Ajari Jomyo Tanaka,
A Short Biography
Ajari Jomyo Tanaka is a very
Dharma teacher with a fascinating life story.
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
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
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
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.