his home in rural Maine. By 2008, when he was able to get the papers, Malone had developed an obsessive grudge against Shimano. An engineer by trade, Kevin Malone—he would take his dharma name, Kobutsu, as his legal name in 2010—had begun in 1977 to sit, or meditate, at Shimano’s New York Zendo, where he was soon volunteering his handyman skills, doing carpentry, electrical wiring, and other tasks. In 1979, he moved to Dai Bosatsu, Shimano’s country monastery, with his future wife. They took up residence in the gatehouse, from which Malone superintended the campus, “running the buildings, all the vehicles, logging, everything,” he told me last year. He got married there in July of 1979, and had a son, Sean, in 1980. The next year, the family left for California, where Malone had a job offer. He and his wife divorced in 1990, and many years later he learned that his ex-wife, who had slept with Shimano before marrying Malone, had continued a casual affair with their teacher during their marriage—as his ex-wife confirmed for me.

I heard this story in October 2012, when I visited Malone at his one-bedroom apartment in a forgettable development in coastal Maine. When I arrived, I was greeted at the door by Malone, a short, blunt, white-haired, heavy-lidded, chain-smoking, double-wide bruiser of a man—and by his enormous Newfoundland, Harley-Bear. Malone’s small living room was crowded with files and a large computer—tools in his daily fight to expose Shimano, a task to which he says he has dedicated tens of thousands of hours. “I’m on disability,” Malone said when I asked how he supported himself. He unbuttoned his shirt so that I could see his surgical scars. “I’ve had five heart attacks, two strokes, and a triple bypass,” he told me as he took a puff on a hand-rolled cigarette, which between drags rested in a large glass ashtray.

What finally brought the wrath of Malone down on Shimano was not the revelation that Shimano had cuckolded him, but rather a letter that Shimano wrote, or perhaps only signed off on, to one William Van Gordon, an English Buddhist whose mother was the subject of a 2007 story for the Daily Mail called “The Cult Guru Who Stole My Son.” Malone, who already had an avocation raking muck in Buddhist circles, began his own investigation into what he saw as the fraudulent practices of Van Gordon and his mentor, Edo Shonin. Wondering who this self-appointed American P.I. was, Van Gordon wrote to Shimano, asking whether it was true that Malone was a Zen priest, as he had claimed in correspondence. The e-mail Shimano sent back, likely written by his secretary, was painfully dismissive. “He came to Dai Bosatsu Zendo in the early eighties,” Shimano wrote. “He then attended a few sesshins with me and expressed his interest to become our caretaker ... As a caretaker, he did not do any formal practice with the sangha. After a few years, he left [Dai Bosatsu] and I would see him sporadically, when he would offer to help with the maintenance of our city temple ... He was living in New Jersey, with his two boys, separated from his wife ... He begged me to ordain him, telling me that he needed some kind of credential to support his chaplaincy work in prisons. I finally agreed ...”

Presented by

Mark Oppenheimer writes the Beliefs column for The New York Times and is the author of Dan Savage: The First Gay Celebrity. He can be found at markoppenheimer.com.

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