I was talking to one of my teammates the other day about the meaning of the word “Dojo”, and by extension what it means to go to the place where we learn our art. According to my teammate, a “Dojo” is “the place where we kill our Ego”. I thought this was a pretty cool ancient sound-bite because it encapsulates an important aspect of learning a martial art. No matter how confident or self-assured you are when you walk into the gym, it’s simply a matter of time before something humbling takes you down a notch. Whether you’re an instructor and a student asks you a question you don’t know how to answer or a beginner who is constantly physically humbled by the others in the school, Ego-destroying experiences are a vital aspect of being a martial artist.
After all, the Ego-killing aspect is one of the beautiful things about learning a martial art. Knowing how to defend yourself may build confidence, but lest that feeling grows into pride, your teammates are there to bring you back to earth with a submission or a tough sparring session in the ring. This is, of course, a bit of a paradox: training builds confidence but destroys Ego.
That being said, my teammate’s definition got me wondering. What is the ‘real’ definition of Dojo? And does this offer any insight into what it means to be a martial artist?
Dan Prager, the martial artists and blogger, answers this very question by citing Richard Strozzi-Heckler’s book Holding the Center – Sanctuary in a Time of Confusion:
A dojo is a space of commitment in which people practice together. What is powerful about the dojo is what it tells us of learning, and ultimately, of waking up, of being alive.
In Japanese, “dojo” refers to the place where we train “in the way”. This points to two important distinctions. The first is that the dojo is a place of learning where one practices what is being taught. This is different from the conventional classroom where students sit passively taking notes or listening to a lecture. This is not to say authentic enquiry is unavailable in lecture halls, but it points to the difference between academic knowledge and an embodied knowledge that allows people to take actions that sustain and enhance their lives. In a place of learning like the dojo students practice what is being taught and over time begin to embody the subject matter. It lives in the body, it is who they are.
The second distinction revolves around the concept of “Do”, which translates as “Way”. The origin of the word “dojo” comes from the Sanskrit bodhimanda, which means the place of awakening. The Japanese kanji for Do is composed of two parts. One depicts a man walking on a road. The other is the human throat, which surrounds the jugular vein, representing the very core and pulse of our life. A man walking toward life. The Way is a theme of life. The dojo is a place where we awaken our body, grow the self, and unite with the spirit through rigorous and compassionate life-enquiry.
(You can check out Dan’s blog at http://maaml.blogspot.ca/2009/09/dojo-its-purpose-and-meaning.html)
Okay – so it looks like my teammate wasn’t totally right.
But to my mind, there’s something very meaningful in what Strozzi-Heckler says. It reminds me of something a teacher of mine once said.
“No one owns Muay Thai,” one of my old instructors told us. “It travels through us. First, we learn the art to be able to fight, and then we teach it to others for the same purpose. Our goal as fighters and teachers it to pass on our art…”
We participate in our art but do not own it. If we train and teach well, others may also follow this way too.
Food for thought!