Posts tagged ‘martial arts’

Pop Culture, Myth, Symbols, and Actuality: The Meaning of a Black Belt.

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.

Dogged Persistence

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.


For most of a year now, I’ve suspected that my martial arts instructor would be looking to have me test for black belt in August. For the last few months, a lot of noise has been made along those lines. Some of the more noteworthy items:

-A self defense demo (basically a staged play demonstrating lots of techniques) lasting at least five minutes. When, for a few weeks, we worked on it for the second half of every class, it was up to two minutes
-A ‘classic’ weapon form. I took the recommend option of sword. I can get to the end of the form okay, there are just lots of parts that I don’t know correctly in the middle.
-A ‘modern’ weapon demonstration, still not officiall chosen.
-And of course all the usual technique for the rank, and every previous rank, and just ability in general. Oh, and I got some sparring gear, that we still haven’t broken in.
-Lots of practice on all of the above.

For a long time now I’ve been uneasy with how I was going to find time for all of this. It, quite frankly, doesn’t even interest me all that much – I haven’t been able to focus on sketching out the demo so we have something to practice, for instance.

Today I decided that I’m not going to do the black belt testing this year. (My school only holds it once a year, so everybody is in sync.) I only have so much time to spend, and I’d rather be spending it on other things. I simply can’t give the preparation the time it deserves, and I finally decided to slow thing down before I got swept along too far. I’d rather do things right later than halfway and rushed. And now I can stop worrying about how I am going to do things that I don’t really want to do.

It gives me peace of mind (at least for one thing.)

So Much for Blissful Ambiguity…

Requirements for Black Belt.
(Sample size: 1 school)

1. Payment of $300.00 for 1st Dan 1 month before the test. (I understand this is phenomenally cheap)
2. Completed black belt application.
3. Four (4) passport sized photographs with your name clearly on back.
4. Completed black belt test forms.
5. 1000 word essay on what it means to be a black belt.
6. Written exam on test day.
7. Code of Honor.
8. Must have 100 documented hours of training by the test date.
9. Must attend banquet.
10. School service (I’ve been staying to clean up at the end of every class for probably at least two years as is….)
11 Attend all levels of classes.

This idea can go ‘way now.

In Hapkido, we say that the style is based on three principles: the circle principle, the water principle, and the harmony principle. (Which I’m forgetting the Korean names of.) I know some of their meanings, but I can’t claim to fully understand all the implications.

Now cast the spell of binding, the notion and the word that echos in my haunted head, without rhyme or reason, a perfect expression of the universal pattern:

I’ve got circles in my movements,
I’ve got water in my soul,
harmony in mind,
and steady breath control.