Wednesday, September 02, 2009

The dojo, its purpose and meaning

I came across this wonderful evocation of the nature of the dojo -- our place of training -- in aikidoka Richard Strozzi-Heckler's book Holding the Center - Sanctuary in a Time of Confusion:
A dojo is a space of commitment in which people practice together. What is powerful about the dojo is what it tells us of learning, and ultimately, of waking up, of being alive.
In Japanese, "dojo" refers to the place where we train "in the way". This points to two important distinctions. The first is that the dojo is a place of learning where one practices what is being taught. This is different from the conventional classroom where students sit passively taking notes or listening to a lecture. This is not to say authentic enquiry is unavailable in lecture halls, but it points to the difference between academic knowledge and an embodied knowledge that allows people to take actions that sustain and enhance their lives. In a place of learning like the dojo students practice what is being taught and over time begin to embody the subject matter. It lives in the body, it is who they are.
The second distinction revolves around the concept of "Do", which translates as "Way". The origin of the word "dojo" comes from the Sanskrit bodhimanda, which means the place of awakening. The Japanese kanji for Do is composed of two parts. One depicts a man walking on a road. The other is the human throat, which surrounds the jugular vein, representing the very core and pulse of our life. A man walking toward life. The Way is a theme of life. The dojo is a place where we awaken our body, grow the self, and unite with the spirit through rigorous and compassionate life-enquiry.
Walking back towards the dojo I can see students bowing at the entrance of the dojo as they arrive for the evening's training. Bowing is a ritual in aikido, as it is in many martial arts. At the beginning of the class we bow in respect, and at the end of the class we bow in respect. It's also a way of acknowledging the place where we learn. I have a Buddhist friend who bows to any place where he feels learning and training have taken place. This has included hotel rooms, a grove of trees, delicatessens, park benches, a friend's living room, even a jail cell where he was once detained for an illegal protest.
My teacher once tapped me on the chest and said "Jiri shin kore dojo". Mind as it is, is the place of training. He was reminding me that the dojo ultimately lives inside us, in our hearts, speech, thoughts, and actions. The dojo exists because of the meaning we give it. This meaning can never be lost from its place in the world because it is that place. The dojo is where we declare it to be. Each moment can be a place of awakening, of learning, of walking toward life.
Whew! That bears reading and re-reading.

A dojo is a place where we train

Not only can we develop ourselves and our relationships with others, but we can also develop our relationship with a space. No matter what difficulties I am facing in the outside world I invariably feel better when I arrive -- or even in anticipation of arriving -- at a dojo that I know.

This same spirit that we invest in our dojos, we should labour to bring to our homes, our work-places, and our schools.


Sue C said...

Hi Dan, that's a really inspiring description of what a dojo is. In some ways it's a bit like a description of a church - a church is not a building it's a place where people meet to share and learn about a commonly held belief. A church could be held in someone's house, outside in a garden, under a tree, anywhere. A dojo's the same isn't it - its where people meet with the common purpose of training in their martial art and learning the Way.

Dan Prager said...

Hi Sue

I think your spot on about the church / place-of-worship analogy. In the chapter that I quote from Strozzi-Heckler talks about the historical buddha sitting down under the bodhi tree to meditate -- the first dojo?

My wife feels the similarly about her craft circle meetings. Perhaps there are parallels (on a larger scale) to attending a big sporting match, rock concert, etc.

I reckon that wanting to be there is a big part of it. Being dragged along to religious worship / forced to attend classes that you don't want to, etc. kinda breaks the spell.