What Does it Mean to Be a Black Belt by KJN Ronald Stone
It seems that in the martial arts you encounter three types of practitioners; those who wear their belts with humility merely as something to designate their rank and experience, those who refuse to wear their belts arrogantly, as if doing so was somehow inappropriate, and thirdly, those who wear belts with so many stripes and stars they look like a NASCAR driver.
While some believe that the Black Belt originated from the fact that the harder a student trained, falling, and grappling on the ground, the dirtier and therefore darker their belts became. When it finally turned black, they were considered experts. Unfortunately, while this is a great urban myth, it isn’t true.
The fact is that when the first Judo black belts were awarded by Jigoro Kano in the mid 1880′s, they were simply meant to be a visual way of acknowledging and separating his most experienced students from the rest. Prior to that, technical skill was rewarded with scrolls or certificates.
The idea of using rank as a motivational tool caught on and most martial arts today have such a ranking system based on colors. It is a misconception, however, that the color of the belt one wears is merely an indication of athletic or fighting ability. Were this to be true there would be no black belts above the age of sixty as one physically loses much of one’s youthful vigor. Certainly, was this physical aspect to be the criterium for black belt status, Keiko Fukuda would not have been awarded her 10th dan at 98 years of age while teaching in a wheelchair.
Martial arts are all about self-improvement. True experts look past their rank and see the ideals of the “Black Belt Excellence”, things such as the tenents of Courtesy: Integrity, Perseverance, learning Self Control and developing an Indominable Spirit.
A first-degree black belt, while impressive, is not the end of the journey but merely the beginning of an understanding of the art. Despite what many lower ranked black belts may believe, promotion to high rank is not just about judging physicality nor is it just all about self-defense or fighting for sport.
There is a rationale for having age requirements for rank, since much of what is required has to do with experience gained and accomplishments performed. In fact, in the traditional arts promotion after 6th dan is awarded for knowledge gained, teaching history, contributions to the style and other past accomplishments.
So, what does it take to earn a black belt? (Note I said earn not purchase or win). One should train diligently, be humble, not show off in front of your teacher or other students, not complain about required training, and one should lead a respectful life outside the school. A black belt shouldn’t be overconfident, or brag or to show off their ability. They should not be aggressively competitive, belittle others, or show others a lack of respect.
True black belts didn’t pick and choose what they did or didn’t do in the dojang or believe that some jobs were beneath their dignity. A true black belt realizes that what they wear around their waist is simply a piece of cloth from a martial arts supply store.
This is not to say however that wearing a black belt is inappropriate or somehow boastful (unless worn for ego, or to promote oneself in a greedy manner. It is no more inappropriate than a combat veteran who wears his uniform and honors at ceremonies or while on duty. The black belt is a symbol of the effort and energy put in that is recognized by one’s art and as such should be respected.
While it might seem humble to train out of uniform publicly, this trend sadly can on occasion be just as bad as stolen valor if done for the wrong reasons. The martial art expert who parades around other schools in a white belt, or who appears on the internet in street garb claiming that uniforms are somehow inappropriate simply so they can boastfully promote their own skill, or to hide their abilities from others in some sort of stealth surprise, is just as guilty as one who pridefully stripes belts or boasts of rank for ego or greed.
Achieving a black belt is not something that can be measured in dollar amount counted out like groceries. A black belt has more to do with how one conducts themselves in and out of the dojang. High rank is more about the attitude towards the instructor, the treatment of fellow practitioners and students, how one handles obstacles in life, and how one perseveres in training.
These are all important conditions of earning and wearing a black belt. One eventually becomes a role model to others and when the master level of assistant or principal instructor is finally reached, the duties and responsibilities become much greater.
While not every ranking officer in the army has seen actual combat, every one of them deserves recognition for their accomplishments. As Major Winters said in Band of Brothers “Remember, you salute the rank not the man.”
About the author: R.W. Stone is currently a practicing veterinarian in Central Florida. He is an avid horseman, a master ranked martial artist, a best-selling western author, and a firearms enthusiast. After joining a martial arts school in 1970 Stone started studying Yudo with a Korean grandmaster. He eventually became a member of the Judo team of the University of Illinois. It was at the University that a Korean classmate and friend introduced him to Tae Kwon do. After graduating veterinary college, he found the martial arts becoming too sports oriented and eventually after moving from Miami to Central Florida he sought out a Hapkido grandmaster. Currently Stone is ranked 8th dan in Haemukwan Hapkido, 4th dan in Daehan Yudo and a second dan in Kukki Taekwondo. He is the Hapkido instructor at the American Dragon Martial Arts Academies.
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