Tuesday, 15 January 2013

When is a dojo not a dojo?

Traditional dojo environment

……when it’s a club.

I used to think that a dojo was simply the place where you did your training, whether that is a dedicated traditional dojo, a school gym, purpose built training centre or your own basement or garage. However, it seems that a dojo is much more than just the place you train.

In Michael Clarke’s book, ‘Shin Gi Tai’ ,he makes a definite distinction between a karate dojo and a karate club. He describes a club as a commercially based entity in which students pay fees and in return receive instruction in karate to a single set syllabus from which they can be awarded ascending ranks in the shape of coloured belts as they rise up the system. They can also participate in sport karate, enter competitions and collect trophies. A club may be affiliated to a higher organisation which may be the only place where a student’s black belt is recognized.

On the other hand Michael Clarke describes a dojo as a place where you learn budo.  He states that the main way in which a dojo is distinctive from a club has...

”little to do with the architecture of the place or the way people dress for training; the distinction has everything to do with the nature of the struggle going on inside each individual.”

Budo karate involves training body, mind and spirit. It is more than just learning to do karate techniques (however well you learn to do them). It is much more about learning to understand yourself.  In Michael Clarke’s words…”Without a spirited assault on your ego, the true value of karate will remain forever beyond your reach”. A “spirited assault” involves a lot of hard, physical training, self examination and reflection as well as personal reading and research.

Budo karate is individual karate, even if done in a group. Students, who will most likely have been handpicked by the Sensei based on their suitability for budo training, will not necessarily all follow the same training programme. Training will be tailored to their individual requirements and suitability (as determined by the Sensei, not the student). This is not possible with large classes of students so karate dojo typically have only a few students. 

Another main difference is that in a dojo the student is expected to take full responsibility for their own training. By that I mean they have the responsibility to turn up on time, observe the etiquette required of them, train hard, do their own research etc. The onus is on them to make progress. Any student not doing this will be asked to leave.  It would be rare for a ‘club’ student to be asked to leave for not trying hard enough or because they fail to make progress or show any understanding of what they are doing – providing they keep paying their fees.

By the criteria described above it is clear that I belong to a karate club not a dojo. Is that a problem? Is it still possible to practice budo karate in a club environment?

It would be wrong to automatically assume that all dojos are somehow superior to all clubs. There will be good and bad dojos and good and bad clubs and it will be better to be in a good club than a bad dojo. According to Michael Clarke even Okinawa has ‘bad’ dojos set up to exploit Westerners searching for the authentic karate experience.  Getting good advice about where to go is essential to avoid this pitfall if you’re planning a trip there.

A good instructor in a karate club will take an individual interest in your training and progress if you show yourself to be keen and hard working.  This will be subtle rather than overt: a willingness to chat with you after class, lending you a book or DVD, encouraging you to attend special seminars or classes, asking you for help with teaching or a grading session (this shows he/she trusts you). A positive and close relationship can develop between student and sensei in just the same way that it does in a traditional karate dojo – if you are a committed student.

I also think that it is possible to practice budo karate even if you are in a large commercial club – as long as you know what the practice of budo really entails and are prepared to tread this path alone. After all the practice of budo is an individual and lonely path by definition so it shouldn’t matter too much what environment you train in. Most good clubs will provide hard physical training and good instructors will drive you to do your best but it’s up to you whether you do so.

Every dojo will have good students (they would be asked to leave if they weren’t good) but clubs have to cope with good and not so good students (this is actually an advantage of clubs – they are inclusive and often see ‘poor’ students evolve and mature into ‘good’ students given enough time and encouragement).  I see no reason why a dedicated student in a club environment can’t achieve the same level of skill, understanding and knowledge about karate (and themselves) as a student fortunate enough to belong to one of the rare dojos dotted around the world.  The path may be less clear and contain more obstacles to circumnavigate and the student may have to look further and wider than their own club for guidance but for a dedicated student this is not an impossibility.

Club or dojo? How much does it really matter for the committed student of budo karate?

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Narda said...

Good writeup...thanks for sharing.

As for does it matter...yes. Because we have so little time, and our teachers travel the path with us for only so long. If you want crumbs, to settle for less, than a club is fine. If you already know the difference, and are a mature/seasoned student, and have no choice, then you know to make the best of it. (The way I look at it, it's another form of 'shugyo.)

But...if you have a choice and you can do it...strive for the best training possible.

Charles James said...

Outstanding post Sue!

John Coles said...

Let's ask the question in more relatable terms: When is a school not a school?

What does the school of Rembrandt refer to? It's not a physical institution; it is a school of thought. This is where our focus should be returned, to the actual knowledge.

Kamil said...

I feel that in every club there is a dojo - that is to say, there is always a super-committed, engaged minority in any group of people. They take it a little more seriously, look a little deeper and stay a little longer. Among the members of the school, there are people there for a variety of reasons but it becomes very clear after even a week in a school who does most of their training when they are in class and who does most of their training outside of class. Some people leave karate at the doorstep of class and some people take it with them where ever they go.

My sensei puts it in terms of the word 'dojo' - place of the way. He says that if you think of the dojo as a fixed place, a building somewhere where you go and practice, you'll never get good. You have to be your own dojo - you have to be a walking, talking, 24-7, place of growth and exploration.

Unknown said...

Im in a Karate club, and the club members have many different reasons to train, fitness, self defence, confidence etc, my reason is all of the former but mostly mind and body connection, The club environment is fine with me I find it relaxed and flexible, you get out what you put in, I think that is a good thing, so personally I carry Karate with me and practice often, for my own reasons. With my Wing Chun its technically a club but it functions more like a family and is followed in a very traditional way as a personal journey or way of life, the Sifu is very encouraging and goes to great lengths to teach all of us technique, application, terminology, history and mental approaches. This all works well for me and I practice everyday. In both of the arts I don't mind what name its given to the training style or environment, its more about the individuals and indeed teachers commitment and approach to get the best out of it.

Sue C said...

Good advice. For me personally though I think my club is the best place for me to be (and the place I want to be).

thank you!

Excellent comment John, thank you

I think you are right - there is often a 'dojo' within the club. Your sensei's words are very wise.

Sounds like you have the best of both worlds between your two clubs! Like you say people train with their own agenda - for some of us budo is the agenda.

Felicia said...

My learning school (the one I just left) was a dojo - and I ran screaming from it. My teaching school is a club (although there are no fees) - and I couldn't enjoy the training atmostphere more. I agree with your post, Sue, in that all clubs aren't necessarily bad places just like all dojos aren't necessarily good. Like Joh, Kamil and James all hinted at, the physical class space is just the place; the dojo is any where you want it to be - whether it is inside of your club, on your front lawn, in the park or in a basement. You get out of it what you put into it.

Nice post, Sue :-)

Sue C said...

Thanks Felicia, my back garden in the snow became my dojo today!

The Strongest Karate said...

I dunno...maybe I didnt grab the deeper meaning he was imparting, but it seems to smack of martial arts elitism.

"Oh, what a cute club you have. Please excuse me while I complete a 100-man kumite then meditate and become enlightened".

I know thats not the extreme he meant, but I have met guys that take the same method of thinking and go all the way with it. I HATE guys like that.

They seem to think that THEIR level of training is the ONLY legitimate level of training and that everyone who doesn't match their fanaticism might as well be in karate-daycare.

I was visiting a dojo some time back and after class I listened to one of these guys deride a junior because he needed to take 5 and catch his breathe during class. Being a guest I kept silent until I couldn't listen anymore and told him to shut his pretentious yap. It did not go over well and I was not invited back.

No loss for me there.


Sue C said...

Hi Brett, I agree with you - I find Michael Clarke a little bit extreme in his views and a bit over controlling with his students. However, there is a lot of good stuff in his book as well. My main point was that I think it is possible to train to a high standard in a club environment and the 'authentic dojo' experience is not desirable for everyone.


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