What is the Zen Guitar Dojo?

The Zen Guitar Dojo is a place to be.

Based on the spirit and principles of the Japanese dojo, it is a participatory community that seeks to elevate the human spirit through music. Part artist's collective, part magazine, part radio station, part TV network, part record label, part rehearsal studio, the Zen Guitar Dojo is a gathering place for artists who want to explore the possibilities of cyberspace under the umbrella of the Zen Guitar philosophy. Whether you bookmark this site and find it worth returning to again and again depends in large part on how interesting a place you, and we collectively, decide to make it.

Dojo (calligraphy at left) is a Japanese word usually translated as "school" or "training hall," but literally means "Place of the Way"--the great Way of life that governs the universe. As such, the term has a spiritual connotation. It is through participation in the dojo that one follows the Way.

What makes a dojo special is not its location or physical characteristics, but one's behavior in it. A dojo can be anywhere, even cyberspace. What's essential is a group of participants willing to work in the spirit of self- and mutual respect.

Here we seek to establish a dojo on the Internet. With your participation, we can create a place of vibrant content, where your work can get noticed and we can learn from each other. Membership in the dojo is free. All you need do is make the site work for you. Sound good?

As Duke Ellington used to say, "If it sounds good, it is good."

>Read the Zen Guitar Plan


Excerpted from the introduction to Zen Guitar, a book published by Philip Toshio Sudo.

Welcome to the Zen Guitar Dojo. Please leave the door open.

My name is Philip Toshio Sudo, and I have established this dojo for anyone who wants to make music. It makes no difference to me whether you're a musician or not. You're welcome here if you're of the spirit to make a sound.
I began playing the guitar as a child in Japan, the land of my ancestors, and have continued playing in the United States, my homeland. Over the years I've learned from many different teachers, both Japanese and American. As the product of these two cultures, I've sought a way to blend the wisdom of East and West into a universal philosophy of life.

The way I've found is Zen Guitar.

Zen Guitar is nothing more than playing the song we're all born with inside--the one that makes us human. Any one of us can do it. The music is waiting there to be unlocked.

This dojo will give you the key.

My intention here is to share what I've learned in the hope it might encourage you to strum a new song in the world. As the name implies, Zen Guitar is based largely on the principles of zen philosophy. Zen is most easily understood as a common-sense approach to all things. Some people come to know zen through meditation, others through the martial arts, or archery, or flower arranging. All these are paths to the same wisdom.

Here we seek to know zen through music.

What is the Zen Guitar Dojo?

I named this the Zen Guitar Dojo because it is a place of work and contemplation. Dojo is a Japanese word meaning, literally, "Place of the Way"--the ultimate Way of life and death that governs nature and the universe. It is through our endeavors in the dojo that we discover the Way.

A good dojo is like a school, practice hall, and temple rolled into one. The aim is to train body, mind, and spirit together, at the same time.

You can make a dojo anywhere. Just as a believer does not need a house of worship to pray, a student of music needs no special place to play Zen Guitar. A bedroom, basement, garage, porch, or street corner will serve just fine. All that's required to make a dojo is the proper frame of mind.

What will I learn?

My approach to the guitar brings in various teachings from the zen arts of Asia: martial arts such as karate and aikido, brush-style calligraphy, samurai swordsmanship, and the Japanese tea ceremony. As in the tradition of these great arts, I believe that learning to play the guitar is inseparable from learning to harmonize body, mind, and spirit. To truly play from your soul, you must have all aspects of yourself working together as one. As you develop this harmony, it will carry through to everything you do. In other words, what you learn in this dojo will apply to your work, school, athletics, relationships, home life--how you think, see, feel, and hear all day long. Because ultimately, the path of Zen Guitar is the path of life itself.

How much musical experience do I need?

This dojo is for beginners and advanced students alike. I make no distinction between age or past experience. Anyone who wants to train here, regardless of ability, starts at the same point: wearing the white belt, just as one would in studying a martial art. Even a black belt in karate, for example, must put on a white belt when beginning the study of another martial art like judo. It is no different here, no matter how long you've been playing or who your other teachers have been.

Donning the white belt does not mean you are a novice, though there is no shame in being one. In fact, in many ways, novices have an advantage over those who come from other schools and may have to unlearn certain ways of thinking. Wearing the white belt merely signifies that you are willing to learn the Way of Zen Guitar.

What kind of instruction is it?

You should know from the beginning that Zen Guitar is not a conventional "how-to" program of instruction. It is "alternative," meaning it requires a do-it-yourself spirit. There are no chords or tunings or music theory in this dojo; you won't find lessons on how to read music, play the blues, fingerpick, or copy "Stairway to Heaven." All of that is information. Information is something you can get from a gamut of sources--magazines, books, classes, friends, videos, computer networks. The world is swimming in information. Any student with enough dedication knows how to acquire information.

But information alone cannot teach you what you need to know to play your song. At the Zen Guitar Dojo, our aim is not to acquire information, but wisdom. The idea here is to train and to experience; it is only through the experience of our senses that we truly gain wisdom. One cannot learn Zen Guitar simply by reading. Just as no words can teach us how to ride a bicycle, the only way we learn to play our song is through the direct experience of our bodies. To learn through experience--that is the path of Zen Guitar. There is a zen saying, "Paths cannot be taught, they can only be taken." So it is with Zen Guitar.

How will I learn?

My function here will be to act as your guide. I do so in the spirit of the Japanese sensei--not "teacher," as the word is commonly translated, but literally, "one who has gone before." I do not claim to know all the answers. But what I have learned, I'll gladly share with those who wish to make a similar journey. If I can inspire you to follow your own path, this dojo will have served its purpose.

Those who train here I regard not as students, but unsui. In Japanese, unsui means traveling monk or truth-seeker. Literally, it translates as "cloud and water." To be an unsui is to embody the spirit of Zen Guitar--floating, flowing, at once with and without form. If you learn to view yourself in this way, your journey on the path of Zen Guitar will have no end.

How long will it take me to learn?

Beginning students often ask, "How long will it take me to learn the Way of Zen Guitar?" My answer is, as long as you live--that short. Your playing may progress enough to impress your friends in a year's time, perform onstage in two years, or turn professional in three. But if those are the ends you seek, your concern is not Zen Guitar. The Way of Zen Guitar is learned day by day, minute by minute, second by second, now, to eternity. There is no faster way.

Beginning students also commonly ask, "How long until I get my black belt?" To them I say, you'll never earn a black belt so long as you ask that question. To be obsessed with the destination is to remove the focus from where you are. The only way to progress in Zen Guitar is to put everything into this step, right now.

How will I progress?

While it's true that in some schools a student formally graduates from one belt level to the next, in the Zen Guitar Dojo, there is no such graduation. Students here receive one belt and one belt only: the white belt. Those who put in the time, training, and effort will find their belt getting so soiled that eventually it turns black of its own accord. Only then will they have achieved black belt status.

In Zen Guitar, the black belt is not a goal or an end. At other schools, the black belt may signify ultimate achievement, but in Zen Guitar, it is only a point along the path. I have great respect for those who reach the black belt level; it takes sincere commitment. But the true Way of Zen Guitar asks black belt players to redouble their training until their belt becomes so worn and frayed it begins to lose color and returns to white. Only through completion of that circle--white to black, black to white--can one know the depth of the Way.

The Path of Zen Guitar

I have divided the teaching into five stages, each signifying progression along the path of Zen Guitar.

1. White Belt: Beginner's Mind
The first stage, White Belt, establishes the proper mindset for starting out on the path--a mindset the student must maintain every step thereafter. This is what's called the "beginner's mind."

2. White Belt to Black Belt: Practice
The second stage, White Belt to Black Belt, describes the kind of training and discipline needed to progress along the path. This is the work ethic one must maintain through all stages of growth. In this section I also warn of some common missteps that can lead one astray no matter how hard the training.

3. Black Belt: Responsibility
The third stage, Black Belt, explains the standard required for excellence, as well as the responsibilities. It describes the kind of thinking, feeling, and attitude required of a black belt. This is the level where body, mind, and spirit begin to fuse together.

1. Black Belt to White Belt: Barrier
The fourth stage, Black Belt to White Belt, explores the barrier that lies beyond technical excellence and leads to a deeper understanding of the Way.

1. White Belt: The Way of Zen Guitar
The last stage, White Belt, reveals the true Way of Zen Guitar.

I encourage students to think of these stages as broadly as possible. You may be a novice in the world of sound, but you're not a novice in life. Most likely, you're a black belt in some other area--carpentry, law, cooking, computer programming, skiing, whatever. Use that knowledge to understand the Way of Zen Guitar, and your training in Zen Guitar will take your existing skills to an even higher level.

Those of you already skilled in music can benefit from training here as well. I hear many guitarists with talent who seem to lack direction, who can't articulate a reason for doing what they do. The Way of Zen Guitar gives those players a sense of purpose. Not only that, it provides a framework from which to tackle any new task. Once you learn the principles of Zen Guitar, you can apply them to any endeavor outside of music. Follow the samurai maxim that says, "From one thing, know ten thousand things." Music can teach you everything you need to know.

If you're wondering when the discussion will turn to zen philosophy, don't concern yourself. Put your entire focus into playing the guitar. If you do that, in time, your questions will answer themselves.

For anyone who now wants to leave, thank you for your interest. You are always welcome to return--there is never a time when you cannot begin. The door to this dojo is always open. For those of you who choose to stay, please put on the white belt. You have taken the first step on the path.


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