Eido Shimano kinda sorta denies it all and chastises the New York Times

The Eido Shimano controvery seems unwilling to die, like the undead in the current crop of Zombie novels and movies. I’ve avoided saying much on it during the last two months because it seemed rather pointless to do so given the lack of any public information on what is going on and also the fact that the Zen Studies Society board appeared to be trying to deal with the matter. For their sake and space, I figured it would be best left alone for a while. It is also a difficult matter to discuss without it descending entirely into negativity and nastiness.

For those who have not been folloiwng, Eido Shimano, the Abbot of the Zen Studies Society and Dai Bosatsu Zendo in New York, has been accused (more than once) of having rather improper sexual relations (predatory ones, at that) with female students over the years. This alleged behavior dates back into the 1960s according to the accusations made and, over the years, has spawned such things as a 1982 Village Voice article on the matter (which was not printed at the end of the day).

There was an article in August in the New York Times, which I mentioned previously. This got quite a bit of public attention and turned this from a sordid scandal within the Zen community into a public blackening of the Dharma, given Eido Shimano’s very public role as abbot. There were also a number of followups as a variety of actions and rumors of action at the Zen Studies Society took place. (See here, here, here, and here.)

Since then, very little seems to have happened other than people coming forward to write letters to the ZSS board. Eido Shimano has now made a public response, at least to the New York Times. The Shimano Archive has published a letter written by Eido Shimano to the New York Times chastising them for their article and tepidly denying the allegations. I say tepidly because, while questioning why the late Aitken Roshi would be writing about him, he doesn’t address anything that Aitken Roshi actually said. You can read it for yourself from the PDF scan above or my transcription below:

December 1, 2010.

News Editor
The New York Times
620 Eighth Avenue
New York, New York 10018

Re: “Sex Scandal Has American Buddhists Looking Within” - published Saturday, August 21, 2010, The New York Times National section

Dear Sir,

It has been three months since the article written about me appeared in your National Section. In this day and age, it quickly spread all over the world and, I am told, was translated into Japanese. I was hurt deeply. However, I endured for more than three months and endeavored to calm down. Since this is the year that I am planning to retire, I do not this article and my retirement to be linked. One has nothing to do with the other - there is no cause and effect.

As the date for my retirement is nearing, I think that at the very least, I need to point out the inappropriate attitude of the writer of the article and the misinformation contained in his piece. I highlight the following:

  1. Mr. Oppenheimer did not interview me for this article, nor did he speak with Mr. Aitken or the young woman who is referred to in the article. The article states that he attempted to contact me and that I did not return several phone calls - this is just not true. I was never contacted by Mr. Oppenheimer, nor did I receive any correspondence from him at either my Livingston Manor address or my New York City address.
  2. It is clear to me from reading the article and knowing the facts, that Mr. Oppenheimer obtained his information from second and third hand sources and the opinions expressed therein are neither factual nor backed up by proof. In fact, none of the individuals who have been quoted in the article were at the dinner table when the purported statement was made and there could not have “overheard” what was said.
  3. In addition, I have no resigned because of these false accusations. At the beginning of this year, during a meeting of the Board of Directors in January, I made an announcement that 2010 was the 50 year anniversary of my being in America and that I planned to do a final fund raising for a mountain gate entrance to the monastery and would step down from the Abbot. This fundraising was to be the final act in a 50 year career in the United States. The article falsely states that I am stepping down from the Abbot because of allegations.

Moreover, I would like to mention the following: When the article appeared, I was in Switzerland doing a silent retreat. When I returned to the United States, many people brought the article to my attention. The effect has been profound. Many people are hurt and confused. As an aside, minutes from our Board of Directors meetings are private documents. If they wound up in Hawaii or in Mark Oppenheimer’s possession, they were improperly obtained and/or delivered. Did anyone question why Mr. Aitken would write about a Buddhist monk for 50 years, when I have had contact with him only twice since 1964. I shall look forward to what your journalist, Mark Oppenheimer, has to say about the contents of my letter.

Very truly yours,
Eido T. Shimano, Abbot

In response to this, over at Tricycle.com in a blog post from Septemer 7 detailing the Eido Shimano controversy, the Zen teacher and ZSS board member (as well as Dharma heir of Eido Shimano), Rev. Genjo Marinello left a comment on this letter to the New York Times on December 23:

I am sorry to report that Eido Roshi has yet to get past his denial. Just yesterday I read a letter dated December 1st, 2010, directed to the editor of the New York Times signed by Eido Shimano Roshi. I can only say that I was shocked, disturbed and offended by what I read. In this letter he claimed that the New York Times article that appeared August 21st was not factual and said that, “I have not resigned because of these false accusations.” In my mind, this statement makes a mockery of Eido Roshi’s public apology of September 7th. This letter to the NYT is a clear attempt to rewrite history and is a pure and simple example of denial.

Accordingly, I have written Eido Roshi (who, as of Dec. 8th, resigned as Abbot) and my colleagues on the ZSS Board that this denial undermines the spirit of the retirement agreement that is currently being negotiated. In addition, I mentioned that our willingness to allow Eido Roshi to occasionally see requesting senior students for dokusan (Dharma Interview) on ZSS property is predicated on the idea that he genuinely acknowledges and is remorseful for past actions and understands the damage he has done.

Under the circumstances, I have asked the full board to revisit our previous deliberations. I ask this with the belief and determination that the work of the ZSS Board can, to paraphrase what others have said in previous posts, help this organization actualize its potential to become a sincere place of practice and learning, an oasis of Buddhist wisdom, and an inspiring example of Right Living.

It appears that Eido Shimano is more concerned with his eventual reputation than the damage he did to the women involved, his students, the Zen Studies Society, and the Dharma. This seems likely to wind up being another example in the sordid history of teachers occasionally abusing their position that we’ll all get to point to as an object lesson later.

All of this does make me wonder, even though I think they went a bit overboard, if the San Francisco’s reforms after Baker Roshi’s sex scandals in the 1970’s were really the right idea after all. Putting too much secular power into the religious figure of a Zen Master seems to be problematic a little too often.

I do want to point out that the VAST majority of teachers and Zen Masters do not appear to have these sorts of problems but it is a reoccurring theme with a few and something I know people struggle in addressing.