Dojo Lost; Dojo Found
Discovering the Inner Dojo

By Jeff Dooley © copyright 2001

1. The Eviction

Our dojo eviction notice came in the mail just before Christmas, 2000, mixed in with bills and holiday greeting cards. Our landlord wanted us out by the end of the month, which was about ten days time. We'd got on his bad side by opposing a redevelopment project that would have made him a lot of money, and when the project fell through he decided to kick us out.

It took a few days for the idea to sink in that we were losing our training hall. Located for almost a decade in a Rohnert Park, CA strip mall, ours was the most spacious dojo in Sonoma County. It featured 2,000 sq ft of mat space, a live-in shokodo for a couple of uchi deshi, an office, and a large lounge space in the back where we had parties. Because of the large mat we had been able to host gasshukus and seminars bringing together teachers and students from many dojos.

In that dojo space many of us had begun our training, had frozen through winters and sweated through summers. Almost all of our teacher's current senior students had taken their Shodan tests on that mat. There was a huge, black triangle-circle-square painted on the east wall, and a comfortable little bench area with a table near the door where people could sit, observe class, and rake the sand in a model rock garden. The building was situated at the back of a very large parking lot, and you could just drive right up to the front door, park, and walk in.

The dojo had plenty of idiosyncrasies. There was a ceiling tile that always lifted out of place when the doors were open, and someone would have to poke it with a jo or broom stick to nudge it back into position. There were two large, non-functioning heaters suspended from the ceiling above the mat at both ends of the room. We secretly enjoyed the diversion of watching visiting students practicing jo suburi and suddenly jumping in alarm as their raised weapons banged into the metal heater housings.

In the days following our eviction notice training continued as usual, though it was more like we were all stunned and just following normal routines because we didn't know what else to do. Some students began clearing out the files and office machinery. Others got to work boxing up personal items, appliances and kitchen things in the shokodo. Then, with the beginning of New Year's weekend it became clear that by the coming Monday we were going to have to clear the whole place out to the bare, naked floors, ceilings, and walls.

Bill Witt Sensei instructing a class in the old dojo

2. The Move

Saturday before New Years, our last training day in the dojo space, was a typical two hours of practice beginning with tai no henko and morote dori kokyu-ho. Almost all of the dojo members were there, the mat was full and training was both spirited and a little subdued. After we bowed out for the last time people sat quietly folding hakamas on the mat, and gradually everyone was dressed and ready to get to work dismantling the dojo. Down came the weapons racks and pictures of O'Sensei. For a while there was a jumble of weapons in disarray against the walls and on the floor.

Pick up trucks backed up to the doors and students loaded up the tanren and all the furniture, while Sensei methodically took apart the elaborate, wooden Kamiza structure that adorned the shomen. The large "Takemusu Aiki" scroll, hand brushed by Morihiro Saito Sensei, was taken down in its frame and wrapped carefully. Other students began unscrewing the bolts that held the mat frame and untied the canvas mat cover from its wooden anchors. Shortly, the mat cover was rolled up and on its way out the door into another pickup truck. Eventually the trucks would carry everything to a public storage locker we'd rented.

In the back changing rooms students were carrying out the large, heavy lockers and stacking them to be taken out later, carefully leaving clearance for others to bring out the heavy kitchen appliances from the adjacent shokodo. Deep layers of dust were falling from the tops of the high locker structures and getting all over everyone's clothes.

Finally, the mat frame was dismantled and readied for transport. The Kamiza was boxed up and carted out, and the mat cushion material was being rolled up, sheet by sheet.

At one point Sensei looked around and said, "OK everyone, you can wear shoes in here now." Right then something shifted in my stomach and I felt a dawning emptiness: the dojo was truly gone. Nobody said anything. We just kept working, and gradually all the stuff we had to box up, roll up, stack, and carry out was loaded in the parking lot. The building was just another empty space, in an aging strip mall.

3. Ronin

For the months of January and February there was no training. A few senior students and our teacher looked at some nearby spaces but they weren't satisfactory. It became clearer as time went on that we were going to have to wait an extended period for a new dojo space. A plan arose, however, to resume training by early Spring at the local community recreation center where, five months earlier, Saito Sensei had given his only US seminar of that year.

All of us faced the sudden loss of our dojo space and our regular training schedules with a sense of mounting disappointment and frustration. Our bodies were used to giving and taking a certain number of shiho nages, nikkyos, and kote gaishis per week, and if we didn't get them we got cranky. A few students pretty quickly joined other area dojos. Many of us wanted to remain students of our teacher, but we had to go to other schools to train for the time being. We took on the aspect of Ronin students, who visited various dojos for training but didn't join. I tried to keep a $10 bill in my pocket for a mat fee whenever I needed it.

We would sometimes run into each other by chance at other dojos, and it was fun sharing stories about the various teachers and students we encountered on our visits. For me, a dual awareness surfaced of both enjoying my experience with other teachers and also recognizing a heightened appreciation for my own teacher.

Sometimes, as visitors, we needed to make small adjustments in our approach to training. For instance, our teacher always encouraged us to make powerful kiais as we executed techniques or delivered strikes. Saturday training at our old dojo often sounded like the zoo at feeding time. But some dojos that we visited put less emphasis on kiais, and we would feel a need to concentrate on training more quietly. On the other hand, some teachers liked our kiais and began encouraging their students to kiai more.

It wasn't long before students and teachers all over the area became familiar with our situation. They would always go out of their way to make us feel welcome and to help us deal with the awkwardness we'd sometimes feel training on unfamiliar ground.

4. The Temporary Space

By March of 2000 our teacher had arranged for classes to begin at the community rec center three times a week. The space we reserved was large enough, but the folding mats we had available covered only a distressingly small portion of the floor. We were required to change into our uniforms in a single electrical equipment room filled with assorted large metal racks and other stored equipment. We often had to worm our way past big gymnastics gizmos just to find a spot to stand and change clothes.

Once classes resumed we found out how many of our members had decided to stay with our dojo community. The schedule was much different: instead of sixteen classes per week we had two evenings and one day per week. Almost all the yudansha remained, though we lost a few kyu-ranked students. A happy result of our increased visibility at the local rec center was that we signed up a handful of walk-in new students who had visited the complex for other sports and became intrigued with what we were doing.

On Sundays, weather permitting, our teacher began offering an additional weapons class outdoors in a local park. The park is in a residential area, and our loud kiai's reverberated through the neighborhood. I wondered what the residents thought of us showing up on Sunday mornings for an hour, in funny costumes, loudly striking and thrusting at each other with wooden sticks. It didn't take long for us to find out.

Sid Simpson, Sensei, and me in the park.
The house of the woman who wanted to sleep in on sundays is the one on the extreme right.

A month or so after we began our 9 a.m. Sunday practices in the park a woman approached as a few of us warmed up before class with the 31 jo kata. We ended, as usual on 31, with a loud kiai. The woman greeted us with the story that she and her husband worked late on Saturday nights and that our loud kiais were disturbing their sleep. We apologized and promised to practice more quietly. Our Sensei arrived moments later, and we told him about the woman's visit and our promise to practice more quietly. He frowned. "A strong kiai is an important part of weapons practice," he declared. "My teacher [Saito Sensei], always said that you must develop a strong kiai with your weapons practice or you will end up with a weak result." After considering alternative locations Sensei decided to try changing the hour to 10 a.m. Sunday, hopeful that nobody would be sleeping at that hour.

The Usual Suspects: Bill and Carmen, training the 31 kumijo in the park

As the year wore on, the number of students training in the park gradually increased, and even a few juniors joined the group. We took care pointing out hazards to new students, such as the large sprinkler hole which was always full of water. One of the yudansha, John Kelly, backed into it one day while practicing the kumijo, and his feet and legs got soaked with muddy water. Since that incident the sprinkler hole has been known as "Kelly's Pond."

Even though the mat space at the rec center was only a small fraction of what we'd formerly enjoyed, we adjusted to it, taking the crowded mat as a zanshin exercise. Ironically, it seemed that more students would show up for training at the rec center, on that small mat, than routinely had bowed in for class at the old place.

During August two of our four fold-out mats suddenly disappeared, reducing our already small training area by half. The rec center people assurred us that the mats would be returned in a week or so. This development was a reminder to many of us of the impermanence of our arrangement, and spurred our hopes that we would some day find a new dojo space of our own. Meanwhile, until the missing mats were returned, we trained in lines of attackers, throwing them one at a time down the narrow length of the remaining mats.

Barry Tuchfeld in the midst of his Nidan test in our temporary space, with half the usual mat area (to see more images from Barry's test, click here)

5. The True Dojo

Since we've relocated to the rec center my teacher has conducted three Shodan tests and one Nidan test. The routines of changing in the co-ed equipment room, laying out the mats (and putting them away after class), carrying in props from Sensei's car, and inspecting the grass on Sunday mornings in the park before weapons class have become an accepted part of dojo life.

Dojo members get together as always for food and refreshments after training, and for travel to gasshukus and seminars. Later this year our teacher and a dozen or so students are taking a trip to Iwama for a few weeks training in the shadow of the Aiki Shrine. As a community our dojo is re-establishing focus, involved once again in helping members prepare for upcoming tests, welcoming new students, and getting into the routines of dojo life.

We still don't have a permanent dojo space, and while it's something I miss, it doesn't mean we don't have a dojo. More and more it seems that the dojo is not so much a building or three-dimensional space. Instead, our dojo is defined more by a community of people who carry a common intentionality for shared learning, love for our teacher, and concern for one another. Rather than an external structure, the true dojo is a shared place within ourselves, to which we have unlimited access regardless of where we gather to train.


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