|Kyoto Butokuden Dojo. Photo Copyright Peter Boylan 2015|
Something happens when I take off my shoes, stick them on the shelf by the door, bow and step onto the dojo floor. For me, it’s like coming home after long trip, even if I was there yesterday. My stomach relaxes and my feet feel like they extend deep into the floor. My breathing deepens, and a smile seeps out from the corners of my mouth and flows all across my face. The dojo is my favorite, happy, peaceful place.
Dojo 道場、is an old word borrowed from Chinese Buddhism. When Buddhism entered China, the Chinese language was already rich with Taoist and Confucian spiritual terms. Buddhism borrowed freely from this trove of language to describe ideas from sanskrit. Terms related to “way” 道, “michi” in Japanese are frequently used for Buddhist ideas. Dojo is one of them. Written with the characters for “way” 道 and “place” 場, the term came to mean the spot under the bodhi tree in India where the Buddha achieved enlightenment. From there it was applied to halls where the Buddhist teachings, sutras, are studied and where monks chant and meditate.
Somewhere in the early Edo period (1604-1868) people began calling martial arts practice halls “dojo.” The Edo period was preceded by several hundred years of fractious war in Japan. During that time martial arts training related to military activity and generally took outdoors. Martial arts instructors traveled with the armies, which didn’t tend to have long term barracks. Training happened in the field.
It was only with the establishment of peace that permanent training halls became a practical option. The armies were mostly decommissioned, and the much smaller forces that remained were serving in peacetime. Troops were based in the castle towns and weren’t likely to experience the battlefield. Under these circumstances, troops, officers, and anyone who claimed the status of bushi, would need to train somewhere.
Instructors connected to the local daimyo, or lord, became established in most castle towns. It was probably not uncommon for training early in this period to take place in the dojo of Buddhist temples. These would have been the largest indoor spaces available initially. When purpose built budo training halls started to appear, they were built in a similar manner and carried the name with them.
The tradition of the temple dojo doubling as a martial arts dojo didn’t end when people started building dedicated martial arts dojo. The temple dojo hall, much like a church hall in the West, served as a sort of community hall, and would be used for many things in the community. The most famous instance of a temple dojo serving as a martial arts dojo is the place where Kodokan Judo was founded in 1882 in at the tiny, neighborhood Eisho Temple in Tokyo.
It doesn’t matter what the dojo is like, or even if it’s just the parking lot in back of my first jodo teacher’s house. When I bow to show my respect for entering the special space, even if the only thing making it special is my bow, I transform that space for myself. That bow I do before stepping into the training space marks it off from the rest of the world. The dojo is special because we make it special.
The dojo is a wonderful place where people are encouraged to grow and push themselves, to develop themselves as much as possible. Much of what happens in the world isn’t concerned with who we are or what we become. That’s not the world’s fault. Mother Nature is a tough lady, and sometimes personal development seems like a luxury when there are immediate needs of meals and mortgages.
For me though, that time I spend in the dojo is essential to being better at fulfilling those requirements of food and shelter so I can work on other things. The dojo is the place where working on myself, becoming better at being me, is allowed and encouraged. I know it doesn’t always look like that, especially when Hotani Sensei is yelling at me, but it is.
Sensei can yell at me all he wants, because he has proven that I can trust him. Training with him is as hard and as fierce as it gets, but not abusive. The dojo is filled with people I’ve learned to trust through the experience of training with them. That sense of trust makes the dojo a uniquely comfortable setting for me. I go to judo and people throw me around the room and try to choke me. I go to jodo and everyone tries to hit me with sticks. It’s odd, but, this makes these dojo more comfortable and secure to be in, not less.
That trust shows up in the respect everyone feels in a good dojo too. I respect people for overcoming their fears and worries and coming through the door. It takes a lot to decide you want to do something where getting banged and bruised is less a distant possibility and more a near certainty. Budo hurts sometimes, but so does life. Learning to handle it and distinguish between hurt and harm is one of those budo lessons that is useful all the time. It isn’t a fun lesson in the learning, though learning it makes you seem tough to people outside the dojo. The respect is simple. If you have have what it takes to show up and bow in, we respect that.
Stepping onto the mat in a good dojo isn’t like going home. It is going home. Everyone there wants to improve themselves and they want to see everyone else in the dojo improve too. The amount of care and concern is remarkable for something the world usually sees as just a hobby or pastime. These people will push me and pull me and drag the best out of me, and I’ll do the same for them.
When I first moved to Japan, and spoke about 10 words of conversational Japanese, I asked the people I worked with to introduce me to where I could practice judo. I’d been doing it for 4 years in the college before I moved to Japan and had a brown belt. One of the junior high teachers made some calls and got me introduced to the judo coach at the local high school, Sakashita Sensei. I was invited to come over and join the practice. I could barely introduce myself in Japanese, but it turns out I spoke fluent judo. I knew how to bow properly. I knew nearly all the general dojo terms and commands. In a land where I didn’t speak the language or know the culture, I discovered a place where I was welcomed and where it turned out I knew the rules, the etiquette and the language!
9,000 km (6,000 miles) from home, and I am welcomed into a dojo and invited to practice. That means these people invited me to try to throw them around the room, pin, choke and arm lock them. What wonderful hospitality! Of course, I offered them the opportunity to do the same to me, and believe me, they did. It really was a homecoming for me. As soon as I bowed in I was treated like every other player on the mat. They weren’t sure what a brown belt meant, since they only use white and black for adult ranks in Japan, but they were happy to throw me around and assure themselves I could take it while I got a feeling for just how far into the deep end I had jumped.
It really doesn’t matter where the dojo is, or what it looks like. Once I’ve bowed in, the air becomes sweeter, I stand a little better, and my step becomes more comfortable. When I’m in the dojo, I’m where I belong.