Showing posts with label dojo. Show all posts
Showing posts with label dojo. Show all posts

Monday, March 14, 2016

Dojo

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! 

 
Yokaichi High School Dojo. Photo Copyright Peter Boylan 1991

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.






Sunday, May 10, 2015

What Makes A Great Dojo



I noticed that I’ve been writing about what things aren’t quite often lately. This is an attempt to write about what something is.  What makes a great dojo? The dojo is the center of budo practice, and finding a great dojo is tougher than you’d think, even in Japan. When we look for a great dojo, what are we searching for?

“Dojo” is an old term for a place where one studies the teachings of Buddhism.  When Sanskrit was translated into Chinese, this was used to describe the spot where the Buddha completed the path to enlightenment.  It was the dojo 道場.  the way place.  The word dojo therefore, was ancient when the Japanese martial arts instructors in the Edo Period (1604-1868) began using it to describe their training halls.  

The usage has drifted a long way from the original meaning of the place where enlightenment was achieved. The ancient Japanese applied it to mean places where the teachings of Buddhism are studied, and within Buddhist organizations in Japan, this meaning is still used. The meaning though wandered further when some Edo Period martial artists started calling their training halls “dojo.”  Now the word is commonly used throughout the world.

I’ve seen many gorgeous dojo in Japan, from the stately Butokuden in Kyoto, to the lovely and peaceful dojo at Kashima Shrine, to many small, private dojos that are delightful pockets of beauty. The longer I train though, the more I come to understand that a dojo, no matter how lovely, is empty space that we have to fill with life and breath.  I’ve noticed that both non-Japanese and Japanese alike will use “dojo” to refer to the members of the training group, not just the facility.  This recognizes that it is really the people who make the empty space into a dojo, not the designated purpose of the space.

Interior of the Butokuden. Copyright 2014 Peter Boylan


It’s the qualities of the people and their relationships that make a dojo great. I had a discussion with a some friends about what they feel makes a great dojo.  A lot of the ideas were about the physical space and things that are nice.  While I agree that a beer fridge is a wonderful thing to have in the dojo office, I’m not sure it’s a necessary component of an excellent dojo.  I’ve had great experiences in the parking lot back of Sensei’s house, and lousy ones in gorgeous, dedicated spaces (with beer fridges!).

The things I look for in a great dojo are the people.  I find that if you’ve got good people, the physical space will get taken care of.  On the other hand, if the people and relationships aren’t good, the physical space won’t keep things together.

The number one item on most people’s list of requirements for great dojo, and what everyone thinks about first, is the teacher. Having a good teacher is important, because the teacher sets the example for everyone else of how things are supposed to be in the dojo. In a merely good dojo, the teacher can be anywhere from a competent technician to world class, but they will likely maintain a somewhat distant teacher-student relationship. The teacher never stoops down to the students level.

In a great dojo though, the teacher is more like a head student than a teacher standing above everyone at the head of the classroom dispensing the lesson.  These teachers are every bit as much students of the art they are teaching as the newest beginner.  They find a joy in polishing their own skills, and discovering new things about their art that is as strong and fierce as that of any student.  This joy in practicing, improving, and discovering new things about their budo, and the teachers ability to share this with the rest of the dojo is what stands out for me in the teachers at great dojo.  The teacher’s personal skill level is almost incidental.  It may only be a few steps ahead of the students, but that’s fine.  The teacher is leading the dojo on a great, joyous journey of improvement and discovery, not dispensing wisdom and correction from on high.

This sort of teacher demonstrates and establishes the critical respect and trust that, for me, has to permeate a dojo for it to be truly great.  Because these wonderful teachers are sharing a journey with the students, they naturally treat everyone as respected and important members of the dojo. In a great dojo, everyone is contributing to the activity of learning and discovery, from the most senior members to the the lady whose dogi  is so new you can still see the creases from the package. As hard as it is for beginning students to believe, they are critically important too.  They don’t know what’s supposed to work on them, so they only react when techniques really do work. In great dojos, that respect is there for everyone, regardless of rank or experience.  The teacher sets the example, and everyone in the dojo respects the teacher and each other deeply and sincerely.

I’ve written about the unusual trust that can develop between martial artists before. In great dojo, this feeling of trust is everywhere. Students trust the teacher and each other. In great dojo, people who can’t be trusted are not welcome to train. If someone cannot be trusted to treat their partners with respect and to protect their partners body and health as if it were their own, that person will be gently but inexorably rejected by the dojo. Members of great dojo are great people, though they never think of themselves that way. They trust each other and take care of each other.

That trust and care means that people watch each other and go out of their way for fellow students. Trust isn’t just about what we do with the techniques. It means trusting each other enough that we can pull each other aside if we see a problem developing and bring it to each other’s attention without engendering anger or resentment.  This really differentiates the great dojo from the merely good ones. There is always a sense of zanshin regarding the health and safety of all members in a great dojo.

I mentioned above a little about the value of beginning students in a dojo. In great dojo, all the students are seen as valuable, and are valued for the variety of knowledge and experience they bring to the group. Great dojo have members with a huge variety of budo and conflict experience. These dojo usually have a good share of students who train more than one martial art, and usually a sprinkling of law enforcement officers corrections officers and military veterans. All of these different sets of experience and viewpoint are valued and drawn upon in a great dojo. Great teachers and members of great dojo aren’t intimidated by people who practice other arts and have different experiences. They treasure such members for the variety of perspectives they bring to the dojo. Instead of ignoring everything that doesn’t fit within a narrow orthodoxy, these members will be called on to share their perspective, regardless of their rank in the dojo.  No art has a complete knowledge of every aspect of conflict, and law enforcement officers can bring one set of perspectives about violence, while students of weapons arts can bring valuable understanding of the real capabilities of weapons to dojo that practice arts that primarily focus on empty hand technique. In great dojo, everyone with expertise and perspective are will find themselves called on in class to share what they know, especially if it is different from what most in the dojo expect to be true.

This is the next thing I look for in great dojo, a ruthless desire to reexamine everything students and teachers think they know about their art. In these dojo there is no sacred orthodoxy.  Instead there is a constant search for greater, deeper, more complete understanding. Recently I’ve been in a number of Aikido dojo that are notable because they are inviting people from other traditions and styles to teach and share their arts, even when it calls into question they way things have been done in that dojo. These are great dojo. Their search for understanding and mastery doesn’t end at their door.  Instead of closing the door on anything that contradicts their understanding, they invite those teachers with different perspectives in.

Only training in one art, and never experiencing other arts and perspectives leaves you with a very skewed understanding.  No art is big enough to contain everything there is. I’m not saying you have to study everything. There isn’t time in one life to do that. Great dojo and great teachers realize they don’t have all the answers though, so they make a point to expose their students to a variety of styles and perspectives. Kodokan Judo includes some efficient techniques versus knife and sword. However, if you only practice them with people who aren’t experts in the use of those weapons, you won’t understand all the ways things can go wrong. A few hours with a qualified swordsman can clear up a lot of misconceptions about the real maai and speed of the weapon.

A poor dojo declares theirs is the only way, and discourages students from seeking other perspectives.  A good dojo acknowledges that other ways and perspectives have value. A great dojo makes sure students encounter multiple perspectives and ways of doing things by having them demonstrated and shown in the dojo so students can get a taste of them.

Great dojo don’t rely on just one teacher either. A great dojo may well have one exceptional teacher, but they aren’t limited to that teacher. I always love going to study in Japan. The dojo I am a member of there are filled with high level teachers. Imagine dojo where the median rank is 5th dan. This sort of dojo is quite common in Japan. At the dojo in Kusatsu, I can remember nights when there were four or five 7th dans and an 8th dan on the floor. I started iai in a little country dojo with two 7th dan iai teachers. The kendo dojo had 7 teachers with 7th dans in kendo.  This was in the countryside.

Great dojo develop depth and encourage breadth among their teachers. My iai teacher, Kiyama HIroshi, is 7th dan in iai, jodo, and kendo. He has lesser ranks in judo, karate, and jukendo as well. The other teachers in the dojo are 6th or 7th dan in iai, and most have dan ranks in at least one other art. If Kiyama Sensei can’t teach, the people teaching the class in his stead will all be highly experienced teachers as well. Great dojo have room for many people to be great. It is assumed that everyone can become great, and it’s expected that everyone will to the best of their ability.

This leads to the next element of a great dojo. No one is ever satisfied with where they are. There are no destinations in a great dojo. Everyone, including the top teachers, are still striving to improve their skills and understanding. Everyone is encouraged to keep pushing forward along the Way.  Any Way 道, including budo 武道, is a path, a journey. Great dojo always quietly remind all the members, beginning students and senior teachers, that the way doesn’t have an end point. Everyone is always trying to improve. When I train in Japan, the senior teachers will teach, but if you watch, you’ll see them quietly training as well. Omori Sensei, even though he was 8th dan hanshi and 90 years old, still trained every time he came to the dojo. He would often play with the kata at such a level that I had trouble understanding what he was doing. Seeing a 7th dan teacher ask her fellow 7th dans to critique her technique and accept their comments and work to integrate them into her kata is a marvelous experience. People may hit plateaus, but they always keep working, moving forward until they get off the plateau.


There are many elements that make up a great dojo, but for me, they are about the members of the dojo.  A big, spacious building with a beautiful shomen and lovely decorations, stacks of equipment, and a refrigerator stocked with beer is pointless if the people are arrogant and callous, unwilling to learn anything new or different, and indifferent to their partners’ health and welfare. A great dojo is filled with concern for everyone who trains there, from oldest to newest, and they are always striving to transcend their current level of understanding, even if it means giving up ideas they had thought incontrovertible.









Thursday, February 27, 2014

Laughter And Joy In The Dojo

                Budo practice is intense and serious business.  After all, we are practicing techniques for hurting and killing each other.  There aren’t many things that serious.  Practice is filled with opportunities for accidents where people get bashed with sticks, their arms broken from an overzealous joint lock, seriously injured or even killed by a poorly executed throw.


               The vision of grim,dour martial artists facing off with wooden swords, giant naginata and whipping kusari makes a lot of sense.  Pure focus on your training partner so you can understand her movement, and make sure you are not where the strike lands is important.  When someone is earnestly trying to hit you with a very large piece of wood, cracking a joke probably isn’t a good idea.  


               The only problem with this image is that it’s false.  Koryu budo dojo can be filled with laughter.  A couple of weeks ago I was at a big budo gasshuku, and we were working on some fairly advanced kata.  Some people had quite a bit of experience with the kata and others among us were learning them for the first time.  We were all working out details in the kata.


               This is not to say there are any huge surprises in the kata.  They still use all the same principles and techniques everyone in the group has been studying for years and decades.   The advanced part is the subtle interplay between the partners for control of the timing and spacing.  You’d expect every brow to be scrunched into furrows with the effort of concentrating on these subtle applications.


               Sometimes you’d even be right about that.  As the teachers demonstrated various points, everyone was silent and focused.  Then we’d pair up and start working through the kata, slowly at first, and gradually picking up speed as we felt more confident in the basic patterns.  That’s when the laughter started to break out.  People would be working through the kata and some bit would go sliding out of control just as the teachers had warned.  Our best efforts would result in slips and misses and we began laughing at ourselves.  We would take turns trying to do what the teachers were patiently showing for the umpteenth time, and as the kata again slipped out our control, we would begin laughing, and the teachers would be laughing along with us.


               When we are exploring something, trying to push our understanding of things, even in something as lethally serious as koryu budo, we are playing with the techniques and the principles and the timing and the spacing.  Whenever we blow the maai or the timing, especially when practicing with someone much more accomplished, that’s when the laughter and smiles will break out.  If I blow the spacing, instead of attacking the teacher with my sword, I am likely to find the tip of his sword just past the end of my nose, and a few feet behind that, a huge grin on his face.


               We’re working on figuring these things out.  There is plenty of room for playfulness in those moments.   As we try different ideas and approaches, working to grasp the points being taught, most of our ideas will fall short and it’s easy to laugh at our own attempts.  This is particularly true when an idea’s weakness becomes apparent part way through the execution and we can see why it won’t work, but it’s too late to stop.  You know you are about to blow it, and there is nothing you can do except laugh at the results as your position collapses.


               The smiles when we figure something out are big and gleaming too.  The kusarigama has bedeviled me for years, and honestly, I think it will keep bedeviling me for years to come. For all that, when I finally made a couple of mental and physical connections recently, I was laughing with joy, and my teachers were smiling along with me.  They were thrilled I’d finally gotten at least a little of what they have been patiently trying to get through my thick skull.  It was moment of happy celebration for all of us.  And then we dove back into practice and I promptly whacked myself in the face with the leather ball we use in place of an iron fundo on the end of the chain.  This time I smiled and my teachers laughed.  Not too hard though, because it seems to be a common hazard of learning to handle the kusarigama in our style. A little gentle laughter though takes some of the sting out hitting yourself in the face.


    Koryu budo is serious.  That doesn’t mean that practice has to be serious all the time.  Any good dojo, filled with solid, mature students and confident, experienced teachers, will also be as full of smiles and laughter as it is with with quite concentration and focused practice.  In fact, if you don’t see frequent smiles, and hear occasional laughter, I would be worried about the quality of the dojo.