Lessons on Terminology and History

with Dan Bernardo, Sabom

Dojang Calligraphy by Dan Bernardo, SabomDojang "道場" - Place of the Way

The term Dojang is simply the Korean pronunciation of the Japanese is term Dojo.  We all have heard this term, and I would dare say that the majority of people have, at some point in their lives, set foot in one.  Or... maybe not?

Most places on the internet will define a dojang as a martial arts school, the place where martial arts training happens.  Whether that is Karate, Dangsoodo, Aikido, Kendo, etc.  Some will even use the term for Chinese martial arts schools, simply as a generalization.

But can we call each and every martial arts school in the world, a dojang?  I don't believe so.  And here's why.  Dojang literally means "place of the way".  But, what is this "way" it's referring to?  Well, historically it could be any way, as long as that way leads to enlightenment.  A Zen Buddhist temple where monk's and lay people meditate is often called a Zendo, but many still call it a dojo.  Where people learn the way of Bonsai (Japanese tiny tree cultivation) is called a dojo.  Where people learn the way of Ikebana (Japanese flower arrangement) is called a dojo.  Where people learn the art of Shodo (Japanese calligraphy) is called a dojo.

The dojang is a place where my better self lives.  It is a place where that better self is cultivated, nurtured, and realized.

But, simply because you have a bonsai in your room and you water it, trim it and shape it; doesn't make your room a dojo.  Similarly, just because you practice a martial art in your space doesn't automatically make it a dojo.  Interestingly enough, the concept of commercially run martial arts schools as businesses that employ an instructor full time by charging students tuition is a very modern (and dare I say, American) concept.

In just under one hundred years ago, the professional martial arts instructor was akin to either a college professor or military personnel.  He was either paid by the university to teach, or by the military.  And those who had small personal dojang's also had full time careers and taught in the off-time to students who paid mostly in labor, food, booze or bartered instruction in something else.  Money was rarely involved.

And if you go back further in time, most martial arts were only taught to military personnel.  You were a warrior and learned the art of war.  Karate was not created or made by peasants or farmers.  That is a myth.

Another interesting thing of note, for the most part the students managed the dojang instead of the instructor.  The students were glad to clean, keep track of paperwork, upkeep the equipment, etc. because they were there for the betterment of the dojang just as much as they were for the betterment of themselves.

Today?  I don't see this.  Especially here in America where the culture is completely different.  We want everything handed to us, and handed quickly.  How many times do you go to a gym and someone's sweat is still pooled on the bench you want to work out on?  GROSS!  Clearly someone didn't care about the gym or the other people in it.

The dojang is not the gym, it is not a wrestling room, it is not a boxing gym, it is not a place to just learn martial arts.  All of those things are secondary to the nature of a dojang.  A dojang is where you are completely focused on becoming a better you, in every facet.  Classical martial arts such as Dangsoodo have 3 aspects, Nehgong-Wehgong-Shimgong (External Power-Internal Power-Spiritual Power).  Most dojang are very good at teaching the first two, but that third is increasingly difficult.

Modern people flinch at the term "spiritual".  They don't want their religious rights violated.  And I agree with them.  A martial arts school should not be forcing students to partake in any single religion, religious ideology, religious ritual, etc.  But that's not what Shimgong is.  Shimgong is empathy, compassion, community, work, the very nature of interconnectedness and mindfulness.

  • When you sit with someone and simply listen, letting go of yourself and your desire to correct them.  This is shimgong.
  • When you jump in to help a stranger even if no one is looking.  This is shimgong.
  • When you clean the dojang even if your Sabom Nim hasn't asked you.  This is shimgong.
  • When you are easily able to hurt an attacker, possibly putting them in the hospital, but you choose to just subdue them without further violence.  This is shimgong.

It's because of this that many dojang in the past also functioned as temples, community meeting places, scholastic institutions, etc. as long as the main goal of the space was to help all who enter on their path to enlightenment.  This is why we bow when we enter, and bow when we leave.  The respect is of great importance because it is an extension of our better selves.  The dojang is a place where my better self lives.  It is a place where that better self is cultivated, nurtured, and realized.  It is the place of the way.

So.... do you practice in a dojang?

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All Calligraphy done by Dan Bernardo, Sabom

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