Sunday, June 6, 2010

It's about deep respect

If you were to go to a modern day martial arts studio you will notice they look a lot like a gym or a dance studio. You will see a clean floor, gym mats, striking dummies, kicking shields, mirrors on the wall, etc.  Also present would be trophies and weapons on the wall, as well as pictures of students and teachers.

Now, if you were to go to a very traditional martial arts dojo you would notice they all have the same things, with one altar.

Traditional dojo typically have an altar that pays respects to the founder of the style, ancestors or guardian/family spirits.  This altar has a very important part to play in classical budo and has been removed in most commercial studios for one reason. Money.

Modern day teachers have removed the altar because they are afraid of losing students for fear of being thought of as idol worshippers. This fear is based on a lack of understanding of why the altar is there...and why we bow and meditate before it. Respect...not worship.

It is unfortunate that the prevailing Christian culture views bowing and meditating as a form of idol worship and won't partake in it. I know not all Christians have this view, but for modern day Karate-ka who try to run a dojo, the altar was removed because of these views.

When I was operating a commercial dojo in Lincoln, Nebraska I was working with a martial arts association that promised to help build your student base. One thing they emphasized was the removal of the altar or anything that looked like an Eastern buddhas, no altars, no ancestor lists, etc.  I refused to do this.

I am not sure how if effected my bottom line, but I did attract students. The type I liked. Those who were interested in Zen and all the bells and whistles. My dojo also housed the Lincoln Zen Group that was linked to the Nebraska Zen Center in Omaha. Nonin would often come to visit for workshops and seminars on Zen.

I attracted martial artists who were highly ranked in Aikido, Tai Chi, Ninjutsu, Jujitsu and Karate.  They wanted the altar. They wanted the spiritual side of Budo as it had not been emphasized in there schools and wanted more than just the physical and mental developments and transformations.

At the Brokken Bokken we have a broken bokken and a small buddha as our altar. We meditate before and after in its presence. The altar represents our higher self. It represents the gateway to the creative consciousness that allows for healing and deep transformation. It is this altar that reminds us of the true purpose of Budo... "to cease the struggle"  This is what Budo (the way of the warrior) actually means on a deeper level. It is about putting away the swords and realizing inner peace.

I encourage all martial artists to reconnect with this part of their traditions....or develop your own based on your spiritual insights. It doesn't have to be religious...just respectful. Oh well...I have rambled enough.

Hands palm to palm,


  1. Although the ethos of Budo has its origins in the practice and ritual in oriental philosophies, they can be adapted to other cultures without obliterating all its useful manifestations and teachings as are the respect for elders or teachers, meditation and the venerable "know thyself" as the necessary underpinnings of any true system of learning. Otherwise you would be accumulating muscle and cunning in a void.