Tanaka was born in 1947 in Japan but grew up in Mountain View, California. He received his B.A in Anthropology from Stanford University in 1970. He then received his masters in Philosophy and Indian Studies and his Ph.D. through the Graduate School of Humanities Doctoral Program in Buddhist Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. In 1991 Tanaka was appointed the Rev. Yoshitaka Tamai Professor at the Institute of Buddhist Studies, an affiliate of the Graduate Theological Union at Berkeley, California. He was president of the Buddhist Council of Northern California and served as editor of Pacific World: The Journal of the Institute of Buddhist Studies. In 1995 he became the pastor of the Southern Alameda County Buddhist Church.
Tanaka is the author of numerous articles and books on the subject of Buddhism. He was interviewed as part of the PBS report Tensions in American Buddhism in 2001and Talk of the Nation program of National Public Radio. In 1998 he became professor of Buddhist Studies at Musashino University in Tokyo, Japan. He produced and appeared in a television series sponsored by the Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai foundation that aired in 2005, with DVDs later distributed. He gave the keynote address at the 750th memorial observance of Shinran in February 2010. (Source Accessed July 21, 2021)