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Dojo: 3 Definitions of the most Favorite Place of Karateka

The picture shows a Japanese house which could be a dojo.

Dojo (道場) literally means: the place (jo 場, Japanese reading: ba) of the way (道 do, Japanese reading: michi), the place where the “way” (e.g. a martial art) is practiced. A correct transliteration of the term dojo must include two circumflexes: Dōjō. They indicate that the below must be pronounced in a long way. For better recognition, following we leave the circumflexes out.

By Prof. Dr. Wolf Herbert

Three definitions of Dojo

Dojo has three distinct, but inter-related meanings:

1. Originally it was the translation of the Sanskrit term bodhimanda. This indicates the spot under the tree, where the historical Buddha Shakyamuni experienced his awakening (bodhi). The manda (= dojo) is therefore the place, where the “essence” of enlightenment is present.

2. In Zen-temples it denotes the hall or room, where sitting meditation (zazen) is practiced. In a broader sense it signifies every site, where one follows the “way of the Buddha” (butsudô 仏道), e. g. temples or assembly rooms for buddhist practices.

3. For the Karateka the dojo is the place, where he hones his skills in his martial art (budô 武道). In this sense it became widely used only since the end of the 19th century. It actually is the abbreviation of budojo 武道場, which was besides keikoba 稽古場 (training place) the common denomination until then.

Do as a “way” of cultural practices

A dojo can be a separate building or a temporary space used for engaging in some martial art. The “do” (道dao in Chinese) in “dojo” has an extensive philosophical meaning in Daoism as the ultimate essence or natural order of the universe. In Japan it also denotes a “way of life” in the sense of being dedicated to an art, craft or study.

Since the Edo-period (1603-1868) it was used to denote traditional “ways” like chado/sado 茶道 (tea ceremony), shodo 書道 (calligraphy) kado 華道 (flower arrainging), kyudo 弓道 (archery), judo 柔道 (the “gentle way” of grappling and throwing), kendo 剣道 (swordsmanship) etc. In the latter cases it replaced “jutsu” 術 (“technical skill, method”) as in jujutsu 柔術 or kenjutsu 剣術. The implication was that these martial arts where meant not only for refining physical or technical skills, but also for mental and spiritual training and development. A clear distinction has been drawn between bujutsu 武術 (classical martial arts of self-protection) and budô 武道 (classical martial ways of self-perfection).  

From Karate-jutsu to Karate-Do

Funakoshi Gichin still used the term Karate-jutsu in the title of his second book published in 1925. Karate-jutsu was then streamlined along the concept of “do” and appropriated by the Japanese on the main island as a form of “budo”, thus renamed “Karate-Do”. Hence the place, where Karate is exercised also became the dojo. In the Japanese understanding a dojo is not just a sports facility, but a space where body, mind and spirit are trained in unison. It is a place to strive for self-perfection. Therefore when entering and leaving a dojo, one should make a bow as a sign of respect.

(Zen-)Buddhist meaning of Dojo

The Mahâyâna-buddhist scripture titled Vimalakîrti-sûtra (Jap. 維摩経 Yuimakyo) is highly appreciated and widely read in Zen-circles. Its protagonist Vimalakîrti is a lay practioner and householder, who teaches the doctrines of nothingness and non-duality and silence as an adequate expression thereof. He serves as an example for someone, who attained the highest buddhist wisdom whilst leading an “ordinary” life.

One line out of the Vimalakîrti sûtra is often quoted by martial artists, and it recurs to meaning 1 of dojo: Jikishin kore dojo 直心是道場. Verbally this means: “Where the mind is straight, there is the dojo.” Thurman translates it as: “The seat of enlightenment is the seat of positive thought because it is without artificiality.” (Thurman 1976:36). The “seat of enlightenment” is translated into Japanese as “dojo”. In a broader meaning it can be interpreted as: the dojo is everywhere, where an activity is pursued with total dedication and mindfulness.

The Zen monk Genyu Sokyu states: “In the end everything in Zen is about everyday life.” (Genyu 2003:153) He illustrates this with some famous Zen-sayings. The most salient among them might be: “Meditation in the midst of activity is infinitely superior to meditiation in stillness.” 動中の工夫、静中に勝ること百千億倍 Dochu no kufu, jochu ni masaru koto hyakusenokubai. (Genyû 2003:153) This was actually a bold calligraphy brushed by the eminent Zen-monk Hakuin (1686-1768) three days before his passing. The chu (“midst”, Japanese reading: naka 中) is emphasized by thick strokes and by prolongation of the line in the middle of the character (Stevens 1999:100).

All life is a Dojo

Every Japanese “do” is inspired by Zen and infused with Zen-idea(l)s, exactly because according to these every activity can be transformed into a meditative act or spiritual exercise. In this spirit the 8th principle in the Shotokan niju-kun, The 20 Guiding Principles of Shotokan, by Funakoshi Gichin can be understood: 道場のみの空手と思うな. Dojo nomi no Karate to omou na! Do not think that Karate training is only in the dojo. The acute mind nurtured in the dojo should be shown in everyday life. Good practice in the dojo will have good effects in our daily life and undertakings other than Karate. Many a Karateka will attest to the fact, that Karate-training had/has positive consequences for their lives. The whole life can be a dojo!


Genyû Sôkyû: Zenteki seikatsu. [Life in Zen-style] Tokyo: Chikuma shobô 2003.

Stevens, John: Zen Masters. A Maverick, a Master of Masters, and a Wandering Poet. Ikkyû, Hakuin, Ryôkan. Tokyo, New York, London: Kodansha Intl. 1999.

Thurman, Robert A. E.: The Holy Teaching of Vimalakîrti. A Mahâyâna Scripture. Translated by Robert A. E. Thurman. Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State UP 1976.