The Dojo as a Community of Truth

Some time ago, I ran across a book titled, "The Courage to Teach", by Parker Palmer. What I found in the pages will change the way I view training, learning, and sharing knowledge for the rest of my life.

What is a Community of Truth?

The premise of the book is that all learning takes place within a “community of truth”. According to Palmer, to understand the community of truth you must understand two things:

  1. “Community is the essential form of reality, the matrix of all being.”

  2. “We know reality only by being in community with it ourselves.”

The community of truth gathers around a common subject. However, the subject is not placed upon a pedestal; only to be observed objectively from afar. Instead the subject plays a role just as actively as the student. The concept of communion between subject and student is nothing new and is scientifically backed. Modern physics proves that the thing being observed is physically influenced by the observer and the way he chooses to observe it. “Knower and known are joined, and any claim about the nature of the known reflects the nature of the knower as well", Palmer explains. The subject shapes the student just as much as the student shapes the subject.

The Structure of Community

“The community of truth, far from being linear and static and hierarchical, is circular, interactive, and dynamic.” Learning is accomplished through the students’ connection to the subject and to other students. This enables students to develop their own perspective and learn from the perspectives of others. If there is a mentor present, his role is not to dictate “the truth” to students, but to facilitate the students’ connection to the subject itself. Knowledge is advanced through conflict, not competition. In this dynamic, ideas are tested in full view of the community. This allows personal ideas and biases to be challenged in a purposeful and constructive environment.

Hierarchy vs Community

Hierarchy vs Community

Why use the Community of Truth Model?

So what does any of this have to do with learning martial arts? Well, everything! Here are just a few reasons to adopt this model:

To Keep Martial Arts Realistic and Effective

First of all, this dynamic is what keeps the art realistic and effective. As we make an effort to master our art, the primary source of information should be the art itself; its history, the principles that make it work, and the concepts that help us understand it. A sensei, no matter how knowledgeable, is only secondary to what the art itself has to teach. If you are lucky, as I have been, your sensei will not claim to teach you anything. Instead, he will guide you toward what you truly seek and facilitate your learning. It also helps to remember that the greatest mentors continue to be students themselves. Since all ideas are allowed to be both freely expressed and freely challenged, in a community of truth, any fraud will be quickly exposed and students do not have to suffer any dogma or cult of personality which might impede their progress.

To Learn From Our Peers

Second, your fellow students are windows through which to see a bit of truth that might be invisible to you otherwise. Once you realize this simple fact it opens up a realm of opportunities to share and learn. Train with them and listen to their perspective on things. They might have valuable insights which you have never even considered before. Test your ideas with them and allow them to test their ideas with you. In this way you will both improve. By structuring the dojo as a Community of Truth it provides an open forum in which to experiment and share. The ideas of everyone involved are allowed to “cross-pollinate” and lead to even more ideas. In this way, no one misses out on information and everyone can contribute. Ideas can be developed, critiqued, and refined faster and to a higher degree within a committed group than by an individual alone.

To Promote a Striving for Mastery

Finally, true mastery of the art (if there is such a thing) rises from the melding of practitioner with the art itself. Eventually, it has to become more than just what you do. It must become a part of who you are. Although everyone at the dojo may practice the same drills, over time, each person will naturally develop their own understanding of the movements and precepts, adapting them in ways that personally suit them as individuals. This is why someone, who has taken ownership of his or her training over a long period of time, can respond without having to think. This person has embedded the art’s movements, principles, and concepts into his very being. We can observe the art flow naturally and almost effortlessly through him. Knower and known are in ultimate communion; they have become one.

I encourage you to develop your dojo as a community of truth and embrace the community of martial artists outside of your own dojo, regardless of style, for the knowledge that they can share.

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