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Home > Columns > Ross Robertson > November, 2006 - Temple Dogs
by Ross Robertson

Temple Dogs by Ross Robertson

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Foo dogs.

I don't know if you've noticed, but you've got foo dogs hanging around your dojo door. These days they're mostly invisible, but they're there, nonetheless. Most people won't notice them, and even when they're in sight, plain as day, most people won't pay much attention. Ignore them at your peril, I tell you. They can be the death of you if you don't learn to respect them, but they can be essential allies if you come to understand them.

When they are, in fact, visible, they're usually made of stone or bronze. I'm talking, of course, about the statues commonly seen guarding the entrances of temples and other structures. They're lions really, though you'd never know it by looking at them. That's because they were originally carved by people who'd never seen a lion. So they look a lot more like dogs, and that's what we call them now. Foo dogs. Or komainu in Japanese. They are the Guardians at the Gate, in whatever form they take. Sometimes they appear as fierce warrior deities, and I'm not sure what we call them then. "Sir" or "Madam" is maybe not a bad idea.

Why are there dog-lions or demons or deities at your door? I used to wonder about that. However they manifest, in whatever aspect, they're protector spirits -- but protectors of what? It is sometimes said that they are there to keep out the impure of heart, to frighten away the unworthy. This never really made much sense to me. The true treasures of a temple can never be stolen, and is not a temple, a sanctuary, or a dojo a place for the imperfect to be made better? If any of us were already pure and perfect, would we really need such places?

I'd been training in aikido for a number of years before the answer finally came to me. By then I'd seen a number of people come and give us a look, then turn away. Eaten by the temple dogs. My fellow students would get past them for weeks, months, years even, and then they just couldn't come through the door anymore. The dogs got to them. As for me, I loved aikido, but my heart was never what you'd call pure. There were times when going to the dojo was a terrifying challenge. (For one thing, I knew Norman would probably be there.) Sometimes I felt the pull and drag at my heels, and others I'd feel the hot breath in my face. The dogs were getting to me, too.

And then I knew. The artisans and architects of temples didn't put the guardians there as an addition or a feature of the edifice. They put them there as an honest proclamation of something you bring with you. Those dogs are inside you. The temple may welcome you, but before you enter, fair warning is given to pay attention to what you bring with you. Having someone point that out and place these sentinels where you can see them is a kindness. No matter how early you leave your house, or no matter how much you procrastinate, they'll be there before you. Waiting. Watching.

What are you doing here? Why aren't you doing something else? Couldn't you be reading a book, seeing a movie, or doing something productive? Why are you here instead of working overtime, cleaning out the attic, having sex or having a life? What makes you think you're good enough? Aren't you too old, too fat, too skinny, too out of shape, to walk through that door and accomplish anything? And besides, aren't you better than most of those eccentrics in there anyway?

You can get past them, but you can never get over them, these dogs. They are a permanent fixture whether or not you can see them. They will hound you every time you come to the door, and if they don't eat you, you can be sure you will see them eat your friends and later, you may watch as they eat your students.

No, being sensei does not make them go away. There is, of course, a way through the gauntlet. I'm still skeptical about the pure heart business, but love does seem to be the key. Love, or necessity. You will get through the door because you want to, because you desire it, because your passion is stronger than your base animal mind. Stronger than your doubts and fears. You will get in if your need is genuine, because here is a better place to be than anywhere else. Getting through the door is a matter of survival -- it is life and death. Beauty, mystery, and profound joy are just inside. How can you not go in?

Once inside, take comfort, for whatever it's worth, that those you meet also have had their own experiences with the dogs. These are people whose desire and necessity sustain them. They will be your partners and your friends. Understand that their dogs bark differently than yours, but that everyone faces their own balance of commitment and fear. Work with them to make your dojo as welcoming as it possibly can be, but know that every visitor and every new student will have to have their reckoning with the Temple Dogs of Denial.

And if the day ever comes when it's your turn to face the door, turn around, and never return, know that you're doing what countless others have done. There is a right time to leave home, to find a new dojo, or embark on a new path. Your sensei, your dojo, your community of friends and fellow travelers, your years of study and your sweat and your aches, all of this is disposable in that moment. Move forward to whatever horizon calls you, but remember that whatever dogs you've left behind will take new forms, run ahead of you, and will be there to greet you at the next gate.

Ross Robertson
Still Point Aikido Center
Austin, TX, USA

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