One Aikidoka’s Understanding of Cleaning the Traditional Dojo

by David M. Valadez

Perhaps the real value and meaning of cleaning the dojo is too esoteric for cognitive expression of any kind. We can all say, "Cleaning the dojo is part of our training," but most likely its ultimate relationship to the Aikido forging of ourselves is as much a mystery as effortlessly disturbing uke’s balance in Iriminage or truly seeing all Kihon-waza as Kokyu-ho. All we may truly understand is what we subjectively observe: Those that clean with sincerity move with sincerity; their centers seem lower than ours; they breathe more effortlessly; their stance is stronger; their movements more crisp. The do arts, such as Aikido, leave such mysteries to the passage of Time - as they should be. But there are a few things that one can point out when discussing the relationship, or connection, between training in the dojo and cleaning the dojo. But by talking about "relation" or "connection" I have already made a distinction between the two practices and thus have already erred in my synopsis. Perhaps this error can most accurately be attributed to cultural differences. Which is not to say that the situation is helpless, for through awareness we can come to see the practical value of different cultural traditions - to not see them as merely arbitrary practices without reason. This is the whole point really of this short essay - to increase awareness.

In modern American culture, cleaning is something that we have to do; something we would rather pay someone else to do - if we could. And we rarely feel the impulse to clean a place that is not our own abode (certainly not daily). But in traditional Japanese society, cleaning, and domestic work in general, has long played a central role in the cultivation of the Self. Martial arts, claiming to cultivate the Self, in the face of Modernity, have tried to maintain these practices as part of their overall training. Other traditional Japanese practices also follow this path. In fact, a position of seniority in a Zen monastery, following the Abbot, is often the cook!

Most of these Self cultivation practices are ancient in existence and therefore it would be foolish to believe that they are entirely arbitrary - that there is no practicality in their implementation. I would now like to discuss some of the practical aspects of cleaning in the hope of increasing awareness and understanding regarding the importance of properly maintaining one’s own dojo. They are mentioned below according to a scale ranging from the more superficial to the less superficial. Remembering of course, as I mentioned above, that the most important aspects of cleaning are perhaps mysteries solved only by the passage of Time.

  1. Obviously there is the continued practice of centered and purposeful movement. Cleaning is a time when we can experiment with what we are learning during class - it is one of the earliest bridges we may use to help us take our Aikido training outside the confinement of the dojo walls. We should ask ourselves, "Am I still alert?", "Am I still breathing correctly?", "Am I letting gravity determine too heavily how I step and where I step?", etc. These self-addressed questions all deal with the aspects of proper breathing and proper posture. What more is there to Aikido than proper breathing and proper posture? Allowing for broad definitions of breath and posture (which is something we must do in translating the two words from the Japanese) one might arguably say that there is nothing more to Aikido than proper breathing and proper posture. A famous story, with many versions, offers another perspective of this understanding: A famous Japanese swordsman is asked to attend a Noh play by a local government official. The central character is played by the most famous Noh actor of the times. After the play the government official asked the swordsman to comment on the performance of the famous actor. The swordsman responded by saying he saw no openings during the entire drama. By this comment, the swordsman was pointing out how in control the actor was of every move he made - how his breathing and posture were at all times correct and how his mind was always alert. The swordsman ended his comment by saying, "His Zanshin never faltered." Pertaining to the immediate concern of this essay, we can ask ourselves other questions that are even more immediately apparent in their technical application: "Do we scrub the mat with our shoulders?"; "Is our spine out of alignment when we are dusting?"; etc. Our body awareness should not solely be of importance when we are nage or uke. Can we not use seiza and Shikko to scrub the mat rather than being on all fours and shoving our shoulders downward? Can we not see the similarities between vacuuming, sweeping the walkway, and Jo tsuki? And can we not use ayumi-ashi or Shikko to push the broom across the mat when it is being swept? The obvious answer to all these questions is "yes".
  2. Cleaning the dojo provides an opportunity to actually practice the social aspects of Aikido. For some the social lessons O Sensei tried to instill in this most fascinating of arts operate at what can only be called a metaphorical level. We hear statements about arguments in the office where one Aikidoka had to "go with the flow", "use his opponent’s force against him", or "roll out of it". As interesting as these stories may be, traditional Aikido is meant to function in the social experience beyond the level of analogy, and cleaning the dojo is one very good way of returning a practicality to Aikido’s social philosophy. When we clean we become aware of how our presence impacts our environment and those around us. In fact, cleaning can be defined as the act of becoming aware of the impact we create by our very presence. We bring in the dirt. We clean up the dirt. We leave the dirt there. This awareness of our impact on the larger environment is the gateway to social harmony - to peace on Earth… Usually though we dispense with the academic language and just use the word "compassion". Though we equally make use of the dojo, do we equally share in its maintenance? When we leave early with hardly cleaning, do we think of how this makes our fellow students feel? Might they not also have a family to return home to, and work to do? By leaving early didn’t we just make them have to stay later? How compassionate can we be towards each other if we decide to routinely take cleaning lightly while others are not? How will we learn compassion and practice it when it is most needed if we cannot even understand how our fellow students may feel when they are working up a sweat cleaning and we are idly chatting away? Cleaning is the social responsibility of all members and because of this we can use this hardly volatile environment to safely cultivate compassion within ourselves.
  3. A properly cleaned dojo is a dojo whose slightest detail has not escaped the awareness of its members. Thus cleaning teaches us how to pay attention to detail. Attention to detail is very important to Aikido training. We train not toward mediocrity - whether we train for health, self-defense, or the totality Budo. Appearing almost arrogant, we can say that we train toward perfection. But let us define "perfection" before we truly label ourselves arrogant… Perfection cannot be a destination. It is not a place we reach and stop in for a drink and a bite to eat. If perfection is a locale than it is forever beyond us and of little practical good. Perfection is a process. As a process perfection still contains the notion of the unattainable, but it is this unattainability that makes perfection practical for us. Allow me to explain: Perfection is a process, but what constitutes this process? The process of perfection is nothing more than the continual attention to finer and finer detail - ad infinitum. We practice because there is always more to learn - more to see. And as we engage in this infinite pursuit we grow in a way that is as continual as the process itself. When we first practiced Katate-dori Ikkyo we may have just stepped forward any amount of steps - completely unaware of their number or direction because all we could see was our hands. And forget breathing right! But in time we notice the triangular entering movement, and the hip to hip and center to center relationship between uke and nage. In more time we feel our shoulders drop, we sense extension, we come to see the sword movements, and Kokyu-ho, etc. - on and on, ad infinitum. And everyday our Ikkyo changes, we say "improves", because we become more and more aware to the details of Ikkyo When we clean we provide ourselves with an opportunity to develop this awareness of detail at a time when we do not have to concern ourselves with thoughts like, "How will I land from these heights now?" We merely have to breathe, adopt the correct posture, and become fully aware - easier said than done - right?
  4. Lastly I would like to attempt to put into words how cleaning is related to our very being. I may quite easily fail in this task because I am sensing that this is one of those mysteries left to the passage of Time. But if the reader can keep these final feeble attempts at elucidation somewhere in the back of their mind, then perhaps somewhere, someday, he/she will comprehend what I could not make comprehensible now. When we clean we mark the dojo as a special place. In academic circles one might easily call it a sacred space, but today the modern general public is made uncomfortable by words like "sacred". So let me define the term as it is used today in social/historical studies. When we say a space is sacred we are noting first and foremost that it is not profane - that it is not of the everyday ordinary space. We are also noting that the space in question provides some sort of physical and/or ideational orientation for its members. Today, scholars call churches sacred space, and they call government offices sacred space. Today there is the sacred mountain and the sacred Capital Hill. The delineation of one space from another, the sacred from the profane, is done so as to provide value - first to the place in question, and secondly to those practices and ideas cultivated therein. As far as the dojo is concerned we mark off these delineating boundaries through minor actions daily. When we enter the dojo we mark the outer boundary by bowing at the door. (I doubt we perform this action at many other door ways). In bowing we are saying, "This space I am about to enter is not like this space I am exiting." When we also remove our shoes we are saying the same thing. We change our clothes, our language, our natural inclinations, and we do this all to mark off a space as special - as valuable, as meaningful. (But why and what does this have to do with cleaning you may ask…) We do this because ultimately what we put into the dojo, we put into ourselves. Where we practice is of extraordinary value, so that/and because what we practice is of extraordinary value, so that/and because we are of extraordinary value. In not too philosophical a way, we can say, when we leave the dojo with impurities we leave impurities within ourselves.

In the above short essay I have attempted to demonstrate for the reader the physical, social, mental, and spiritual aspects of cleaning the traditional dojo. I have done this so as to try and increase awareness on the important role cleaning plays in the Aiki forging of ourselves. May we all always have a dojo to clean!