The liar

I was just reviewing some of the e-mails I’ve received from people who tracked down information on Dr. Ajari here, and at the risk of perpetuating old gossip, here’s one of my favorites:

These are some things I’ve heard but I have no idea as to their validity.

Dr. Ajari carried the Dali Lama on his back when he (the D.L.) was fleeing the Chinese invasion of Tibet. …

Dr. Ajari would awaken at 2 or 3 am to practice because this was the most powerful time.

Dr. Ajari was hired by the Sony Clan to go into lengthy retreats atop a Japanese mountain for the health of their family and business.

Don’t worry friend — no one seems to be able to validate many of these stories! I was going through some other e-mails, too, and nearly all of them refer to one or more difficult if not impossible to confirm stories that I’d put in the category of Dr. Ajari Myths. In fact, one person wrote to me about “Dr.” Ajari because, he said, the man didn’t have an M.D. or Ph.D. (I wrote back to say that I had not yet attempted to confirm his academic credentials, but I, too, question them.)

My point? Some of you think Dr. Ajari was a liar.

Your words, not mine. Still, some of you who knew him are going to read that and be pretty unhappy with me for writing it. Others might relish seeing those words typed out with the blunt force of short words in a simple sentence. And other still will say what a longtime student of his told me:

It doesn’t matter if he lied. Or not. He was a great teacher.

“People would get caught up, saying how could he have been jumping out of planes in the Congo when he was supposed to be carrying the Dalai Lama out of Tibet? Some people said, ‘They’re lies, lies!’ But they’re just stories.”

I won’t attribute that quote at the moment, but it came from someone who lived with Dr. Ajari for nearly two decades. He said that if you got stuck in the facts and chronology and is he a liar?!?, you were probably missing an important dharma lesson that had little to do with veracity of the facts.

If there is far more myth than fact here, does it matter? We expect honesty to be one of the many virtues our religious leaders possess. Is it bad if your spiritual teacher lies to get a point across? Or is trust, a requisite factor in the student-teacher relationship, destroyed by a lie?

Or is this debate an exercise in dualism?

The chronology of nonexistent time

From the Dr. Ajari files…

A chronology of Dr. Ajari’s life has eluded me for some time. No one seems to know exactly when he did anything, just that he did a lot: was detained in Dachau, subsequently went to Japan to study Shugendo and complete a three-year retreat, jumped out of airplanes in West Africa, accompanied the Dalai Lama out of Tibet, served as a field surgeon in the Korean War. And this is all before arriving in San Francisco. Somewhere in there, pre-SF, he also earned a medical degree, a PhD, and a doctor of theology degree (Dr. Ajari was apparently a triple threat).

Dr. Ajari was born in 1932, which means he would have been a teenager in Dachau, and probably Japan, too, in the late 1940s. If he was in Korea for part of the ’50s, and helped the Dalai Lama flee Tibet in 1959, then…

Okay, help me with the math here — when did he have time to become a doctor three times over? In fact, when did he earn his bachelor’s degree?

And when did he jump out of airplanes in West Africa? And why?

I’m completely confounded, but this is why I want to write his story. The tale of Dr. Ajari is the stuff of myth and legend. One of his students in the 1980s was so fed up with his tall tales that she hired a private investigator to upend his wild stories. But as far as I know, the only thing this revealed was that he’d been excommunicated from one church, and that wasn’t a factoid he was hiding, anyway.

Dzogchen texts suggest that by checking our watches and keeping a calendar, we’re missing the point — time doesn’t exist. In trying to understand the chronology of Dr. Ajari’s life, I sometimes feel that is the only explanation. He must have been living outside of anything resembling a linear space-time continuum.

Or he had a gift for exaggeration.

Lama letters

From the Dr. Ajari book project file…

Over the weekend I spoke with Sister Mandarava, who has been a student of Dr. Ajari’s since 1969. She and Sister Nairatma were the only students still living with Dr. Ajari when he died in 1993, and they were left with all of his belongings, including what Mandarava dubbed “the lama letters.”

I’ve heard plenty of stories about Dr. Ajari’s support — monetary and otherwise — of various Tibetan Buddhist lamas who came to the San Fransisco area in the 1960’s and ’70s. But the stories vary, and I don’t have much in the way of specifics. However, the sisters have boxes of letters from various lamas thanking Dr. Ajari and his Order for various good deeds. These lama letters will serve as hard facts to accompany the stories his students tell from memory.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that Mandarava, like every other student of Dr. Ajari’s I’ve spoken with, said Dr. Ajari’s history before he arrived in the U.S. is the stuff of myth and legend, even his family history and education. Ouch. I’ve known all along that this would be tough information to track down, but I’d hoped that the sisters might have something concrete, some tidbit that would at least give me direction. But it looks like I’m on my own researching Dr. Ajari’s supposed medical school education, his supposed time in the Royal Air Force and his supposed assistance in the Dalai Lama’s escape from Tibet.

At least everyone can confirm his penchant for using his larger-than-life stories to teach even larger points about dharma.