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Dojo Kuns: Inspiration or Decoration?

Nina Thompson

Training at a karate dojo in Mexico

Photo by Nina Thompson.

The Dojo Kun is the statement of principles or guidelines for the karate practitioner’s conduct. It emphasizes spiritual and mental growth, which makes karate about perfection of character and not just guerilla tactics. I see Dojo Kuns in many forms. Some dojos also post the precepts which include guidelines such as “Karate begins with courtesy and ends with a bow” or “Spirit first, technique second.”

I have been fascinated by Dojo Kuns since my own dojo broke off from our parent organization. What we lost was the formality, the Traditions, and fees. I miss the Dojo Kun the most.

I was blessed to train karate in Mexico for a summer. I had a very deep and meaningful cultural exchange with the karate school there. One moment that brought me to tears was the ritual call and response of the Dojo Kun. The sense said the Dojo Kun in Japanese, and the students responded with the interpretation in Spanish. The sense of community and purpose that this created was palpable. I soaked it in and let it move me.

My dojo is an informal group in that whoever attends of the highest rank that day is the instructor. Our dojo went through a bit of an identity crisis when we received a new student with several physical and mental delays. This young man, Timothy, came with his father and was an eager learner. He attended class and followed along. However, he wasn’t “learning.” He wasn’t able to do the low backstance of Shotokan fame, nor was he able to do the knee-aching front stance that we are so committed to. And this is how it went on for years. I now know we weren’t helping him how he needed to be helped.

Thankfully, we had a new instructor move in and bless us with a reminder to reference the guiding precepts—the Dojo Kun. He reminded us that we should be teaching Timothy spirit before technique. That we will train, and test, this student based on mastery of spirit and work with him to get as far as he can get. Not so that he can look like us, but so that he can defend himself and demonstrate knowledge of the kata.

Timothy’s confidence blossomed under this new approach. He trained hard, intensely, and achieved the highest level of green belt before his family wasn’t able to continue training. I am so thankful that we were able to see a path for him to grow. Even though that instructor was new to us, his teaching called back to a centuries old doctrine and we all immediately knew it to be true. It was truly humbling to realize I had forgotten this precept and had not been serving this young man as well as I could have been. A teaching, such as a precept written nearly a century ago, that inspires and guides us from that long ago is truly humbling.

The Dojo Kun of the Japanese Karate Association, and its translation, is below:

Jinkaku kansei ni tsutomuru koto (Seek perfection of character)
Makoto no michi o mamoru koto (Be sincere)
Doryoku no seishin o yashinau koto (Put maximum effort into everything you do)
Reigi o omonzuru koto (Respect others)
Kekki no yuu o imashimuru koto (Develop self-control)

The Dojo Kun, and the precepts, created by or with Sensei Gichin Funokoshi, seemed to ground our practice in a humility that we then lost. We lost the framed Dojo Kun and 20 precepts, along with the vase of a fake bonsai we would put up before every class. One day it was there, then we couldn’t find it to set up for the next class. The humility and the self-control is still there in our senior leadership. As we train the next students, the next generation, I fear we will lose the path of humility and respect.

I visit other dojos and it seems that the kun, the precepts, are shortened or brought to a short phrasing: “Spirit, Character, Community.”

So many of us teach. So many of us are students and will become teachers. I hope to open up a conversation between all of us, and ask each of you, what is your Dojo Kun? How do you inspire, share, and cultivate a sense of respect and self- control in a soundbite hashtag era?

Thoughts on Dojo Kuns I have been reading:

The Kids Karate Workbook by Didi Goodman
Breaking the Chains of the Ancient Warrior  Terrence Webster Doyle
A lovely dojo blogpost to introduce the topic for beginners
A list of rules and guidelines mixed with Dojo Kun- like content
The Path To True Happiness a website invocating the Tao Te Ching as a guiding principle for Kung Fu
Philosophy or Decoration? Blogpost from Rhode Island Kodokai Dojo

Please email me with photos of your dojo kuns, your inspirational posters, or your thoughts. Thompson.Portland@gmail.com

Nina trains in Portland, Oregon, with the VA dojo.

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