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What Puts the “Tao” in the Dojo?

Part 2

By Dave Lowry

Editor’s Note: This is second of a two part article. Part 1 discussed the design and structure traditional martial arts dojo and relates it to traditional etiquette and its meaning. Part 2, delves into the hidden Taoist symbolism and additional meaning found embedded within the same dojo layout.

Years ago, at a large banquet in Japan, all the other participants were getting so lubricated that I ended up having to drive them all home. (I had no license to drive in Japan, no experience with driving to the left, and I'd still be in jail if I had been stopped.) I was sitting next to a chado sensei , a teacher of the tea ceremony. I'd practiced tea under her instruction, but on this night I was pouring sake into her cup. Unexpectedly, she turned to me and asked, "Have you ever considered the Tao in the chashitsu?" (A chashitsu is a four-and-a-half-mat tea hut.) I assumed that her question concealed a play on words that I wasn't getting, but she took a piece of paper, sketched the dimensions of the chashitsu, and then filled the sketch with some kanji (Chinese characters) and lines. While I studied the diagram, she asked, "Have you ever considered the Tao in the dojo?'" Then she turned to someone else, talking about something entirely different, and I knew better than to pursue the subject further with her.

I have given the matter some thought, which I have based on the idea that a dojo is a place (-jo) to follow the Way (do- or Tao). I'm not entirely certain, but here are my conjectures:

The diagram the tea sensei gave me concerned the interplay of the Taoist five elements, which have to do with the formation and dissipation of energy. These elements are linked to various things including time, cardinal directions and certain human characteristics. On the drawing of her tea hut's floor plan, the sensei labeled these directions and their corresponding characteristics. I superimposed these over a drawing of a traditional dojo. The results were intriguing. . .

We enter the dojo opposite the kamiza, at the shimoza. If we think of the kamiza as north, the shimoza becomes south. According to Taoist cosmology, south is associated with the fire element, which is, in turn, associated with intellect and etiquette. It is our intellection--our conscious desire to learn--that brings us to the entrance of the dojo. Yet, to some degree, that is where we must leave intellection. Beginners who appear at the shimoza full of preconceptions are unlikely to get far unless they set their opinions aside and open themselves to the art's teachings.

Entering at the shimoza, beginners find that their initial experiences are largely cerebral, even if they set their preconceptions aside. Without constant cognitive thought (and even sometimes with it), they stumble and are lost, unable to do anything instinctively or viscerally.

It is at the shimoza that trainees begin to learn reishiki (manners) that allow them to conduct themselves with dignity in the dojo, to practice safety in a hazardous environment, and to develop consideration for others. The all-important factor of reishiki must originate at the dojo's door--and ideally continue beyond it when training is finished.

The joseki side of the dojo is at the right or east, and in the Taoist cycle of elements east corresponds to wood and hence to virtue and charity.

The joseki is the position occupied by the teacher and by the seniors when they assemble and during practice. In the modern, commercial dojo, it may be only the juniors who are regularly reminded of their obligations (dues, testing fees, and so on). In the traditional dojo, however, the obligations were balanced. Realizing that the future of their art depended upon successive generations, the senior practitioners were seen as having the obligation to nurture the lower. The joseki in such traditional dojo is thus less a position of privilege than of responsibility.

It is significant to note that in Taoist though, the joseki is not associated with power. Instead, it is the place from which knowledge and experience issue. Aikido teachers and higher ranked practitioners, in whom egotism and arrogance seem to grow well, should ponder the meaning of their position in the dojo.

To the north is the element of water, which the Taoists associate with sagacity. This is where the kamiza is fixed, the "divine" or "upper" seat where the dojo deities are thought to reside. Regardless of a budo practitioner's religious beliefs, the kamiza is the spiritual center of the dojo for them. Virtually all objects found here reinforces this attitude: the Shinto shrine and votary accoutrements, the tokonoma alcove with its offertory flower, and, in today's aikido dojo, the photographic portrait of O'sensei.

Although some may disregard the ''feeling'' emanating from the kamiza, there is little doubt that a correctly built and maintained kamiza contributes significantly to the morale of the training hall. Thinking poetically, we can imagine that the kamiza's water element bathes the area before it in the accumulated traditions of the art. It is typical of Taoist practicality to recognize that a focal point such as the kamiza can elevate the seriousness of what goes on around it and assist in directing the sensibilities of practitioners to more spiritual goals.

The left side of the dojo is the shimoseki, which is associated in Taoist cosmology with the element of metal and the characteristic of rectitude. It is on the shimoseki side of the dojo where newer members concentrate their activities. The prevalent quality the trainees must have, once they have entered the dojo and begun their education, is a sense of the moral "rightness" of what they are doing. They must believe that their seniors wish only the best for them and that the seniors expect them to wish the same for themselves. It is therefore natural that, in the Taoist scheme, rectitude would be the dominant component in the shimoseki.

Is the shimoseki less important than the joseki? Not in the Taoist view. The joseki side of the dojo is always under scrutiny from the shimoseki. Guided by their art's high standards of rectitude, juniors watch and evaluate their seniors. Are the seniors' actions and life-styles in accordance with the ideals of the art? Do the seniors demand more of the juniors than the seniors themselves can do? The shimoseki, with its emphasis on integrity, is a perfect vantage point from which to spot any hypocrisy or pretentiousness from the other side. Wise beginners use it as such-- as a perspective from which to determine whether it is worthwhile for them to continue in this dojo.

The final area of consideration in the dojo layout is its center--the space where all trainees meet, where conflict is initiated, engaged, and resolved. Here rationalization, however clever or well-reasoned, is insufficient. Here, at the center of the training floor, budoka are called upon to produce, to do their best, making no excuses.

While this sounds easy in the abstract, the temptation to protect or boost one's ego is almost overwhelming at times. "Yeah, that pin was painful, but the guy was just muscling it on me--no technique." "Oh, I couldn't finish that last bokken exercise--this cold's got me down." "I don't know where my mind was tonight--I just couldn't concentrate.''

Protecting our sense of self, we are eager to resort to such explanations, either silently to ourselves or aloud to others. Yet, at the heart of the dojo, all are superfluous. All that matters here is what we do or fail to do. No explanation is necessary.

The center of the dojo, the actual training space, is called the embujo. It should be of little surprise that the embujo, which corresponds to the earth element, is identified with the attributes of honesty.

My explanation of dojo layout in terms of Taoist cosmology is hardly unchallengeable. Maybe the form of the dojo stems not from Taoism, but from hogaku, native methods of geomancy that are, even today, a regular part of the curriculum of many classical Japanese martial ryu. Still, if there is a do in the dojo, it makes sense there is a flavor of the Tao present as well. The forces of the Tao may energize the training hall in ways that are subtle and hidden from ordinary perceptions. As the tea sensei suggested, I'll think about it.

Reproduced with permission of Dave Lowry. © Dave Lowry & FightingArts.com. All Rights Reserved. This article first appeared in Furyu the Budo Journal.


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About The Author:

Dave Lowry is a writer and historian specializing in Japan and traditional Japanese culture. He has been a student of the modern and classical martial disciplines of Japan since 1968 - including karate, aikido, the bo and kenjitsu. His columns have appeared for years in a variety of martial arts magazines and he is also an accomplished calligrapher. His books include "Sword and Brush - The Spirit of the Martial Arts" and "Autumn Lightning: The Education of an American Samurai". He is a regular contributor to FightingArts.com.


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dojo, Tao, Taoism, budo, hiegakure, shomen, kamiza, shimoza, joseki, shimoseki, shenden, reishiki, martial arts etiquette, dojo structure, dojo architecture, Taoism in the martial arts


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