The Scott Shaw Blog Be Positive

When Rank Doesn’t Matter

To the average person in the world, when they hear that an individual is a black belt, they believe that is the ultimate step in one’s martial art journey. The black belt is the pinnacle. And yes, in some ways it is.
To the person who is training in the martial arts, however, they know that earning the black belt is just a step in the process. There is degrees of black belt and the first level of black belt, the first dan, is understood to be just the beginning.
By tradition, one is not even considered to be an instructor until they have reach the 4
th dan black belt, which takes about ten years from the point of earning on the 1st dan black belt. In this, and because of this, there has arisen a big problem in the realms of the martial arts; especially within the modern martial arts base in the Western world. What has been born is the desire for more. More, before the individual has accrued the time to actually be at the level of understanding that it takes to be a true teacher of the martial arts. From this, all kinds of problems have arisen.
Throughout my years of involvement in the martial arts, which is now almost sixty, I have watched as so many organizations have come and gone; all based in the purpose of making the Westerner climb up the rank ladder faster than was traditionally deemed appropriate.
The simply formal, laid down by the founders of the Japanese martial arts, that gave rise to the Korean martial arts, and their rank system, was after the 1
st dan black belt it was two more years of training to reach the 2nd dan, three more years of training to reach the 3rd dan, four more years after that to reach the 4th dan, five more years of training to reach the 5th dan, and so on.  But, this formal structure was washed out the window long ago, leaving us with so many high ranking martial artists, that are far too young to be the rank they currently hold, that it is not even fathomable. This has given rise to so many accusation among practicing martial artists that it is not even funny.
When discussing this situation, I frequent recount the time I was speaking with Bill “Superfoot” Wallace regarding an article I was writing about him for a magazine. He so eloquently stated, “Back in the day if a person was a 1
st 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.” Sadly, that became one of the definitions of the modern Western martial arts.
This is nothing new, however. From the time when I was first branching out from my original instructor, which was a very sheltered study situation, I began to hear about this teacher making bad comments about the inabilities of that instructor, and so on. These negative comments seemly became the cornerstone of the modern martial arts. And, it has continued forward onto today.
For anyone involved in the martial arts, all they have to do is to listen to how this student speaks about the lacking’s of that student, this instructor or school dismisses that other teacher or school. How one instructor at a school criticizes another martial artist, no matter what level of accomplishments that person has achieved. Or maybe particularly if that other marital artist has achieved something more than the individual casting the negative words has accomplished. How a certain style is proclaimed to be superior to another system, by its practitioners, no matter how ancient that other system may. On and on and on…
But, is this how the martial arts should be? Is this how martial artists should behave? Is this what the martial arts were designed for? Is this their true spiritual essence? Is this what the black belt truly means?  Or, is this simply ego?
I was looking through some papers I wrote on the subject of the martial arts back in 1981. Though I was only twenty-three at the time, I had been involved with the martial arts for almost twenty years. Even then, I was discussing how the formal belt system should be revamped and that the back belt ranks should be removed, leaving only, the singular black belt, the instructor, and the advanced instructor for those teaching the more high-level students of the art. Wouldn’t that just be better Wouldn’t that remove a lot of the nonsense?
I believe that this is an important thing to think about for you martial artists out there, and for you non-martial artists, as well. If someone is casting disparaging remarks about anyone or anything, doesn’t that make them a lower-level individual? Should you really train under and/or follow a person who possess that temperament? And, if rank is nothing more than a number placed on a piece of paper, so a person can somehow feel better about themselves, somehow feel like they are something more than someone else, gain an ego boost when somebody calls them, “Sensei,” “Sabumnin,” “Master,” “Grand Master,” or “Whatever,” doesn’t that tell you that they are simply an insecure individual who is trying to impart their knowledge solely for their need to be anointed with praise or accolades?
The problem that is born by operating from within this perspective, either in the martial arts or in life, is that, yes, you may hold the advanced rank, but you have not developed the acquire wisdom through the knowledge provided by time and experience that goes hand-in-hand with the years of training originally designated to achieve said rank. Thus, true knowledge and the ability to impart true knowledge has been diminished if not lost altogether. 
Life is really an easy process, if you make it easy. Some people, who are not whole and are lacking within themselves, seek that outward something to make them feel like they are something more. They want to be a superhero. If someone needs titles and outside adulation to help to define who and what they are, then, who and what are they?
In Zen, in Tao, at the essence of the true martial arts, the true teachers rebuked the need for titles. They simply taught what they knew in order to help their students become a better and more pure proponent of life. Isn’t that the type of person you should study from no matter what the subject is?