Have you ever heard the word dojo before? It’s pronounced like “doe-joe.” (do like in “doughnut” and jo like the name “Joe”) Today, the word is often translated as a training hall for self-defense or martial arts. In American made movies, and through other media, almost everyone has either heard of the word or seen a dojo. You might even have friends, family members or children that practice at a dojo. While the above translation is often used, it does not really capture the essence of what dojos originally were or ought to be today.
Looking at the Japanese etymology of the word will shed some light on its meaning. “Do” in Japanese means Way or pursuit. “Jo” means a place. Some say that the word derives from a word in Sankrit. That word is bodhimanda. Bodhimanda translates as “a place of awakening.” This is coupled with the fact that the kanji for do is character of a man walking on a road and the other part is the jugular vein. As westerners, we often tend to limit meaning purely to the function of a thing. I don’t know if this is so much the result of preference or the limitations inherent in certain languages. In any case, one can see from the above deeper insight into what a dojo is that its real function goes far beyond simply training in a martial art or learning self-defense.
In recent years, cage fighting has become popular among certain segments of society. Cage fighting borrows its movements and techniques from various martial arts systems. If you visit a cage fighting place of training they are usually called a gym, pit or center. Walking into one these environments is vastly different than walking into a traditional dojo. Both places will have people training but that is about the extent of the similarities. Here I’ll focus on a the traditional dojo environment as that is our focus. I do encourage you to visit a cage fighting gym and then go visit a traditional martial arts dojo. Be sure that the dojo specifically states that it is a traditional dojo, art or environment.
Now keep in mind what a dojo is. A place of awakening, pursuing or traveling the path of the Way. In traditional dojos, two main components should become immediately apparent to you. Etiquette and respect are essential to the training. You will see many of us who maintain the traditional ways bowing before we enter a dojo. It does not matter if the place is a garage, yoga studio, office space or actual martial arts school. Remember a traditional martial artist does not assign meaning based solely on the function of something. Purpose matters. So, when we bow before entering (and leaving) a place of training we are showing respect for not only the place of training, but also for what will transpire there and those who will participate.
You’ll also note that we bow to each other. This is true of both genders and all ranks. That is, no person is excluded from displaying respect based upon rank or status. What you will notice is that higher ranks will usually be shown additional deference. This may be expressed by having them begin and end classes positioned in front of lower ranking students. During training or execution of techniques the lower ranks are usually positioned behind higher ranks presumably so they may learn by seeing the techniques executed more correctly. So what might appear to an outside observer as discrimination, it is nothing of the sort. Students, including black belts, may be required to clean/sweep floors before or after training. This is to keep the space clean for all practitioners.
There is also an entire etiquette and respect as it regards the practice uniform one wears. In karate, we call this a gi. (sounds like “geese” without the ending) I personally fold up my gi and rap it with my belt in a very particular way after every practice. The method of folding may differ among schools that still follow this tradition, but the purpose is the same. Contrast this with throwing your gym clothes in a bag, the back seat of your car or your trunk. Dojos use to be places of healing, culture and refinement. Along with martial arts one might also learn gardening skills, chess, philosophy, calligraphy or to play a musical instrument. A battle tested warrior might also have mastered flower arrangement or cooking! A place for pursuing the Way. A place of awakening.
Since my childhood I have enjoyed learning, practicing and teaching martial arts with an emphasis on karate. The meditation, etiquette, rigorous training and deep principles have carried over into virtually every aspect of my life. In fact, I could not imagine what I’d be like without this lifelong commitment to a Way or path. Mindfulness and practice don’t end in the dojo. That is what I hope you take from this post. Taking the original purpose and meaning of a dojo and applying it to life is a beautiful way to live. Many years ago one of the personal mantras I use to repeat to myself is “the world is a dojo.” I use to say that out loud to some people. Honestly, I don’t think they always understood my reason for saying this. But, they would laugh and agree I suspect because a dojo can be a place of intense training or even hardship. So, that correlation probably resonated with them. But, I also mean the refinement, learning and healing aspects of the dojo in this mantra.
Whether you practice martial arts or not, I think it’s a nice paradigm to hold about life. As in the dojo so it is in life. Pain, suffering, trials and tribulations. But, there is just as much discovery, beauty, growth and revelation about one’s self and the world we live in…
-Sensei Derek Fletcher