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Intro to Ajikan Meditation (with Translation of an Ajikan Manual)

Last year I traveled to Japan, where, in between the usual touristy stuff, I was introduced to Buddhist meditation practice for the first time in Kyoto and later stayed overnight at a monastery south of the city. I knew something of Zen before my trip, but I ended up getting a taste of several different traditions and gained far more real-world experience of actual Buddhist practice and belief than I could get in the pages of a book.

I’m actually heading back to Japan for a vacation in a few days, so this week I’ll take a break from writing on metta practice to introduce a type of visualization-mindfulness practice called ajikan that I experienced last year.

Ajikan is a meditation that uses the Sankrit letter/syllable “A” as both a holy mantra and a segue into a visualization technique not unlike Tara practice done in tantric Buddhism. It is associated with the Shingon school, which is one of the more esoteric and “religious” schools of Buddhism and is a major lineage in Japan. The monastery I stayed at (Eko-in) is one of dozens of Shingon temples in the town of Koyasan, which itself is the headquarters for the Shingon school.

What makes IDP so accessible is that we are a secular institute and not tied to any particular lineage; we have folks here who hail from the Mahayana, Theravada, Tibetan, and Zen traditions, or none at all. I’d like to humbly add to that diversity today by sharing my translation of a manual on ajikan practice that I got at the Shingon temple and which I’ve been holding onto for the past year. So without further ado…


Meditation on the Esoteric Sanskrit Letter “A”


The Truth of Heaven and Earth

Ajikan meditation refers to meditation using the Sanskrit letter “A” () as a focus point. The letter “A” is a mantra representing the Truth of Heaven and Earth.

The Truth of Heaven and Earth is the foundation of all things in existence, the foundation upon which humanity relies, the source of the eternal way (Tao). All living beings in the Universe – in fact, everything that exists, everything that we see and hear – arises from the Truth of Heaven and Earth. This Truth is the ethereal form of the Universe, vast in its mystery. It has no fixed form, yet it takes on all forms; it has no fixed shape, yet it manifests in various shapes – here lies the vastness of Existence, inexplicable in its esoteric nature. It is the mother of all creation, the source of life for all sentient beings in the Universe. This blessing encompasses all things indistinguishably. Such life is not confined to the realms of past, present and future. Rather, it is a light that shines everywhere conceivable, and because of this it is called Nyorai Buddha” (Mahavairocana). The letter “A” is Nyorai Buddha’s mantra, summed up in a single letter. By meditating on the letter “A”, one meditates on none other than Nyorai Buddha himself.


The Serenity of a Mountain Hut

Ajikan practice can be done anywhere and anytime, but it should, if possible, be done in a quiet place at night or in the early morning. In general, a mountain hut at nighttime is a quiet place. But more than any other time, it is at daybreak when the mountain’s aura is freshest, letting the clear waters of the mind flow naturally and washing away the lingering dust of one’s thoughts. Within this silence and your own inner stillness you can sense the reality of your own mental state; it awakens in your focused, un-drifting mind, and a deep happiness boils over that is beyond words. How serene this is!


The Ajikan Image – The Focus of the Meditation

The ajikan practitioner venerates an icon representing the Truth of Heaven and Earth. An icon with this image drawn on it should be mounted on a wall. This could be a drawing of a white lotus flower with eight petals superimposed over a round moon, with the Sanskrit letter “A” inscribed above it in gold. The letter “A” represents the Truth of Heaven and Earth residing in the hearts of all mankind – that is to say, pure, enlightened Buddha-nature (a pure aspiration toward Buddhahood). The full moon represents the virtue of enlightened wisdom, brought about by Buddha-nature. The lotus flower is a physical representation of the virtue of pure compassion. This image is called the ajikan icon.


Sitting Quietly, Breathing Rhythmically

To put it simply, the way to proceed with ajikan practice is to first face the icon, clasp your hands reverently in prayer, and then quietly be seated.


How to Sit

You should sit quietly and peacefully, with correct posture.

There are three ways to sit: heiza style, half lotus style, and full lotus style. The half lotus and full lotus positions are standard practice in zazen (sitting meditation) but depending on the situation, even heiza style will not serve as a hindrance.

Heizais the normal, everyday sitting posture among the Japanese: you sit on the floor with both knees facing down and with your feet tucked back; your toes are slightly tucked back; your rump rests between both heels; and your knees should be positioned about 10cm apart.

In the half lotus position there are two ways to fold your legs. One way is to put your left foot under your right thigh and rest your right foot on top of your left thigh, and conversely, to place your right foot under your left thigh and rest your left foot on top of your right thigh. As a general rule, the Shingon school employs the former method while the Zen school employs the latter.

The full lotus position is the same in both the Shingon and Zen schools; you sit placing the right foot on top of the left thigh and the left foot on top of the right thigh, so that both legs are crossed.

Next we describe how to clasp your hands. Rest your right hand face-up on your left palm (in contrast, the Zen school prefers to rest the left hand on the right palm), bring the tips of your thumbs together to form a circle, and let your hands rest comfortably around your lower belly.

Your upper body should be held straight and erect without leaning in any particular direction. Your solar plexus should be soft to allow power to flow towards the lower belly, which itself should be held stiff. Your shoulders should be slack and your chest should be kept loose. Your jaw should be tucked back instead of jutting forward. Your tongue should rest by the upper palate and your lips and teeth should be kept even and still. Both eyes should be half-open, their gaze centered along the tip of your nose. Your should fix your gaze on a spot about 90cm to 120cm in front of the cushion; it is important to just let your eyes rest naturally on that spot.


How to Breathe

To begin, you should close your mouth and peacefully take in a breath through your nose, mindfully letting it diffuse throughout your body. Open your mouth just slightly as you mindfully and gently exhale. Continue to inhale and exhale in this manner three times.

Having done this, continue breathing through your nose, keeping your mouth shut. Allow each breath to be just as it is, without being deliberate about how to breathe or forcing an unnatural struggle over it.


Ajikan: Your Mindset

Let us briefly address the subject of your mindset when performing sitting meditation. There are various things to pay attention to, but above all else, the important thing is to approach meditation with a sincere heart and mind. That is to say, you must discard the mind that seeks and pursues or wants things. Once you have done this and made your mind sincere, the dirt and grime of your ego is naturally brushed off, transforming into a mind that is as pure and undefined as that of a child, removed from all intrusive thoughts. This sincere, uncorrupted mindset, by which you do not worry about anything, is the kind of mind that can reach out to the Buddha and achieve harmony with all things.


Breathing and Chanting the Letter “A” Mantra

While inhaling and exhaling, you should chant “Aaaaah…” between each breath. This should be done mindfully but without putting too much thought into it or obsessing over the quality of your voice as you chant.

Each breath, as you inhale and exhale, should lead itself naturally into the sound of your voice as you chant “Aaaaah…” so that your breath and voice become, in one instant, a single mantra composed of the letter “A”. The letter “A” is the Truth of Heaven and Earth. It is life that spans the ages – past, present and future. It is one’s true, ego-less nature. It is the truth of non-self, the greater, expansive self-beyond-self. It is the great existence of the Universe. It is the very foundation of one’s own life.


Meditating on the Letter “A”, Lotus Flower, and Moon

Within a perfectly round, pure, bright moon blooms a pure white lotus flower with eight petals. The lotus serves as a pedestal upon which the Sanskrit letter “A” shines with a golden radiance. These three elements, whether in the icon or in our minds or in all living beings, are the same entity – it is upon this image that you meditate.

Thinking in this manner, meditating on these three elements right in front of you, and meditating on them within your own heart, makes them grow and expand in all directions throughout the boundless world. At that moment, you forget the icon, forget your own self, and become one with the letter “A”, the lotus and the moon image; you become one with the Truth of Heaven and Earth, and you can live with ease in the ancestral home of the soul – a soul with no fixations, marked by harmony and peace.

Finally, the essence of the letter “A”, lotus flower and moon image that has unfurled throughout the world, subsides and returns once again into your own heart. Then you sit for a while thinking of nothing at all, having forgotten your own self and your mind. Finally, you leave the world of asceticism and the ajikan session comes to an end.


A-ji no ko ga a-ji no furusato tachi ide,

Mata tachikaeru a-ji no furusato.

A-ji no ko ga hasu no utena ni nori no fune,

Tsuki no miyako ni ima kaeru nari.


The child of the letter “A” returns to its ancestral home,

The home to which its parent has returned.

The child of the letter “A” rests upon the lotus,

And now becomes the moon.


Gachirinkan: Viewing the Full Moon

 In exactly the same way that one meditates on the image of the letter “A”, lotus and moon, it is also a good practice to meditate on the moon within one’s heart. This meditation is called gachirinkan — a meditation on viewing the full moon.

First, imagine the bright, full moon right in front of your face, at the very tip of your nose. Meditate on this image with your eyes half open. After a while, close your eyes gently and open them again gently, and keep repeating this during the meditation. Next, imagine the presence of the full moon within your chest and integrate the two within yourself, imagining them as a single entity. Then, envision this entity growing larger until it finally spreads out in all directions throughout the boundless universe. At that moment, other than that brilliant light there is neither the shape of the moon nor the meditating heart of yours, but rather a total unity of the moon, heart and Universe, which transforms completely into a bright new world. You exist in a harmonious mental state of brilliant one-ness while thus being freed from worldly thoughts and concerns. You feel a deep sensation of the ecstasy that comes from the state of intense mental state known as samadhi that is achieved through gachirinkan meditation. Following this ecstatic experience, the singular moon-and-heart entity that has unfurled throughout the Universe gradually subsides, shrinks back to its original size, and returns to its place in your chest. You forget the full moon, forget your own self, and remain in a state of silent meditation for some time, free from corrupt thoughts. Afterward, you gradually depart from this state of intense mental concentration.

For people new to this practice, it is not necessary to practice gachirinkan from beginning to end in one sitting. It is well enough to start just by devoting yourself to envisioning your heart and the moon, as depicted in the ajikan icon, directly in front of you, and to practice this with diligence every time you meditate. When you close your eyes, you will naturally be able to see the full moon clearly in your mind’s eye, and then you can envision and meditate on visualizing your heart and the moon being within your chest. Depending on the situation, you can open your eyes and focus on them as if they were right in front of you at point-blank range, then close your eyes and focus on them being within your chest. Take some time to practice this continuously.

After mastering this technique, you can proceed toward envisioning the expansion and contraction of the moon within your heart. Furthermore, as you approach mastery of this technique, you do not necessarily have to envision this expansion and contraction, yet you can exist peacefully in a naturally occurring mental state of brilliance and freedom from mental obstacles.


Source text: Ajikan no jisshuu (Ajikan Meditation Practice), written by Ryuuzui Nakai, published by Eko-in Temple, Koyasan, Wakayama prefecture. Translated by Marcel Henrique Votlucka, August 2013. Image credit: http://anyoji.org

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If anyone wants a PDF copy of the translation....

....please feel free to email me: [email protected].

Very comprehensive, great

Very comprehensive, great resource and timely with yesterday's moon...

So glad IDP is a place where we can learn from all traditions.

Thank you and enjoy your vacation in Japan!

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