The Dojo Kun

dojo kun
Our Style's Dojo kun & its heritage

         by Jaki Scovell, a paper written as the theory component for her sandan test

Every night at the end of our karate training, we recite the Dojo Kun (a karate style's rules/motto/philosophy), but how many of us stop to think about the meaning behind those words?  Every word is considered to be equally as important as the next, and to reflect this, each is given the count of “one” (hitotsu).

Not all martial arts share the same Dojo Kun. Our particular Dojo Kun is below:

                         “Effort ~Patience ~Moderation ~Respect”

 Its origins are from the very similar Dojo Kun that shukokai (note 1) use:

            “Patience ~Effort ~Temperance ~Respect ~ Creativity (note 2)”

The way we conduct ourselves in the dojo through being mindful of our Dojo Kun, should not be restricted only to the times we are at training. These words are just as important to follow outside of the dojo. Most of us spend the greater part of our lives away from training, with our families, or at work, school etc, so to follow the Dojo Kun each and every day with everything we do and everyone we meet is a great achievement and sometimes very hard to do, but something we should always strive to do. The results will show in how people respond to us, the goals in life we will achieve, and how we feel about ourselves everyday……a worthy reward.

*note 1.  Shukokai is a Tani derived style of shito-ryu, and the style that we share strong ties with, alongside our very direct link to Mabuni’s teachings. Tani was considered by many to be Mabuni’s top student. In fact in our lineage history/sister style saw Iba Sensei (8th dan Renbukan) in 1975 influence the change from the shukokai dojo kun of "temperance" to "moderation". 

*note 2. While we do not say this word in our Dojo Kun, it does apply to ranks above 5th Dan (degree black belt), to allow them to continue the development and advancement of our style.

dojo kun kanji karate

Effort (Do-Ryo-Ku)

We hear the word often enough, both from within the dojo and outside in every day life. It’s something most of us have been told to give more of at some stage, and probably from an early age by our parents, teachers etc.

Even before we knew the meaning of the word ‘effort’, we showed it at only a few months of age when we decided to learn to walk! No matter how many times we fell over, we got back up again and kept trying. We never gave up and were determined to reach our goal. This is effort, and is the mindset needed to stay on the path towards black belt.

From the moment we first start karate as a white belt, we begin to understand that much effort is needed to learn even the very basic techniques. We have to practice it over and over again until finally the moves start to feel a little bit more ‘comfortable’ and less awkward. We start to realise that without continued effort, we will not be allowed to grade.

We learn that in the dojo when we say “Osu”, we should be reaffirming to ourselves and our Sensei that we understand what is being asked of us and we will try harder. The kanji for Osu translates to ‘osae’ meaning ‘to press or persevere’, and ‘shinobu’ meaning ‘steady spirit or patience’. To press or persevere is to keep going, no matter how hard the task asked of you, no matter how tired you feel or how bad your day has been. This is effort. It is essential if we are to achieve that much desired black belt, and more importantly as time passes we gain many improvements with our own self. Perhaps without realising it, our confidence grows and our focus improves. We get better balance, speed, fitness, strength, relaxation and more…..all as a result of making the effort to turn up to the dojo each night and training hard. We are on the way to being a worthy karate practitioner that people look up to and respect.

The rewards for effort can be many, not just in the dojo but in every day life and the chances of successfully achieving our life goals are great, if we keep trying and never give up.

 *As a point of interest, Shihan Jason trained for 17 years within the Renbukan system, and was informed by his sensei that the ‘ren’ in Renbukan can be understood as meaning “to practice or train with thought or great effort”.

If the kanji for ‘ren’ is split into two, the left and right radicals coincidentally form the two characters for ‘shi’ and ‘to’, which of course are the first two characters in our style name ‘shito-ryu’. 

patience kanji

Patience (Nin-tai)

Patience is a calm acceptance/perseverance of what is needed to reach an end point or goal.

The ‘shinobu’ from osu means patience or steady spirit. Every time we say “osu”, we are reaffirming that not only are we putting in 100% effort into our training, ( as discussed in the ‘Effort” section previously), but we will do so patiently, calmly and persistently, with an acceptance that it is what we need to do to reach our goal. The goal for example, could be to learn a new kata, gain more confidence, correct an error in our technique, or achieve the next rank at our grading.

Below is a poem from Dogen, a 13th century Japanese Monk:

Jewels become objects of beauty by polishing,
Man becomes a true man through training,
What jewel is lustrous from the outset,
What man is superior from the beginning,
You must always keep polishing and always keep training, 
Do not relax and depreciate yourselves in the study of the Way.

The above writing not only talks about the patience (‘polishing’) we must have to become good at what we do, but also the effort needed to achieve this……and that we must always keep polishing/training to maintain this level. 

San nen no kata” is a well known old karate saying that means ‘3 years one kata’. It is very relevant to having patience. Rather than rush to learn one kata after another, it is far better to stay patiently on one kata for a long time and become proficient at it, and then we will start to understand the real depth (‘ura’) behind it. A quote to highlight the importance of this comes from Mabuni Kenwa’s 1934 book “Kobo Jizai Goshin-jutsu Karate Kenpo.’ He states:

“It is not important how many kata one knows but how well you know any given kata. One will gain more from knowing one kata in depth than from 10 kata superficially.”   

Patience is not something that we keep only for ourselves, we also need to be able to apply it to others around us. We should have an understanding (and try to remember from our own first experiences) of the difficulties that every new student faces when they first enter the dojo and start to learn karate. They may need to be shown many times over how a particular technique or kata is done, and it is important to show patience when this happens. At any time when we work with other students in the dojo, we need to always be patient with them, as they should be with us in return.

If we do not have patience, we can become angry and rushed and perhaps do or say things that we may regret at a later stage.
This can also be very applicable to our kumite (fighting) strategies, where the importance of patience is greatly to our advantage. If we become impatient and fight with anger and act in haste, then the likelihood of poor technique and bad control is almost certain. Having a clear mind and being  patient for that ‘right moment’ in kumite is a far better strategy to use.  This is also highlighted by the ancient Chinese text Tao de Ching in its words:

"Those with great courage, but little patience, tend to kill or be killed." 

Moderation (On-ken)

This particular word in our dojo kun, (dictionary definition of moderation:  avoidance of extremes) is often the hardest for students to understand, and to explain what it really means, especially in relation to karate training. It is relevant to not only what we do in the dojo, but once again, what we do outside of it. In our everyday lives we have already learnt from a young age to moderate our behaviours depending on where we are, who we are with and what we are doing.

When we train, it can be very rewarding to see and feel our own improvement in the art, and it is true that when we train often we may see a quicker result. However, it is important to understand that to continue training and enjoying our karate for many years to come, we must be mindful of the injuries, wear and tear, and other stresses this can cause to our bodies if we do not apply ‘moderation’. Overtraining can quickly lead to injuries that may take longer than they should to heal, or in the worst case, prevent us from training altogether until they are fully healed. When we become sick with the flu for example, it is important to be ‘patient’ until we are well enough to start training again, and then it should be ‘moderated’ until we are fully recovered, otherwise we can just as easily become ill again. Interestingly, and also appropriately when considering the above,  the two kanji for ‘moderation’ when separated, read as:  ….‘relaxation’ and ….health’.

It is important to be mindful of the rank and age of the ‘uke’ (training partner) in front of us and moderate our techniques to allow them to learn/respond/react properly and safely. As a higher rank, if we do not change our techniques to suit them and go just as hard and strong as if it were another similar rank in front of us, then how can they possibly learn from that? They are too busy trying to get out of the way to avoid being hurt, or everything happens so fast that they are not able to see and process what happened. If they do get hurt, they are less likely to want to continue training in our dojo.

A well known precept from Gichin Funakoshi is “karate ni sente nashi”. Translated this reads “There is no first strike in karate.” A very relevant statement in terms of moderation. If a ‘situation’ were to occur with another person, then our level of response to this particular event should be suited (moderated) to the circumstances. Eg: A simple argument with someone does not justify us striking them, however if they start to throw punches at us first then we certainly need to respond appropriately, perhaps by blocking and countering, but we should only do what is necessary to resolve the situation and no more. It is important to show moderation and not continue to attack. Besides having to live with the fact that we were not able to have control over our own emotions, we could possibly end up in a lengthy legal battle trying to justify our actions. 

*note 3: The alternate kanji for the word moderation is kanwa  緩和 and in fact in our lineage history/sister style these kanji were put forward by Iba Sensei (8th dan Renbukan) in 1975 as a change from the shukokai dojo kun which included temperance rather than moderation. Renbukan was lead by Sotokawa sensei in that era with Iba sensei being the 2nd senior in that style until 1997 when he became kancho (head) after Sotokawa moved on to continue his own form of shito-ryu.


Respect (Son-kei)

Respect is to have a sense of worth, appreciation or admiration for someone or something, including ourselves, and is such an important part of our dojo kun. Funakoshi states in one of his precepts that ‘karate-do begins and ends with ‘rei’ or bowing’.
Why do we bow? It is a show of respect. We show it from the moment we enter the dojo, to the last moment as we leave.

Inside the dojo, being respectful means so many things, from listening quietly to our Sensei or senpai when they are talking, by being careful/mindful of our partners when working with them, and to making sure we are not late for the class. It is also important to have respect for ourselves and our appearances, by making sure our uniform/dogi is clean for each training session and our finger nails and toe nails are clean and short. We certainly would not want to work with a partner who smells bad and is generally dirty. If we take respect away from our kumite and sparring partner, it becomes nothing more than a ‘fight’, with very little concern for the hurt/injuries we may inflict on them. By being mindful of all these things, we are showing respect for ourselves, the people that we train with and for the art we have chosen. As a student, it is important to respect our karate teachers and their decisions, with an understanding that they have many years of knowledge and training behind them, and have worked hard to reach this level. The respect that the Sensei have for their students (deshi) to help us achieve our karate goals, is shown by the time, thought and effort put into helping each one of us, not just from within the dojo, but also outside of this with extra training, attending competitions etc.

Funakoshi makes a point about respect in an entry that is in Mabuni’s book ‘Kobo Jizai Goshin-jutsu Karate Kenpo’. He writes of Mabuni: 

“Mabuni would even humbly approach one of his juniors if he did not know something. He was not concerned with who was senior or junior and was respectful to everyone.”

When we leave the dojo, the respect must not stop at the doorway, it has to be taken with us and used always. If we treat others as we would like to be treated ourselves, this is respect and it will in turn be given back to us.

Respect should have no barriers. It shouldn’t matter the age, sex, rank, religious or social upbringing of a person. What matters is how they are as a person and what they do in life to earn this respect.

*Special thanks to Shihan Jason Armstrong, Sensei Greg Story, Sensei Greg Scovell and Dr.Sarven Mclinton for their input and thoughts during the creation of this article.