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What factors are needed in order for a dojo to survive?

This article was submitted by J.C. Guion for his 3rd Dan exam conducted in Alameda in September 2008, and posted with his permission.

I tend to see the survival factors of a dojo closely related to our Aikido practice, where we train our body, our mind, cultivate and strengthen our spirit. I would compare body training to dojo practical matters that we need to take care of. Mind to proper attitude and dedication to the dojo, and spirit to the Sensei leadership. All are important factors in the survival of a dojo.
Body training could be compared to the practical aspect of running a dojo. As we train, our body gets stronger, more flexible, we improve our endurance, we get in better shape. From a practical standpoint, where we shape and take care of our body with proper training, we also have to take good care of the dojo: having it clean, in good order with all daily chores taking care of. Dues need to be collected, members informed of events and decisions, financial book kept in order. Practical matters are a reality and a necessity.   
To make sure that practical matters are taken care of, everyone needs to help out, showing consistency and dedication. This is where mind training matters. Without the proper attitude and mindset, daily chores cannot be properly addressed. As practical matters are dealt with, our confidence and actions toward the dojo everyday life are reinforced. Body and mind are working together, we cannot properly train one without the other one. As one improves, the other one improves too.

Practical matters are of paramount importance. The most important of all, certainly, is having enough members. Without enough members, rent and bills cannot be paid and the dojo has to close. This is unfortunate, the harsh reality, but there is no way around it. To help attract members, the dojo needs to advertise itself. For example, it can run advertisement, create special offers or participate into community events. The idea is to get known. If people want to do Aikido, they know where to go. Another complementary approach, is to get people interested into Aikido. This is quite difficult, mostly because Aikido is not well known to the overall public and the people think about martial art through the distorting prism of hollywood action movies. 

As we need to attract new members, we also hope - once they have joined - that they will stay. However, we can never really know if a new member will still be around after few months. Unfortunately, there are a lot of things that are out of our control, such as family and work constraints, personal aspiration and expectations, but what can we do, what is in our control, is create the right conditions for members to stay. 

I believe that the spirit we find in a dojo is provided by the Sensei through his sincere and sound leadership. Like a seed growing slowly into a something stronger, spirit has to be nourished with care as it is felt and carried by every member. As a dojo gets older and its members more experienced, this spirit is shared and can be felt by any visitor and any new member. This is ultimately what will make new members appreciate the dojo, its members, discover Aikido, enjoy their practice and stay.

Keeping the right spirit is also the most difficult of all. It requires a strong and steady will, keeping the right direction, going through all the difficult times. If a dojo were to loose the spirit that he wants to imprint its students with, even though it would have many members and would seem to be successful, it would have fail to survive.

The Community of a Dojo

This article was submitted by John Burke of Alameda Aikikai for his Nidan exam in September 2008, and I find it relevant to our training.
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 on long poles 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 everything we've learned, now just hollow cocoons.
I'm currently at my sixth aikido dojo, and the one that feels most like home. Each one has 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. Perhaps 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 that existed independently and outside of me: I paid dues, trained hard, helped clean when asked, and went home. Later on, the dojo became a location where a community gathers to train together, where engagement was the 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 merging of teacher and student roles, the blending of uke and nage, the victor and vanquished ultimately becoming indistinguishable. The Sensei points the way and sets the pace, but my aikido is my entire training community, and whatever it needs is my entire 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. 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 graciously accepted by the entire membership. Whatever is needed or expected is simply communicated and whoever can will rise to the task. This culture of common responsibility can be seen in other aspects of our training as well: participation is actively appreciated, techniques are critiqued constructively with little regard for rank, and excellence is uniformly demanded and encouraged. In my opinion, this broad 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 will be shaped by their relationships with 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 most difficult 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 an initiate 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, it is our simple rituals and common traditions that provide the framework that protects our bodies, our psyches and emotions as we learn and grow.
These practices are best appreciated when they are demonstrated by senior members caring for their community out of a respect for self, each other, and the Way that is being traveling together. And they are best preserved when passed on to beginners who appreciate them as gifts handed down in an atmosphere of mutual caring 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 will be unmistakable to those who follow. When members truly embrace this responsibility, and behave in ways that foster their community, both on and off the mat, and even in the most mundane of activities, their dojo will be certain to thrive.

Thoughts on the Four Elements of Our Training

All of us in Birankai have been exposed to the ‘Four Elements’ of Tai Jitsu (Body Art), Weapons, Iai Batto-Ho and Zazen, which are the foundations of Chiba Sensei’s teaching. I believe that the combination of these elements is the essence of Budo, the way of the warrior. Historically the true samurai was skilled in unarmed combat, skilled with the sword, and driven to self reflection through zazen.
Since arriving in Scotland a couple of years ago, I have heard many comments and some confusion about the ‘Four Elements’ and how much focus should be allotted to each from both students and teachers within both the British Birankai and BCE. This struggle is more apparent here as the typical dojo has classes two nights per week within which to touch upon our four elements. I will try to answer within my understanding of the intent behind the foundation, and how I have tried to lead my students along the path.
It is clear to me that the very basic premise upon which we build our training is the body art. The entire process of forging the Aikidoka’s body starts and ends with the body art, stripping away those layers of tension, stress, and tightness which have built up in the body over the years, returning flexibility to the joints via ikkyo through rokkyo, kneading the body until it transforms into a supple, responsive, and alive being that reacts instantaneously to stimulation. This process takes several years ( although in my case will probably take longer) and brings to mind a quote that is on my teachers wall. I can’t ever remember the exact words, but the gist is that you travel the road through thick and thin, you toil and labor away trying to get somewhere, only to find that it’s the process that’s important, not the end. It’s not the fire, it’s the burning. Sensei has written extensively about the Kneading process, the stages of Go-JyuRyu (Hard, supple, flowing) in training, and Shu-Ha-Ri. It is readily apparent to me that in order to make the journey, the practice of Tai-Jitsu must be first and foremost in order of importance.
It is also readily apparent that two vital elements that must be perfected in our study of Aikido are Timing and Distance. Without either of these elements present, one cannot execute the technique. In my opinion, it is quite easy to mask poor timing or distance by the use of brute strength, which can often be seen in Tai-Jitsu practice between a larger nage and smaller uke. This is why the study of weapons is vital to our practice. Physical strength is neutralized due to the larger distance between uke and nage, and weaknesses in timing and distance are more readily exposed, thereby creating the opportunity to perfect ones understanding of these critical items. At the same time, our weapons training focuses us on precision within Tai-sabaki and requires the same tension and at the same time suppleness within our bodies which comes from Tai-jitsu.
Iai batto-ho is important, particularly if one is able to practice with a live blade, because of the tremendous degree of focus and concentration (tension) within the execution of the technique. It is referred to in some circles as ‘moving zen’, but within our school it is merely an extension of our Aikido. It is a vehicle to increase the student’s focus and zanshin within the technique, of being in the moment. During an encounter, which could have life or death consequences, one cannot allow one’s focus to waver and be distracted.
Zazen is another pillar of our school, yet over the years I have heard many students dismiss Zazen training on the grounds that it is contrary to their religious beliefs. I find this notion to be absurd, simply a form of escapism. Of course, zazen can be anything you want it to be. There are those among us who have taken vows and become avowed Buddhists. The fact is, zazen within our school is a tool to enable the student to face his or her inner demons, to peel off those layers and layers of thoughts and concepts that have built up over the years. To be able to drop everything, to empty one’s mind of every thought but what occurs in that moment, as mentioned above, is vital during an encounter. This is the goal of our zen training, nothing more, nothing less. How we do it is really quite simple. All you need is time and a cushion. Just simply sit in Lotus or Half Lotus for at least ½ hour and count your breaths to 10. Each time you lose concentration in your counting, start again at one. Let go of your thoughts, do not allow your mind to become distracted by them. Let the pain come and ride it. That’s it.
Can the four elements that constitute our practice be quantified in terms of how many hours per week should be dedicated to each? I don’t think so. There are too many variables involved, and although there are finite numbers of hours instruction in the dojo, some polishing can be done outside the dojo as well. One doesn’t need a dojo to practice basic suburi, review Tai-sa-Baki, or sit on a cushion. Be ever mindful that Tai Jitsu is the body of work that we polish, and that Weapons, Iai Batto-ho and Zazen are the limbs that support that body. You can have a body without limbs, but you can’t make an Aikidoka without forging the body. This should be our primary focus.

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