By Hiroshi Ikeda
Translation by Jun Akiyama, edited by Ginger Ikeda
Today my wife and I left work early and went to our son's school after the classes had let out. It was our week to clean the 4/5 grade classroom. You see, at this school every family participates at least one week out of the year in the cleaning of their child(ren)'s classroom, either by actually doing it (highly encouraged), or by paying $40 for the school to hire someone (the school's one-and-only custodian) to do it. Most families choose to show up and do the cleaning.
We have done this since kindergarten, and it has become a kind of ritual that we rather enjoy. I think it is the hands-on element that makes us feel like we belong in the school, that gives us a sense of connection to the place where our son spends many hours of his day. We are doing it for him, for his teacher, and for his friends, making a small contribution toward keeping that world of theirs clean, orderly and attractive. In a small token way, we are repaying his teacher, whom he adores (and so do we), for being such a positive influence in his life.
So we say "Hi," to other parents and head to the janitor's closet, pull out a vacuum cleaner and a couple of cleaning totes, and go to Jill's room. Of course our son would rather spend his time in the computer lab while we are wiping down the desks and getting smudges off the keyboards, but he joins us long enough to clean the blackboards and stow the vacuum cord. Besides, as he reminds us, he does his "job" every day. He's referring to the chore rotation the kids do before time to go home-little things like feed the guinea pig, clean under the tables, stack chairs and put away supplies.
I have come to learn that our school is something of an exception in this regard. This is surprising to me, because in the all schools I attended in Japan, we children cleaned not only our classrooms, but the hallways and common areas, as well. We mopped and swept and washed windows. It wasn't a punishment, by any means; it was simply expected, and we took pride in working together to maintain our own space. It was our space. I suppose we didn't realize it, but we were learning things about responsibility, respect, achievement, and cooperation.
Like the classroom, the dojo is a place of some significance -- many would say of perhaps more significance than a classroom, because in a dojo we go about the business of honing skills that could put us on the border of life and death.
I think that many people today seem to mistake the dojo for a type of recreation center. Unlike a fitness center for lifting weights or a gymnasium for sports, a martial arts dojo houses the kami (god) of budo. That is to say, in a dojo a spirit of bushido, or a code of conduct, pervades the training. When a dojo lacks this, it has ramifications. I believe that it is budo spirit -- this refined sense of respect - which distinguishes a dojo and ultimately carries over into our behavior in society.
The very act of caring for the dojo allows us to physically manifest the process of purifying our own spirit. In the same manner that people walk into the dojo and leave their worries behind at the door, the dojo itself must reflect the pure mindset of the occupants, so that students can move surely and unfettered into the future along the path of budo.
Unfortunately, I sometimes observe students who seem to consider their training to be separate and apart from this simple act of caring. A dojo's spirit reflects the manner in which each individual approaches his or her own training, and that includes the manner in which he or she treats the dojo itself. It is my belief that persons who train in a dojo should consider the dojo to be, in a sense, a manifestation of themselves and to approach its purification in the same manner as they would the purification and renewal of their own spirit.
Throughout history and across cultures, the act of cleaning and purifying has been a both a practical and a symbolic gesture of great meaning. In Japan, this sort of purification ritual or "misogi" is an integral, important part of everyday life. In the latter part of December, for example, nearly everyone in the entire nation cooperates within families, schools, companies, and dojo to clean these places where people gather. By doing so, they are able to welcome the New Year with purified surroundings as well as a purified spirit. Other rituals of misogi may include the purification of a building site before the actual construction begins. Before every single match in the Japanese national sport of sumo, the wrestlers purify the ring upon which they will be competing by throwing salt onto it.
It seems a paradox that simple, mundane acts have the power to transform, but this fact has been borne out again and again over the ages. If we polish the mirror, perhaps one day the mirror will be spotless, and then we will see our true reflection.