Understanding the Black Belt

By Scott Shaw

To the non-martial artist, the person who wears the black belt is viewed as the ultimate depiction of the individual who has mastered all realms of mental-control and physical combat. But, to the true martial artist, they understand the black belt to be simply a physical representation of them moving towards a more refined understand of physical and self-knowledge. They know that it certainly does not mean that the one who wears it is all-knowing and the perfect combat technician. In fact, the true black belt should have learned through their years of training that a black belt is only a symbol of an accomplishment within a school’s environment and holds no true bearing in the combat realities that exists on the street. Unfortunately, many of the true definitions and deeper understandings of the black belt have been lost to this modern world.

To begin this discussion about understanding the black belt we must look back to history. The fact is, the entire concept of the black belt is just a bit over a hundred years old. Though, throughout history, there has always been a ranking system within the martial arts, the modernization of the martial arts is what brought the, “Black Belt,” into keen focus. Sadly, from this fact, much of the true essence of what the black belt actually stands for has been lost – as it has now commonly become an unrefined quest of all those who train in the martial arts and a method to make money for those who teach the martial arts.

A few years ago I was speaking with Bill Superfoot Wallace in regarding to an article I was writing about him for a magazine. In part, the article was about how he was having a problem with a person whom he had promoted to black belt. During our discussion he said something very profound. In essence he stated, “Back in the day if a person was a 1st degree black belt they were impossible to touch. If they were a 2nd degree black belt, forget about it, they would tear you apart. Now, everyone is an 8th, 9th or 10th degree black belt and they are terrible.”

For those of you who may not know, black belt ranking progresses between 1st to 10th degree. In terms of the Asian standard, and the standards accepted among the traditional martial arts community here in the West, a person who is a 1st through 3rd degree black belt is only considered an advanced student. They are not yet believed to be a competent enough practitioner to formally teach the art. It is only at the rank of 4th degree or above that one can actually be understood to be a competent teacher. But, here is where the problem begins. People desire rank. Teachers desire money. So, they promote people through the ranks in order to fill the practitioner’s ego and the school operator’s pockets. Thus, the vast skillset that was once possessed by the practitioner has now been lost.

Again, for those of you who may not know, it is not free to gain the rank of black belt. It costs money. And generally, the higher up the ladder you climb, the more money it costs. Sometimes it costs a lot of money.

In times gone past, particularly in Asia, there was a very formalized structure to advance from white to black belt and beyond. This included time and skill level requirements. The problem was and is, once these forms of Asian combat made their way to the States, the rules went out the window. In some cases, people made students wait much longer than was required by the timescale set forth in Asia to rise to the level of black belt. This was based upon the fact that the school owner hoped to keep them as a student for as long as possible. The adverse was and is also true. People have been pushed through the ranks much too fast in order for the school owner to have assistant instructors to do all the teaching for them and/or to open new schools. In either case, as most people who train here in the West have never actually trained in Asia, they have no true concept of what is or is not the true essence of their art. You can call this the Westernization of the martial arts. But, by whatever name, the true essence of the pathway to black belt has been altered. And, it has not been altered for the better.

As someone who has been training in the martial arts for the past fifty-one years (so-far), I have witnessed the changing attitudes about the rank of black belt. A couple of weeks ago I was sitting at Starbucks with one of my Hapkido brothers. He, like I, is an old-timer who has witnessed the changing landscape of the martial arts. We each exchanged stories about how the entire panorama of the martial arts and the route to black belt has deteriorated. We both agreed that from this, the true understanding of what the black belt actually means has been radically distorted.

You see, in the early days of martial arts, here in the United States, there was a one-on-one relationship between the student and the teacher. The teacher personally guided their students towards their own level of excellence. Back then, people were not certified by large organizations. They were certified by their teacher. This was both good and it was bad. As I have discussed in the past, back then, if you earned the rank of black belt and you went to another school, they would, at least for a time, make you return to white belt. For me, this was a very enlightening and humbling experience that I went through a couple of times. It taught me about the true meaning of rank. But, for others, if they moved away from their original teacher or their teacher’s school went out of business, they never recommenced training due to their ego being involved – as they refused to be demoted. From this, many a person opened their own school of self-defense when they were not qualified to do so. Yet, they became a teacher and propagated their limited understanding of the martial arts to the masses. Again, this is a sourcepoint for where many of the problems within the path to black belt in the modern martial arts arose.

As time moved on, several large Asian based organizations came to dominate the martial art landscape here in the West. This was especially true with taekwondo. The thing was, there was virtually no way for a Westerner to communicate with these organizations. Thus, the practitioner was dominated by their instructor’s link to the association. This was even true for me. For example, though I spent a lot of time in South Korea, my instructor, who I taught the martial arts with for years-upon-years, kept dodging getting me the advanced rank certificate I had earned and had paid for from a large federation. Sure, he gave me the school certificate and I was registered with the Kwan but I paid a lot of money for that international rank certification. The fact was, this man was terrible with money and he always spent our school’s income. So, he never had the money to pay the organization. And, I have heard similar stories time-and-time again from many practitioners of that era. The funny thing was, years later, another Korean-born instructor got me that rank certificate through the large organization. He did it, so he told me, to make things right. I appreciated that.

The reason I tell this story is that it shows what goes on within these large martial arts organizations in relation to individualized black belt ranking. As I worked for years in association with my instructor and I went to Korea for him several times, I really saw the inside workings of this global organization and, I can tell you, there was a lot of tomfoolery going on – things that no one but someone who was on the inside would have seen. The stories I could tell… Though I have absolute respect for this organization and what it did for spreading taekwondo across the globe, it was what I personally saw and experienced that caused me to move away from them.

So, what does this tell us about the black belt? It explains that the black belt is not a universally defined concept. It is simply a thing that is commonly observed to be an entity but it is not. Instead, it is simply something that someone has assigned their own specific definition to. There is no one-universal understanding about how a black belt is to be awarded and what should be expected of the individual who wears it. This being said, there are factors that are commonly understood that one must embrace if they hope to rise to the level of a true black belt and once they are a black belt there are certain formalities they should embellish if they hope to do the black belt they wear justice. But, it is essential to note, there is no one person and no one organization making sure that they do so. Again, this is where the problems begin.

One of the essential elements of the black belt ranking that needs to be understood is that, as detailed, the black belt is a progressive ranking system. The way the various levels of the black belt rank were formulated were done so to lay a foundation for the advancing understanding within the martial arts. For example, in Asia, the lower ranked black belts always pay homage to the higher ranked black belt. Just as with age, the older and more advanced a person is in their skill development, the more respect they should command from their subordinates. If you are going to claim to be part of a tradition you must hold fast to that tradition. But, here in the West, this essential level of understanding has been forgotten and replaced by individualized ego. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard one black belt say about another, “I don’t think he has good technique.” Or, “I am better than him.” Maybe, “My students are better than that person.” But, who is anyone, especially a black belt, to cast judgment upon anyone else, especially if they hold a lower rank of black belt than does the person of whom they speak?

Being a black belt is not about allowing your ego to control your actions and your conversation. If fact, it should be just the opposite. A true black belt understands that each individual masters the art to the best of their ability and presents it in a manner that is most appropriate to their body type and body functionality. In other words, each practitioner progresses to the best level that they can achieve. Judgment is no part of this equation. But, applied understanding is.

If a person is a true black belt they honor tradition as that tradition was set forth by the people who established the style of the martial arts that they practice. If a person is a true black belt they should be secure within themselves. They have no need to cast judgment. As we all understand, casting judgment or attempting to criticize or diminish another person’s accomplishment is simply the act of insecurity. It is simply someone trying to make themselves look more by making someone else look less. This is never the action of a true black belt. Yet, it is rampant within the modern martial arts as practiced in the West.

As the years have progressed the understanding of the black belt has changed and evolved. Some would say, it has diminished. But, at the heart of any true black belt is the understanding that a belt does not define the individual. A belt is only an item of clothing. What is in a person’s heart, what is in their mind, and what they give back to the world while keeping their ego in check is the true demonstration of their inner knowledge: combat orientated or otherwise. That is what makes them a true black belt.

It is very easy to know who is or is not a true black belt.

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