The Climbing Dojo

A kendo demonstration at The Comp of the Rising Sun, circa 2007. The Spot Gym, Boulder, Colorado.
A kendo demonstration at The Comp of the Rising Sun, circa 2007. The Spot Bouldering Gym, Boulder, Colorado.

In Japanese martial arts, the dojo is a place for formal training. The “do” in dojo means “way” or “path,” and the full phrase dojo means “place of the way.” Similarly in Chinese, tao or dao—as in Tao Te Ching—carries a similar meaning. In Japanese Buddhism, dojo is also used to refer to a hall for Zen meditation. In essence, a dojo is a place where one seeks to learn not just for practical purposes, but for something deeper.

This is how I have come to see the climbing gym. Humble, dusty spaces they may be, often times housed in roughly converted warehouses, a climbing gym can be a dojo, granted you bring with you the proper mindset.

A first step to this recognition of the gym as more than a gym is to remember it is not a place to prove things to others, or to conquer anything. It is “a place where we discipline ourselves and improve ourselves to be a better person,” according to Kendo instructor Masahiro Imafuji. When you think of it this way, it is always a privilege to spend time and a dojo. Every success in a dojo is just a fleeting step on the endless journey; every failure is a gift, at least as valuable as the successes.

It is traditional to bow on entering and leaving a dojo, but it’s important to remember that bowing in this way doesn’t mean lowering yourself in a worshipping sense. Instead, the bow is meant as a show of respect. That respect is not only for your teacher, if you have one, and for your fellow climbers, but also for oneself and for the lessons that you have the honor of learning. (When you bow to an image of Buddha, you do not bow to the physical image or to a man from the distant past, but to the Buddha nature in yourself.)

There are myriad lessons to be had in a simple climbing gym. And under the definition of dojo above, I’d include every crag or mountain, too. In a sense, all the blog posts I’ve written about climbing have been encapsulations of lessons learned in a dojo of sorts. Lessons about fear and ego, about flow and balance, about strategy and respect—climbing can teach us all these things and also things beyond expression.

But climbing is not the only means to such lessons. Martial arts, painting, skiing, woodworking… many—I might even say any—activities can, if practiced in a mindful and disciplined manner, help us to understand and find “the way.”

Simply living life can be enough to find this way, but it can often be more difficult, as life can seem at once too complex and too mundane to teach us clear lessons. Instead, we take one interesting activity, climbing for example, and elevate it to the level of ritual. We find our dojos—the rocks and gyms and mountains—and we train and learn.

This is the power of the dojo. There, we learn not just about climbing but about ourselves. We learn about the things climbing allows us to be, not just to do.

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Justin Roth

A busy mind that aspires to be still.

4 thoughts on “The Climbing Dojo”

  1. dojo is actually Japanese btw. i know it wasn’t said to be Chinese but Dao is Chinese and Dojo is Japanese.

    Also i don’t know where you got the Dojo for the Bodhi Tree, but in Hindi it is called Animisalocana cetiya. I don’t know if that is a direct translation to Japanese.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bodhi_Tree

    Excellent post however.

    1. “Tao” or “dao” is Chinese, yes. I believe that is how I put it. However my mistake was in not identifying the linguistic origins of “dojo” in the post. I simply said, “In martial arts.” I’ll edit to clarify that those are Japanese martial arts and “dojo” is Japanese, like karate or kendo.

      Again, it’s my lack of specificity in the post causing the problems. “Jakumetsu Dōjō” is a Japanese term for the place of Buddha’s enlightenment in India. Reference here: http://bit.ly/1vGDlfq
      Obviously, Buddhism is a bit complicated in its terminology since it started in India, moved to China and later to Japan (and other countries in the region), so that term was retroactively applied to the place in india…

      Thanks for helping to keep me on my toes!

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