Back To The Bottom

I went back to the Eishin-Ryu dojo at UBC this weekend and enjoyed myself immensely. It's very liberating coming into a new dojo; you don't know anything, and everyone knows you don't know anything, so there are no expectations on you to know anything. You just sit back and watch everyone else and do whatever they're doing. You can learn from EVERYONE.

Having not been in a dojo in many years, it's wonderful. And set me thinking about how and why the dojo is structured and operated the way it is.

Steph and I talk about this sometimes; how learning requires submission and the dojo "system" is designed around that basic idea. In order to learn anything you have to accept that you don't know something -- every time we learn we have succeeded in beating down our ego enough to admit that we didn't know that.

The traditional dojo does a really good job of giving people an environment in which they will accept their own ignorance. Having a strict hierarchy of sempai and sensei means you always know who's a worthy teacher for you -- everyone senior to you is (of course, there comes the day when you realise that those junior to you are also worthy teachers). There's no need for debates or arguments. If you disagree with what sensei says, well, too bad. Do it his way while you're in his dojo.

And more often than not, in my experience anyway, after you've done it sensei's way for a while you find that maybe it isn't so wrong after all.

The dojo is also good at making you leave your ego at the door. Bow, sit in seiza, put your sword on the left, or on the right, all the little rules of ritual make it harder and harder for you to bring your own issues into the practice. By submitting yourself to the elaborate rituals of opening that most dojo provide, you start down the path of preparing to learn.

This is why it's so important to perform all these rituals with every bit of intensity and focus that you would bring to your cuts and stances: not because they're important in and of themselves, but because by doing so you make your own learning easier.

Just like accepting the hierarchy of sempai and sensei helps you. It's not just respect, which is how bowing and whatnot often get described in Western literature. Of course there's respect, but there is more importantly submission. The Western tradition denigrate submission (the American branch especially), and in doing so I sometimes think we've lost touch with something powerful and important. If you won't submit to anything, you'll never learn anything. Even de Bergerac was willing to give way to courtesy and romance.

So here I am at Eishin-Ryu UBC, not even knowing how to bow properly, and it's just so wonderful. A room full of teachers. Life on the bottom is good.