Ajari Jomyo Tanaka,

A Short Biography

Ajari Jomyo Tanaka is a very inspiring Dharma teacher with a fascinating life story.  Ajari is a traditionally trained Shingon priest, a meditation master, a well traveled religious pilgrim, a poet, writer, lecturer and a master of traditional Japanese calligraphy.  

Ajari Tanaka was born in 1947 and grew up in post-war Japan. He received his initial spiritual training, beginning at the age of 5 or 6, in folk Buddhism, Shugendo and shodo from his maternal grandparents. Ajari counts his maternal grandfather as his first teacher.  Read some "Birth Stories" related to us by Ajari.

After a young life of seeking, pilgrimage and developing his passion for writing he entered a Shingon monastery, Kongo-ji in Tokyo where he began his official training as a Shingon priest. After about 11 months at Kongo-ji he moved to Kyoto and entered Daikaku-ji temple and stayed for a little over a year. Ajari received his teaching certification in Shingon, shodo and kado (flower arranging) from this temple.

Soon after his certification he left Japan and stayed in India for almost five years, during which time he studied Sanskrit, Indian philosophy, practicing intensively and traveled extensively visiting the sacred Buddhist sites in India and traveling as far afield as Afghanistan. Ajari tells great stories about meditating at the site of the Buddhas of Bamiyan, the statues destroyed by the Taliban in 2001, being imprisoned for two days under suspicion of being a Chinese spy and being invited to dinner by machine gun toting Mujahadeen.

Returning to Japan, Ajari entered Yakushi-ji temple in Nara, a Yogachara school temple and stayed for approximately 3 years.  During this time Ajari studied Yogachara philosophy and began teaching.

In the late seventies Ajari visited the United States and was hosted by the head priest at the Koyasan Shingon Temple in Los Angeles. This was an old Shingon temple in Little Tokyo that served the large Japanese population in LA. This master, Takahashi Sensei had long held the dream of transplanting Shingon to the U.S.   Due to the competing demands and responsibilities in running this temple and the general sentiment of the time (Takahashi Sensei was imprisoned along with many Japanese Americans during the war) he was never able to achieve his dream. At that time Takahashi Sensei was chosen by the Shingon hierarchy to become the next archbishop of Koyasan, the spiritual home and headquarters of Shingon and needed to return to Japan. At this time Takahashi Sensei asked Ajari Tanaka to remain in the U.S. and fulfill his mission of teaching western students. Ajari Tanaka received an elaborate set of robes and numerous ritual objects from Takahashi Sensei during this time that Ajari indicates represent the transmission of this commitment to transplant Shingon in the west. Soon Takahashi Sensei returned to Japan and sadly passed away just prior to his installation as the archbishop of Koyasan.

Ajari then settled in New York City where he got an apartment in the Village. Having no support he worked at just about anything. Ajari was a dish washer, he taught calligraphy to young Japanese Americans and did a weekly radio show in Japanese. During this time he began to teach westerners Shingon meditation and recitation. As far a we can reckon, Ajari was the first Shingon teacher to teach western students openly and without ordination. Prior to this time Shingon, though there is a large laity in Japan, is primarily transmitted and practiced within the bounds of their priesthood. During this time Ajari founded the first Mandala Buddhist Center.

Ajari lived in NYC for about ten years, during which he taught in the City, Philadelphia and Boston on a regular basis. Though Ajari had a number of students who studied with him on an regular basis, he taught regularly within the bounds of the Macrobiotic community that was flourishing at that time. Ajari became good friends with the Kushi's who were the main proponents of the Macrobiotic movement at that time.

In 1987, Ajari was invited to visit Vermont, soon after which he moved to Lincoln Vermont, relocating Mandala Buddhist Center to an rambling Quaker farmhouse on 80 acres of land below Mount Abraham. Ajari lived there on and off until 1999, spending anywhere between three and six months a year in residence. During his time here, besides teaching local and visiting students he became a prolific author, publishing over a dozen books in Japanese. He would spend endless hours creating beautifully hand written manuscripts on various topics- poetry, essays, travel experiences and of course Dharma topics. Also during this time, Ajari traveled regularly to Japan and Europe to teach. 

This was also an very interesting time for Ajari concerning his personal practice. As he did when he was younger, he spent a lot of time hiking in the mountains, practicing according to the yamabushi tradition he learned from his grandfather. Also in this period he did an intensive practice of the Heart Sutra. Cherished by Shingon as containing the essence of Dharma, Ajari would recite the Heart Sutra hundreds of times each day. He has often said he completed a million recitations over a number of years. Ajari tells very funny stories of how this intensive practice made him go "crazy" or "broke his brain."  In 1999, Ajari's longtime friend and benefactor who supported his activity in Vermont, let us know that he could no longer support the property in Lincoln. A small group of Ajari's students closed the old Center and Ajari moved back to Japan.

Since that time Ajari has visited us for the first two weeks of October, when the autumn foliage is at its peak color to teach and train his students, conduct public programs and enjoy Vermont. He currently visits Europe each year to teach and train a growing number of students there as well as teaching extensively in Japan. Ajari continues to author books in Japanese, usually one or two per year, enjoying popularity with Japanese readers.

Ajari Tanaka teaches with warmth and humor, while projecting tremendous balance, strength and dignity. Though his English is not perfect he is a consummate communicator who continually reinforces the simple message that through simple, consistent practice we can all realize happiness, health and creativity in our daily life.

Subpages (2): Birth Stories Lincoln VT