Open Dojo

Mark Szpakowski
Aug 9, 2017 · 5 min read

The Open Dojo is a governance pattern that responds to the question: how to hold an open space that acknowledges the sacred, in the context of a secular and diverse society?

Open Dojo

An unintended consequence of the separation of church and state in secular societies has been that the sacred has been relegated to the domain of religions, and removed from the concern of the state and of the meta-national corporations. As a result care has become an externality, and state, business, and technology have defaulted to an extractive, limitless growth ideology which is devastating the planet, its organic ecosystem, and its people [1].

The opposite of such an approach is one that takes an attitude of care, gratitude and reverance toward the entirety of the ecosystem that gives rise to us humans and the life that supports us: it can be described as sacred outlook.

Approaches which bring secular and sacred together have tended to be religious monocultures, like that of an Islamic Caliphate, or of a Hasidic community. These do not scale to states which are multi-cultural, with diverse religious and spiritual practices. The early Caliphates did in fact accommodate a variety of religions and cultures, but those latter did not participate and belong equally to the governing institutions and society.

How to bring secular and sacred together, while separating church and state? The Open Dojo [2] pattern suggests an approach:

  1. The sacred is explicitly acknowledged as central to the life and thrival of society and its institutions.
  2. The sacred is approached as a space in the middle, not owned by any of the various religious or spiritual traditions (and so it can be called a “no man’s land”).
  3. That space is held and protected by practitioners of such traditions, who recognize each other as fellow practitioners, each in their distinctive way.
  4. What enables each practitioner to hold open space in common is their own individual and specific spiritual practice [3]. However, what they share is not so much the practice as the openness that it allows.

This is suggested by the graphic above. The square in the middle is open space, no-man’s land, not owned by any of those (represented by the circles) holding and guarding it. Each guardian has their practice lineage at their back (the wingbacks behind each circle), which is strong and upright. This gives them the strength and confidence to have a soft, open front. Such guardians can be referred to as warriors [4], who are able to meet the world with precision, non-aggression born from confidence, and openness.

After creating the graphic above, I realized that it could also represent a café table, and the World Café process [5], which is all about creating a “space in the middle” through successive dialogues at individual tables which are then harvested for the larger group.

Is this actually possible? Yes, we do have existence proofs. This was, for example, demonstrated year after year in a decade of ALIA (Authentic Leadership in Action) summer sessions [6], held mostly in Halifax, Nova Scotia, starting in 2001. Essentially, warriors can recognize each other. This is how Open Dojo is more than ecumenicism — it is based on actual practitioners able to meet each other in a space that is mutually held, beyond yet enabled by each of their specific traditions, theories, and vocabularies. This also means that such guardians engage in a journey together which may be transformative both individually and collectively.

Another example of the Open Dojo principle being realized is the Play as Being community which holds sessions, as avatars, in the Second Life virtual world [7].

In fact, we can distinguish three levels at which Open Dojo operates:

  • Societal Open Dojo: this is the heart of the governance commons, of the citizens’ public square. It is held through the cultural forms and institutions of society.
  • Individual Open Dojo: the societal Open Dojo cannot be held open if the guardians do not individually embody such openness. This means that practice with one’s state of mind exposes conflicting emotions, primitive beliefs, and tightly held framings; clarifies one’s highest intentions; and moves away from acting for the “it’s all about me” ego, to being open to what the world is expressing. As is said in Theory U, the journey is from ego-system to eco-system. [8]
  • Sovereign Open Dojo: this refers to recognizing leadership. It applies in two ways: to the self-sovereignty of the individual, who is leader or monarch of herself, and to recognizing authentic and legitimate leadership in another. The latter cannot happen without the former. Governance in an Open Dojo can include roles for leaders, such as Queen, President, or ship commander. The touchstone for a sovereign is whether, at heart, they are an Open Dojo, or they are about themselves. To modify an old saying, society thrives when King and no-man’s land are one.

Something along these lines, to massively infuse the business of our lives explicitly with the care and pace of sacred outlook, down to the very bookkeeping — the externalities of care need to be accounted for!— seems necessary. We need a process and a practice of circulation of sanity and openness, from the individual, to finding that in others, to embodying it in groups, and to celebrating it in society.

Here’s a shift in thinking that’s representative of such a direction. In 1968 the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa suggested, at a talk in Cambridge, England, that Maitreya, the Buddha of the future, would be not so much a person as a state of society. [9] Thich Nhat Hanh expresses a similar view: “The next Buddha may take the form of a community… and [its] practice can be carried out as a group, as a city, as a nation.” [10]

Maitreya, Buddha of the future. Korean, 7th Century.

Open Dojo provides an outlook and framework within which this can be explored and accomplished in a world rich in its multi-cultural diversity.


[1] Cf Martin Heidegger’s critique of technology as taking a fundamentally extractive view of nature: technology reveals things to us as “standing reserve” .. an orderly resource for technical application, which in turn we take as a resource for further use.

[2] The term dojo here denotes a practice space.

[3] In a related article I’ve described such practice as that of apperception.

[4] Trungpa, Chögyam. Shambhala, The Sacred Path of the Warrior, refers to the mythical story of Shambhala as an enlightened society:

The Shambhala teachings are founded on the premise that there is basic human wisdom that can help to solve the world’s problems. This wisdom does not belong to any one culture or religion, nor does it come only from the West or the East. Rather it is a tradition of human warriorship that has existed in many cultures at many times throughout history.

[5] World Café

[6] Brief history. A distillation of the ALIA, Authentic Leadership in Action, experience can be found in the Little Book of Practice.

[7] Play as Being

[8] Otto Scharmer, Leading from the Emerging Future: From Ego System to Eco-system Economies.

[9] Sherab Chödzin Kohn, The Delekpa and the King, Kalapa Journal, No 2, May 1999.

[10] Thich Nhat Hanh, The Next Buddha May Be a Sangha, Inquiring Mind, Vol 10, No 2, Spring 1994.