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The following essay is from Chapter 7 of Dave Lowry's book "In the Dojo: A Guide to the Rituals and Etiquette of the Japanese Martial Arts.  Click on the book cover on the right side to go to the Amazon page.


By Dave Lowry

     In many dojo, this word is roared like a battle cry.  It comes twice, at the beginning of a practice session and again at the end, always after students in the dojo have lined up and are quietly sitting.  Once seated, there is a long moment of settling in as the rustling and groans of exertion and labored breathing fade, followed by a silence that is broken by the shout that seems to penetrate right into the bodies of those seated.

     The moku of mokuso means “to silence.”  So means “thoughts.”  Mokuso is sometimes thought of as a period of “meditation.”  In a way, it is.  A better way to think of it might be to consider it as a transitional period.  Many believe the dojo is a place of refuge, a place where the concerns of everyday life can be put aside.  This can lead to some incorrect assumptions, though.  The dojo is not an escape from everyday life.  Rather it is a place where one can confront the realities of our daily living, meet them in concentrated from, and learn to deal with them.  The dojo is a microcosm, intensified, of our day-to-day existence and activities.  As such, we approach what goes on there with more focus and intensity than we might other areas of our lives.  That requires a period of transition and that is what the moments of mokuso are all about.  When we begin, the period of mokuso allows us to silence whatever aggravations, concerns, desires, or anticipations we have had outside the dojo, to put them aside for the course of our practice.  When we finish that practice, another period of mokuso allows us to reemerge, to come back to our lives outside the dojo.  There is nothing particularly “mystical” or even transcendent in mokuso.  We are not striving for enlightenment in our sitting as might the Zen acolyte.  We are merely transitioning, moving from one place into another: neither special, neither extraordinary, but both are fundamental parts of our day.

     What do we think about while sitting in mokuso?  If you ask, the {Sensei} might say, “Think about nothing.”  Easier said than done.  Thoughts come crowding in, pushing their way to vie for our attention.  We wonder, beginning class in mokuso, if we should not have skipped training altogether this evening.  A report at work or school is due; the laundry’s been neglected all week.   When we finish and are once again sitting, we’re concerned with how well we did. Was the Sensei satisfied?  Are we improving?  It is extremely difficult not to entertain such thoughts.  Trying not to have them seems to make them spring up all the more ferociously.  Under such circumstances, we might want to consider a concept that comes from chado, the Way of tea.  “Ichi-go; ichi-e” means “one encounter; one chance.”  During your day outside the dojo, you had one opportunity to approach the tasks that needed tending.  One opportunity to interact with others.  In the dojo, it is the same.  This practice session came only once in your life.  Next time, even if it is the next evening, you will be different; the lesson will be different.  It will be the same, of course, in your life outside the dojo.  Each moment is unique.  In Mokuso, we have a moment to consider: did we make the most of each moment before we came to the dojo?  Once there and once finished with our practice, we can reflect again.  Did we use each moment of the class to our best?  If so, we can be content.  If not, the next class, the next day, will present us with the opportunity to try it again.  We may never be able to achieve the “no-mind” state of quietude of the Zen master in our mokuso.  But if we use the periods of mokuso to accept the transitory nature of our world and to embrace it, then they will never be moments that have been wasted.

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