Friday, December 26, 2008

The Dojo, and the Way

The moment I step into the dojo, I change. In fact, the change begins even before I set foot inside. As I walk to the dojo, perhaps limping a little bit due to some new, random pain in my foot, or ankle, or knee, hunched over slightly, looking at the ground a few paces in front and lost in thought, my mind graduallly starts to clear; my sightline raises up until I'm looking forward. My spine straightens; I begin walking with purpose, ignoring the nagging pains in my stride. I start breathing from deep in my belly.
I open the door to the dojo, careful to do it without making much noise. I remove my shoes, place them carefully on the rack, and step in. Feet together, I bow to the kamiza. I walk silently to the change room. I remove my street clothes, fold them, and place them in a neat pile - something I wouldn't even bother to do in my own home. I put on my training clothes, careful to tie all the knots properly, smoothing the pleats in front, adjusting the ties so that everything is worn properly. All this time, my mind is getting clearer, my breathing is getting deeper, my field of vision becoming broader.
I re-enter the dojo, and bow to Sensei. I greet all the others in the dojo with courtesy and a smile. I am always paying close attention to what others are doing - not only for obvious reasons of safety, but alert for the possibility that I might be missing something due to the language barrier, or just from being lost in my own thoughts. I try to be considerate of everyone.
We begin to practice, all the time mindful of what we're doing. I review what Sensei has told me in the past few weeks, and focus on not mindlessly making those mistakes again in spite of having been corrected. I analyze my own form in the mirror, and try to pick up my own weak areas. I push myself to practice as hard as I can without hurting myself, and when I'm tired, I watch the others intently to see what I can learn from them. If they are more skilled than me, I don't envy them, but try to see what they are doing right. If I am more skilled than they are, I don't look down on them, but check to see if I might be making some of the same mistakes. If they ask for my help, I am quick to give it.
After practice, I listen carefully to what Sensei tells the class. I have to listen attentively to pick up what he's saying, and concentrate on what his message really is. The class is dismissed, and we bow to each other, expressing our gratitude for the shared experience. If I am lucky, Sensei invites me to have a drink, and nothing is as delicious as after-practice sake - I hold it in my mouth for a few seconds before swallowing, just to absorb all the flavour.
Practice makes us focus all of our powers of concentration on doing things right, with the right mindset, mindful of the present. This is the real value of practicing martial arts, I think, and it's why it doesn't matter whether you're doing calligraphy, tea ceremony, flower arranging, or archery. You enter the practice space, put yourself into the mindset, listen to your teacher, focus on what you're doing, and then just do it - to the best of your ability. You show respect to the people you are doing it with, to your tools, and even to the actions themselves. After practice, you are mindful of what you did, what you are doing, and what you have to do.
The most important thing, though, is the gradual realization that the dojo is the world, and that there should be no difference between our "martial artist self" and our "everyday self". And yet, how many times have I shuffled listlessly to the dojo, then done 2 hours of focused practice, and then released that focus, exhausted, and shuffled listlessly home? I am cold or downright rude to the people around me, then go to the dojo where I am the pinnacle of good manners, and then return to being a callous jerk on the way home. Or, I am lazy and self-centered for days, then go to the dojo where I pretend to be energetic and selfless. At practice, I cultivate "beginner's mind" but outside of the dojo, I am vain and ignorant.
It seems to me that the point of practice is to extend it - to always widen the circumference of the dojo until it encompasses everyone; to improve your behaviour until there is no difference between the way you are in the dojo and the way you are everywhere else.
Realizing this is probably impossible, and I guess that's the point. A connected idea, I think, is the fact that there is no end to our practice. This is what distinguishes a martial "way" from a combative skill. A combative skill is possible to master. It is difficult to criticize the technique of a boxer's punch if it connects and knocks the other man out. But the techniques of iaido, for example, combine equal parts of aesthetics and effectiveness - they are grounded in combat-effective techniques, but they have been refined to reflect an aesthetic of movement, control, posture, and (dare I say it) grace. They exist in some Platonic dimension - somewhere, there is an "ideal Mae", but I am sure nobody on earth has ever executed it, and nobody ever will. To make things more complicated, my "ideal Mae" is probably different from your "ideal Mae". Furthermore, my "ideal Mae" of last week is different than my own "ideal Mae" now. We are chasing the impossible, but at the same time, getting closer and closer to it all the time, like a mathematical function that approaches a line (an asymptote) but never quite reaches it.
And this is a good thing. This gives us an open-ended path to follow for the rest of our lives. A boxer, on the other hand, either reaches the top of the heap, becomes champion, and then retires, or else gets beaten and gives up somewhere along the way. This is not to say that one cannot approach boxing as a Way, just that it is not done (unless you are Rocky Balboa, who seems to be making a good attempt at boxing well into his twilight years).
Chasing the impossible, and knowing it is impossible, should make us aware of the fact that it is the chasing that is important, not the catching. First of all, there is nothing to catch. We are not samurai, and mastering swordsmanship is not a real goal for any of us. Furthermore, debates over the combat-effectiveness of this technique over that, or this ryu-ha over that, are pointless. Pointless, too, are arguments over whose teacher is more legitimate. The best teacher is the one who gets you into the dojo, and keeps you coming back.