The Dojo

by Kim Ivy

The term “dojo” is a Japanese word that means, “a place for practicing the way.” A dojo can be a simple room for meditation or a large gymnasium that accommodates several different activities. It can have beautiful calligraphy, hardwood floors and photographs of ancient masters sitting amidst wafts of incense. Or it can have ratty carpet, stained empty walls and smell like mildew. It can be pin-drop quiet or surrounded by noisy life. It can spread out over several locations. It can even have a cat. Most of us who study arts of internal cultivation have some sort of dojo where we come to practice, and after a while that place becomes a significant destination for embracing inner and sacredly defined activities.

The practice hall by its nature beckons us to focus, purify and grow. When we enter, we are asked to do so with an open heart and an empty mind. We are required to respect both the place and the other members. We are charged to temper ourselves in the face of lessons that are not what we think we need, and are most often not what we expect. Most essentially, we are urged to inquire within. At times this is a delightful experience and at times it is not. Yet, within the space we come to know teachings that hopefully guide us, explore methods that will in time awaken us, and develop insights that will, with hard work, inspire us.

There are many aspects to a healthy dojo. A good practice hall will continually welcome those of divergent lifestyles and backgrounds, and will be both generous and discriminating while disseminating its information. Contrary to some beliefs, it is completely unnecessary to give up oneself or one’s ideals to be a part of a dojo. As well, it is not important to have a certain religious inclination. Similarly, a good instructor will clearly discourage any sense of guru worship and support participation at the level that is comfortable for each individual.

Most dojos are places of community within which each person can create their own niche. This diversity of involvement is important to the balance of the environment. Some students are happy showing up once a week for class and practicing primarily on their own. Others may attend all available sessions. For others still, the dojo may be a way to explore their spiritual life. For others, their practice will be to gather students together to help with the cultivation of the space and the teachings. The basic principle of a dojo is to come together and work toward a sincere practice, however that is meaningful to us.

As students, we often stumble our way though the first few months in a new dojo, trying both to get a grip on the teachings and a sense of that particular dojo’s culture. This environment might be unlike what we are used to and we are called to question some fundamental beliefs we have about learning, behavior and spirituality. During that time it is important to pay close attention. How does the teacher teach? How do the other students behave? Is this place sincere and respectful? What is the latitude of the instruction and can I adapt it to my own life? Is there a sense of humor and of joy? There are many questions to research during those first few months, but the primary one is, “does this feel right for me?”

If we do choose to participate, a good dojo will inevitably challenge us to be more mindful. This challenge does not come as a directive from the teacher or any of the students, but from within the space that has been shaped by both the teachings and the earnest work of the participants. The interactions, even in a solo practice, become intimate because we are working with growth. We become more sensitive to our own process, more perceptive to others’, and more conscious of our exchanges. If we are to progress both individually and as a cohesive group, we must become more acute listeners, more awake to the effect we have on others, and more compassionate to both our classmates and ourselves.

In this way, a dojo is a place that conforms to the integrity of its participants. As with mindfulness, integrity is not an external mandate, but an organic process that takes us deeper into how we view our walk on the planet. Each person must come to their own definition and contribution according to their own heart. Though this is an individual process, when we choose to be a part of a dojo community, we leave an imprint, a signature on that community. We might ask ourselves, “what is my brush stroke right now?” “How might it be more clear and legible?” If we continue to examine this question, our spirit deepens and our sincerity flourishes.

Over time, a mature dojo will have many people cross its threshold and define its history. Some students will have brief tenure, others, years. Both teachers and students continue to grow, and at times outgrow each other. This is natural. Eventually, if the teachings, practice and process are sincere, the walls of a dojo dissolve into and blend with the world around it.

A dojo is a place, but it is most importantly a concept. The greatest gift a dojo can offer is the knowledge that every moment is our practice, regardless of venue. If we allow it to, the dojo experience can be a way of participating in life in a new way. With this awareness under our belt, we may begin to sense how to more directly experience our true nature, whatever that may be.