What Makes a Dojo?

I’ve spent the better part of my life in a dojo; more accurately, I’ve spent a good deal of time in many different dojos. There are numerous attributes that each of these training halls had in common – and some glaring differences. It was only after accumulating thirty years of retrospective data that I truly began to appreciate each one of these places and their impact on my life and my training. I might even say that the dojo itself left just as indelible a mark on my journey through the martial arts as some of my teachers or training partners.

So What is a Dojo?

Literally translated from Japanese, “Do” could be interpreted as many different English words; Art; Way; Method; and Path to name a few. The word “Jo” is a little less complicated; it simply means “Place.” The Dojo is “The Place of the Way.” When looked at in this light, it almost takes on a mystic quality, invoking misty mountains with cypress trees and a narrow winding path leading to a temple with upturned Pagoda roofs and a Shaolin Master sweeping the front step. This kind of imagery has always appealed to my identity as a seeker, and I have an almost archetypal relationship with many aspects of this mythical place.

Shaolin Monastery

There are many different kinds of Dojos in the world; you’ll notice that there is no mention of “martial arts” in the translation, so the “Place of the Way” could be any place where you pursue yourself. This could be a music studio; a writer’s desk; a pottery wheel; a meditation pillow; the inner space of your mind. Any place where you are finding your craft is a dojo, and that place has a direct impact on the way your craft is formed.

Finding your craft requires a great amount of letting go; releasing preconceived notions and old matrices in favor of a new paradigm previously unknown. This can be frightening work, to say the least. At best it involves deep encounters with your sense of self; essentially finding ways to re-write your story in the unfolding fable of your life. Finding yourself in unpalatable surroundings can have a profound effect on your ability to hone your craft – which for many pursuits is commonly done through the crafting of tools with which to pursue the art. Think of the painter; she doesn’t simply start painting masterpieces; she spends years refining tools to paint with. There are brushes, pots of paint, empty canvas awaiting a new idea to come to life; each part of the experience beckons something previously unknown to spring out of the painter’s mind and on to the canvas. Indeed, art is the concept of coaxing something new out of nothing; making tangible and visceral that which was previously ethereal and nebulous. It is the act of creation.

Add to this the all-important muse along with the artist’s study and the stage is set for the masterpiece of a lifetime.

Painters Studio

This same concept can applied to martial artists; but the end product is not something necessarily tangible to the casual observer. The thing that is teased into existence is not a painting or a sculpture; it is not a piece of music, but is in fact a new sense of self. With all art forms a new sense of self is realized upon the creation of any piece of art; something that transforms the artist from that point forward. Once the picture is done, it becomes part of the canon of the individual artist; a marker along the way to finding what comes next; which in turn becomes another marker.

Martial artists also encounter this sense of newness; but with the martial artist, the act of creating art is one and the same to the journey; in essence, the martial artist becomes the art. The tools needed for the culmination of this journey are not unlike the tools necessary in other art forms. But since the martial artist’s movement is the art, the quality and availability of their tools affect the martial artist in a profound way.

Snowy Dojo

The dojo is a blank canvas; every day you come to train, you step out onto a blank canvas. This is not to say that you erase the previous picture that was there; rather, that picture becomes a permanent marker along the journey. Instead, there is a new layer added every time you enter the dojo. Creating an environment that facilitates this journey in a real way can have a profound effect on the possibilities that are pursued within the context of your training; this is why the dojo should look like a blank canvas. The floor, ceilings, and walls are all blank, creating space for  the mind to open to new possibilities of the picture to be painted today.

The pursuit of the martial way is a group activity. You cannot learn martial arts alone – you must have others to push off of. That said, it is an incredibly personal experience, one that involves your search for the authentic self. This is why there are mirrors everywhere in the dojo; self-reflection will be clearly seen in the mirrors while self-reflection is experienced pushing off of others. Mirrors are not only a valuable training tool, they are revelatory in their function as an unveiler of integrity; you may think that you’re standing up straight, but the mirror will tell you the truth.

As humans, we unconsciously cultivate our tendencies toward self-delusion; sometimes it seems to be necessary to withstand the rigors of this world. Our collective inclination to color our experience with half-truths is likely propelled by the need to balance our perspective with what we already know to be true. This is akin to balancing Newtonian and Quantum Physics; there is no way for these two concepts to exist side-by side; yet they both tell a part of the truth. From the perspective of each theory, each professes to tell the whole truth; and yet there are times when each theory completely fails to explain the natural world. The search for integrity is on par with ferreting out your fears and preconceived notions; they are what block you from seeing the truth. Mirrors allow you to compare your inner experience with what you can empirically observe.

This brings me to the last component of a dojo – the training surface itself. Again, having a vehicle for unadulterated feedback brings perspective. Nature provides one of the best surfaces to train on; it is alive, and responsive. You get feedback from the ground all the time. But without the appropriate framework, there is no way to decipher the information that you receive. Nature is expansive, unbridled; connecting to the ground is literally just that – connecting to the ground. When I built the floor in the San Francisco dojo, I was looking for something to emulate just that – something that provides an echo; something resilient and alive; something that moves when you move; breathes when you breathe. The compression active floor not only provides the safety that we all crave, but also provides important feedback to the practitioner.

Bruce

A floor that invites active participation is one that beckons you to train. I knew I had a piece of the puzzle right when we were visited by two 3-year-old girls. They walked in the dojo; stopped, mouth agape. They looked at each other, and without nary a word, proceeded to kick off their shoes and run on to the floor and proceed to fling themselves into what they perceived as an obvious play-space. Their raw and genuine response rolling on the padded floor, jumping to see the floor spring back invoked a deep sense of play in both of them, and they ran themselves in circles until they fell over in exhaustion, laughing and giggling.

This is the training partner I want to spend time with. A partner that can help me see myself; one that has nothing but a genuine response to me and all that I do; one that encourages me to look for the truth; one that allows a new picture to be painted every day. This training partner is the dojo.

Come and discover your true passion.

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