One of the prerequisites for black belt in our school is 1000 word essay on the meaning a black belt. I finally had a day free to write it. For kicks I’m copying it here.
I guess I’ve had an interesting relationship with black belt. Growing up with spartan bits of pop culture martial arts as my only source, the institution of black belt acquired a mystic air, something rare and special reserved for the very few who dedicated their lives to the martial arts. This led to some degree of ponderment when a friend said he knew someone seven ranks above black belt. Mostly this was dismissed without further thought; perhaps it was a large scale, (seven isn’t very much in comparison to a hundred) or perhaps he was just making it up; in any case neither I nor anyone I knew was in martial arts, so it didn’t affect me much.
Many years later I began a slow process of adjustment when I joined a martial arts class for curiosity, exercise, and simply getting out of the house. The instructor, at first glance leading a mere parks & recreation program in a small town, was five ranks above black belt. I watched an 11-year old gain his black belt, and a student in my class go through the multiple ranks between brown and black in less than a year.
When I joined the class, I never conceived that I would someday be eligible for this rank; even after the above examples it still seemed like something for the true martial artists, not the guy who just shows up every week.
So the meaning of a black belt becomes a complex issue. It’s certainly less than I used to think: no absolute dedication, no prodigal abilities, no seeking secret knowledge on desolate oriental mountaintops. The modern day reality is far more prosaic: a black belt is something achievable by everyman; any person with the persistence to stick around for a few years, and some minimal degree of coordination. Perhaps further confusing the issue is the moving target of testing requirements, the only sure sign seems to be the instructor’s word.
Yet something lingers from the mythic past, a potent meme that fuels the pop culture fascination with martial arts. Perhaps it is a story role that anyone who aspires to black belt steps into; perhaps the instructor’s deliberate filtering of candidates, or just a set of personality elements that strongly associate with the people who have the motivation to complete the training. The elements that come together behind a black belt are skill in the martial arts, respect for one’s fellows, responsibility for one’s actions, and persistence to complete the training.
The most immediately obvious trait of a black belt is skill in the martial arts, a reflection of the training that led up this point. Yet by skill this means capable, but not yet perfect. My old pop culture black belt was an awe-inspiring figure, invincible in fair combat, and still formidable in many forms of unfair combat. I am ample counterexample to such fancy; in every technique I do I see a dozen errors, and further reflection would reveal numerous un-accessed pressure points and other lost opportunities.
The only tenable response is a change of perspective; black belt is not a final destination representing total mastery, but a sign of martial adulthood. The lower belts then become a kind of colorful childhood, where a student learns to walk, talk, and handle himself in a manner that allows further growth. This idea is further supported by the Korean master titles: father, grandfather, and great grandfather are the further stages of adulthood in both life and the martial arts.
Respect and Honor
My modern pop culture black belt is respectable and respectful in every way; we have a nice bit of P.R. in that item. Respectfulness would seem to be intrinsic in the ability to achieve a black belt; the exceptions seem to defy reason. After all, what master would want to deal with a disrespectful student? Who would then claim to have promoted such a person, placing him out as a representative of the teacher, the school and the martial arts? That a respectful black belt is the rule should be no surprise at all.
Philosophy and Responsibility
With the knowledge and ability to easily harm or kill another comes great responsibility. Really this is an aspect of respect: respect for life, respect for our fellow man, and respect for our teachers who gave us the knowledge in good faith. Kindness and benevolence should be the prerequisite for ability to do harm; else fear would prevail. The ability to do harm can create fear in others. That this ability is used only in the last resort is a demonstration of character which creates respect in others. In a sense a true person of black belt rank is a walking demonstration of desirable character who has the potential to inspire others, become a leader, and assuage fears in his ability control a situation.
This seems to be my primary qualifying trait. A black belt is a progress marker, just far enough along that those without persistence will never achieve it. Those who flit from one undertaking to the next will have found a new entertainment long before they reach this stage. Reaching black belt is a sign to the student that he has accomplished something, and to the world that he has the persistence to continue in the martial arts.
A piece of cloth and a title
A black belt is the outward reflection of the skills, respect, responsibility, and persistence demonstrated by the student. It follows these things, it does not create them. A man can get on a plane and emerge several ranks higher, but this only gains him a symbol. Any practitioner of comparable rank will know at once whether his technique is for real; any person of character will know whether he has earned his rank. A black belt may be worn with pride where it is deserved, but where it stands alone, the belt is only an empty symbol, a certificate only an fancy piece of paper. These things are aids to our fellows, to help them in quickly reaching an accurate judgment of our character and ability. With time, these traits will reveal themselves. The quest to become worthy of this reputation, that is the true meaning of a black belt.