Should the student chase the belt, or should the belt follow the student?


(R) Sensei Stamp receives his Diploma from Sensei Mason on achieving Sandan

As we progress in our Martial Arts training we are awarded belts to signify our progress. This is both a help and sometimes a hindrance. While a specific belt does not necessarily signify competence, it does indicate that a certain area of the required curriculum has been covered.

From an instructor’s point of view the belt system is very helpful. It allows us to know at a glance how much of the Dojo curriculum has been learned to a satisfactory level by the students. Because of the way in which grading tests are structured, some idea of a student’s skill will also be reflected by their belt rank. It is natural and even important that students’ learning material for their next promotion should look forward to receiving their next belt. As an outward sign of an inner accomplishment this is entirely appropriate. The belt, however, only has meaning as long as it has been earned by the student, rather than purchased.

Some years ago I was at a Martial Arts tournament in Tampa. One of my adult Brown Belt students had entered the fighting division and was disappointed that there was only to be one other competitor in his category. One of the Junior students asked him why he didn’t enter the Black Belt division, which was much larger. He replied that he was not a Black Belt. The youngster said “you can buy one. They are selling belts at the booth in the corner of the hall”. Quite correctly the adult student explained to the junior why that would not be the right thing to do.

An associate of mine, Sensei Doyle, recently asked one of his young students if he would like to be a “Black Belt for the day”. He jumped at the chance and put on the belt his instructor gave him. My associate reported that “for the next hour, they practiced vigorously, especially the young man wearing his new symbol of power.” After practice, the instructor asked them all to sit down once again. “So how did it feel, young man?” he asked, looking over at him. “I felt powerful! I felt as if I could fight ten grown men!” he replied energetically. “So where did you get all this power from?”

“From this Black Belt,” he replied proudly. The Sensei stood up and took off his Black Belt and held it up. He said, “What do you see, students?” Hands raised quickly in response to his question. “Power!” “Strength!” “Wisdom!” “Energy!” they called out. One student way in the back said, “Sensei, I only see a black piece of cloth.” “So where does this great power come from if this is only a black piece of cloth” he questioned the student in the back? “From our minds, from the images that we have of that piece of cloth.” “And is that real power, real strength, real wisdom?” asked Sensei Doyle. The students were quiet for a moment before one of them answered, “No Sensei, that power is empty, that wisdom is false. There is no strength in a piece of black cloth.”

"Then what is the purpose of a belt?” We could answer like Mr. Miyagi in the movie Karate Kid “to hold up your pants”, but we all know that belts in the Martial Arts are not worn for that purpose. Rather the Black Belt is like a badge of rank. It indicates that an accepted authority has recognized the wearer as having attained a high level of competence. The young man who trained hard in his teacher’s belt, and experienced feeling “like a Black Belt”, naturally associated the belt with the power and presence that he felt. That power however was actually from within himself. For all students who have not yet achieved their Black Belt, their goal is to connect with the Black Belt presence that is within them, so that it can develop and be manifested in all of their actions. For those who have achieved Black Belt the goal is to become a Master of the Martial Arts and through that process a master of themselves. When you have mastered yourself you will be able to function as a suitable example for others.

All achievements of rank in the Martial Arts go well beyond the belts involved. The belt is a useful symbol of progress, but must not be confused with the expertise it represents, for that lies within the Martial Artist alone. Just as chanting “water water” will not quench your thirst because the word is just a symbol for the substance, so buying a Black Belt and wearing it will not impart the skills of the student who has earned their belt. However, if you are thirsty and are asked “would you like some water” you might usefully follow the person who is making the offer. Similarly, if you are asked by your Sensei if you would like to become a Black Belt you can choose to follow the course that is outlined to properly attain the rank. Thus the belt should follow the student rather than the student chasing after the belt. Just as a glass must be placed under the tap to receive water, so the student must follow the Sensei to realize the knowledge that he offers, rather than chasing after a rank or a belt.

Sensei Robert H. Mason c2000

I recently read an article by an associate of mine, Dr Terence Webster-Doyle. He specializes in resolving conflicts without violence and is a leader in the field of “martial arts for peace”. He related that he “was teaching a workshop in New England, talking to a small group about how to use our brain instead of our brawn when confronting a bully, when a young man approached.” Paying no attention to the fact that he was talking to the group, and in the middle of a sentence, he rudely interrupted him and shouted, “Show me your martial arts!” Dr Webster-Doyle “saw, in an instant, that he was a child, with little understanding of manners and a huge need to get immediate attention.” He smiled at him and said, “I am showing you now.” The youngster “looked dumbfounded for a moment” as he turned back to the others and went on explaining how to resolve conflict peacefully before it escalated into a fight. Dr Webster-Doyle supposed that he was “quite disappointed, having expected me to leap up in a flying kick and break a dozen boards.”

Dr Webster-Doyle felt that the instructors at this school were “adept at the physical aspect of martial arts training, but had little or no understanding of their mental dimension.” Strong physical training is of course an important aspect of our martial arts practice. Etiquette, sensitivity and self control are also very important. Obviously the young man who was so interruptive was lacking in these areas. Moreover, it seems that only a few parents and kids showed up to hear his talk on “How to Defeat the Bully the Smart Way.” However, those who did attend all understood the “necessity for learning mental skills as a way to cope with the urgent problem of bullying, and all had a strong desire to acquire such skills for themselves.”

Following his seminar Dr Webster-Doyle spoke to the instructors at the school and realized that they did not know how to teach the inner aspects of martial arts. He challenged them to “Show me your black belt without doing anything physical.” They were apparently surprised by the request. When our Junior students join the Black Belt Club they are told that certain qualities must be developed to attain a “Black Belt Attitude”. These include modesty, courtesy, integrity, perseverance and courage and go along with our student creed.

Can you think of five ways that you could demonstrate the qualities of Black Belt without doing any physical martial arts moves? Feel free to turn in your answers and suggestions at the Front Desk.

Sensei Robert H Mason c 2000