This morning after adult class we had one of our periodic dojo cleanups, as usual in the days before a seminar. In addition to about a dozen adult members, there were several children and even a parent or two. Teenage James was climbing like a monkey in the rafters, while others, including some of our newest members, were wielding dusters to sweep the light fixtures, the tops of walls, and the roof above the kamidana. Dust bunnies rained from the ceiling like snow, defined by slanting beams from the skylights. It seemed as if each mote was the residue of a completed technique: the smaller ones back falls and forward rolls, the larger ones the echo of some selfless sutemi. I felt a pleasure in that dust akin to the fragrant chalk clouds from cleaning erasers in grammar school. Time to start again with a fresh slate, all this dust is just the shadow of all we’ve learned, nothing but hollow cocoons.
I’m now at my sixth aikido dojo, and the one that feels most like home. Each one had its unique flavor, independent of size or style, and I’ve benefited from them all. But I’ve come to realize that, beyond martial intensity or spiritual depth, it’s the sense of community that makes the greatest difference. Maybe nothing reveals this more than considering souji, or cleaning, as a metaphor for a dojo’s vitality and its members commitment.
My appreciation of this was slow to emerge. In my 20’s, a dojo was a place existing outside of and independent to me: I paid dues, trained hard, helped clean when asked, and went home. Later on, the dojo became a place where a community gathers to train together, where engagement was an essential ingredient, though I still assumed a separation between the students who trained and the teachers who paid the rent and managed the operation. With more experience came the inevitable understanding that a community has no such separations; every stage along the way is a reflection of, and is responsible to, the whole. What is expected is nothing less than the blending of teacher and student roles, the merging of uke and nage, the victor and vanquished ultimately becoming indistinguishable. Sensei points the way and sets the pace, but my aikido is my training community, and whatever it needs is my practice.
Even so, some dojos approach cleaning as a lesson in humility, even confusing it with misogi or strenuous ritual purification: taken this way, it becomes a required burden often associated with an atmosphere of criticism or even fear. Other dojos take cleaning as an unavoidable inconvenience to the real goal of training, as if bare technique is all there is to a martial art. What continues to impress me about our dojo is the common awareness of needs and responsibilities that is shared among the senior students, and willingly accepted by the entire membership. Whatever is needed or expected is simply communicated and those who can will rise to the challenge. This culture of common responsibility can be seen in all aspects of our training: participation is actively appreciated, techniques are critiqued constructively with little regard for rank, and excellence is constantly expected and encouraged. In my opinion this engagement of the senior students is the single most important factor in a dojo’s sustainability.
Every beginner who enters a dojo to practice may have a different reason for doing so. But if they stay long enough, they will soon discover that many more and often better reasons for training become apparent. This too is shaped by their relationships with the existing members: are beginners expected to perform menial activities, or do the most senior members quietly demonstrate the community’s values by taking on the lowliest and hardest tasks themselves? Are beginners taught the rituals of dojo etiquette as a practice in subservience, or as reminder to all members that the highest goal is one that a beginner already possesses: that of beginner’s mind.
To step onto the mat is literally to enter into the struggle between life and death, and nothing could be more serious. Yet, our common rituals and traditions provide a framework that protects our bodies, our psyches and emotions as we learn and grow. These practices are best preserved when they are demonstrated by senior members caring for their community out of a respect for self, each other, and the Way they are traveling together. And these values are preserved by being passed on to beginners who appreciate the gifts because they are given with an attitude of care and respect.
Paved by the efforts of everyone who’s gone before, the Way is worn smooth by constant diligence, and kept clear so that its direction is unmistakable to those who follow. When members truly take this responsibility to heart, and joyously behave in ways that foster their community, both on the mat and off, a dojo is certain to thrive.