It’s pretty easy to get beyond the often-asked question, “How do I get a black belt”? Here you go ! (it’ll cost you about 40 bucks but if you look around you can probably get it cheaper :). It really is just a piece of cloth that gets WAY TO MUCH ATTENTION. It’s what is behind the belt that counts and the question should be “what is the next step..how do I improve?”.
I’m not the only one who has an issue with simply looking for external gratification. There is a famous story about Yagyu Matajuro, who was a son of the famous Yagyu family of swordsmen in 17th century feudal Japan. He was kicked out of the house for lack of talent and potential, and sought out instruction of the sword master Tsukahara Bokuden, with the hope of achieving mastery of the sword and regaining his family position. On their initial interview, Matajuro asked Tsukahara Bokuden,
“How long will it take me to master the sword?” Bokuden replied, “Oh, about five years if you train very hard.”
“If I train twice as hard, how long will it take?” inquired Matajuro. “In that case, ten years,” retorted Bokuden.
If you want a BELT or some other kind of recognition, you’ve missed the point entirely. This is why I’ve always maintained two minds when it comes to the belt ranking system in martial arts (keep in mind that karate, TKD, judo, etc are the only sports that do this).
PROS: The pursuit of belt ranks help (or at least should) form skill-based goals and break down the goal of becoming competent into attainable pieces.
CONS: Many people become focused on getting belts and not becoming proficient at martial arts. Furthermore, it distracts us from the idea that karate is a lifetime pursuit and puts it in the same category as our school system…start, finish, leave, never think about it again. The truth is you’re never done learning or improving…and therein lies the beauty.
Skill and the pursuit of excellence should be the forefront of any quality martial arts program. Imagine how ridiculous it would be to have belts in something like hockey…especially if high ranks were given to someone who is out of shape and couldn’t skate!
This brings me to my specific concern with awarding “the black belt”.
In the traditional view, there are two types of students, Mudansha (those with no rank) and Yudansha (those with a rank, signified by the wearing of a black belt). With the exception of someone recognized as an Okinawan Karate master, the belts don’t get any blacker or have further external distinctions (hopefully by the point of receiving your black belt you’ve gotten over the need for external validation and focus on self improvement). Your first dan or level is called, Shodan, which literally means “first step”…yes, FIRST step… not “master”, or “I’m done now”, or “I’m better than all y’all”. It is an invitation to those who have proven themselves worthy to embark on a life-long journey of challenge and self-discovery. Our friend, Jesse Enkamp, goes into this in detail in a few of his blogs.
Sadly, many people in North America, put “getting their black belt” on some sort of bucket-list and, after receiving their belt, put it on the shelf and forevermore claim their competence in martial arts (which, in truth, your skill begins to deteriorate the moment you quit training). Remember Master Funakoshi’s fundamental precepts, including “Karate is like boiling water. If not given heat, it will go cold.”
You can avoid this pitfall by concentrating on what our instructor in Okinawa, Sensei Eiki Kurashita, calls “the hidden raw material of karate”. Karate is something very personal you are given to refine, polish, and become proud of over a lifetime. The real goal of Okinawan karate was put beautifully by Sensei on his last visit to our dojo in Cambridge.
Imagine if people applied this idea of refining and polishing what you have to their lives and relationships (instead of looking where the grass is greener)! If you learn this simple, yet fundamental truth about training you can enjoy a lifetime of adventure and friendships. If not, and like so many others, your first step could be your last. I’ll talk about what I think are the qualities of a Yudansha in the next blog. See you in the dojo!
We invite everyone (new students, old students, anyone!) to come and “meet” karate and to begin polishing their very own jewel.