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What Puts the “Tao” in the Dojo?

Part 1

By Dave Lowry

Editor’s Note: This is first of a two part article. Part 1 discusses the design and structure of the 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.

Like practitioners of any Japanese art or way, aikidoka are not into there discipline for long before they discover that what is visible, readily observed, or easy to understand is like the proverbial tip of the iceberg. Inevitably, concealed beneath the surface, are profundities of the sort never even guessed at by the casual observer or the uninitiated.

Like practitioner of any Japanese art or way, aikidoka are not into their discipline for long before they discover that what is visible, readily observed, or easily understood is like the proverbial tip of the iceberg. Inevitably, concealed beneath the surface, are profundities of the sort never even guessed at by the casual observer or the uninitiated.

The deeper meaning beneath the superficial is a recurrent theme in traditional Japanese culture. In the art of garden design, it is actually given a name, hiegakure, which means "that hidden from ordinary sight." The average shlub strolls through a Japanese garden gawking at the sights, entirely unaware of the paths beneath his feet. To the connoisseur, however, these same paths offer a lifetime of study and appreciation. Here the paths are smooth, hurrying one along. There, the stones are rough, irregular, or stepped, causing the visitor to slow down, something planned by the garden's designer, who may have wanted visitors to pause at a certain point.

The concept of hiegakure can be applied to budo (the martial Ways). To the beginner for example, shomen uchi ikkyo begins with a chopping motion which is countered by an arm twist. To the expert, the same strike and counter are wonderfully complex positive energies that exemplify the essence of the universe.

The dichotomy of the obvious and the subtle can be found (or missed), not only in the arts practiced in the dojo, but also in the setup of the dojo (the training hall) itself.

Understandably the cultural model unconsciously adopted by contemporary Western budo practitioner in creating a dojo is that of the gym--a reasonable model, since on the surface the budo represent physical activity. On a deeper level, though, as most of us know, the martial Ways of Japan are most intimately concerned with matters of the spirit. Therefore, while the dojo may resemble a gymnasium, its historical inspiration is that of a temple or shrine.

Walk into a gym-type dojo, and there will be little aside perhaps from a carelessly fashioned shomen ("ritual alcove"), to distinguish it from an aerobics classroom. I remember visiting an aikido dojo in which the toilets and dressing rooms were actually behind the shomen or "front" wall, which is supposed to be the most honored and respected part of the training area. (Was it just coincidence that this dojo was the coldest, most unfriendly place I've ever practiced at?)

Arranged along the lines of a building meant for spiritual or religious exercises, the traditional dojo is divided geometrically into a complex matrix.

The shomen is the dojo's front wall--the wall on which the kamiza, or dojo shrine, sits. Opposite is the shimoza wall, where the dojo entrance is located. To the right is the joseki (the "upper lateral wall"); to the left, the shimoseki or lower side wall.

Traditionally, there is an elevated shinden space against the kamiza wall --a space where once the headmaster of the art being studied would sit as would any members of the Japanese imperial family who might drop by. This is, therefore, a largely symbolic elevated space reserved only for the founder of the ryu ("style") or an imperial family member. (Recently, the American planners of a dojo in a Japanese-American community center decided to make the shinden "stage" bigger in order to "go one better than traditional floor plans." A competent martial arts practitioner on a planning committee pointed out the mistake and explained what a kamiza meant to the architects before the dojo was built.

When class begins, dojo members align themselves in order of seniority from joseki to shimoseki. Also, in a traditional dojo, senior practitioners will stay to the right of the dojo's centerline, nearer the joseki, when training. Juniors train on the other, shimoseki side. The receiver of a technique will most often position himself with his back to the kamiza while the nage or shidachi begins facing it.

Traditional etiquette also specifies such details as the appropriate foot with which to begin approaching or leaving the kamiza and the direction to turn first in moving about the training area.

Tamura Masakazu demonstrates aikido at the Hawai'i Aikikai Hombu dojo.
(Photo by Wayne Muromoto.)

What purpose do these formalities serve? What is to be gained by an awareness and observance of such arcane ritual?

In the past, traditional dojo architecture and the associated reishiki (etiquette) had at least three functions: First, the placement of the sensei at the front, seniors on the right, and juniors on the left afforded the teacher maximum protection from an intruder. (Remember that the central weapon of the bugei ("martial arts") was the sword, which was carried on the left side and used with the right hand leading.) Second, the arrangement shielded the teacher's instruction from those who might peer through the dojo's entrance. Third, the arrangement reflected certain Buddhist worship rituals.

All these functions are easily deducible. But is there hiegakure in all this? In other words, is there something to the dojo's layout and etiquette that is hidden? I suspect that there might be.

Part 2 of this two part series delves into the possible Taoist symbolism imbedded into the same dojo layout and structure.

Reproduced with permission of Dave Lowry. © Dave Lowry & 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

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

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