“Dojo” is an old term for a place where one studies the teachings of Buddhism. When Sanskrit was translated into Chinese, this was used to describe the spot where the Buddha completed the path to enlightenment. It was the dojo 道場. the way place. The word dojo therefore, was ancient when the Japanese martial arts instructors in the Edo Period (1604-1868) began using it to describe their training halls.
The usage has drifted a long way from the original meaning of the place where enlightenment was achieved. The ancient Japanese applied it to mean places where the teachings of Buddhism are studied, and within Buddhist organizations in Japan, this meaning is still used. The meaning though wandered further when some Edo Period martial artists started calling their training halls “dojo.” Now the word is commonly used throughout the world.
I’ve seen many gorgeous dojo in Japan, from the stately Butokuden in Kyoto, to the lovely and peaceful dojo at Kashima Shrine, to many small, private dojos that are delightful pockets of beauty. The longer I train though, the more I come to understand that a dojo, no matter how lovely, is empty space that we have to fill with life and breath. I’ve noticed that both non-Japanese and Japanese alike will use “dojo” to refer to the members of the training group, not just the facility. This recognizes that it is really the people who make the empty space into a dojo, not the designated purpose of the space.
It’s the qualities of the people and their relationships that make a dojo great. I had a discussion with a some friends about what they feel makes a great dojo. A lot of the ideas were about the physical space and things that are nice. While I agree that a beer fridge is a wonderful thing to have in the dojo office, I’m not sure it’s a necessary component of an excellent dojo. I’ve had great experiences in the parking lot back of Sensei’s house, and lousy ones in gorgeous, dedicated spaces (with beer fridges!).
The things I look for in a great dojo are the people. I find that if you’ve got good people, the physical space will get taken care of. On the other hand, if the people and relationships aren’t good, the physical space won’t keep things together.
The number one item on most people’s list of requirements for great dojo, and what everyone thinks about first, is the teacher. Having a good teacher is important, because the teacher sets the example for everyone else of how things are supposed to be in the dojo. In a merely good dojo, the teacher can be anywhere from a competent technician to world class, but they will likely maintain a somewhat distant teacher-student relationship. The teacher never stoops down to the students level.
In a great dojo though, the teacher is more like a head student than a teacher standing above everyone at the head of the classroom dispensing the lesson. These teachers are every bit as much students of the art they are teaching as the newest beginner. They find a joy in polishing their own skills, and discovering new things about their art that is as strong and fierce as that of any student. This joy in practicing, improving, and discovering new things about their budo, and the teachers ability to share this with the rest of the dojo is what stands out for me in the teachers at great dojo. The teacher’s personal skill level is almost incidental. It may only be a few steps ahead of the students, but that’s fine. The teacher is leading the dojo on a great, joyous journey of improvement and discovery, not dispensing wisdom and correction from on high.