Let’s do the background thing first. I’m a first-degree black belt in karate and I achieved the rank of shodan ho way back in 2003. At the time, that was a massive deal. In fact it was fair to say that getting my black belt was my life’s mission for the entire six years leading up to that point.You’d better believe it means something to me to hold a black belt. It pisses me off to hear people dismiss the fact that they “got their black belt once”: They no longer train. It’s ticked off their list now, and forgotten. Perhaps they thougt that once they had the black belt, they’d be bullet proof … and what do you know, the day after their grading they’ve woken up and discovered that they’re still just as mortal as the rest of us. Oops!
I should mention, while I’m here, that I don’t train with that school so much these days. Indeed, I checked black belt off my list and found myself face to face with my own post-black belt void. I wanted more training, more depth. Unlike others perhaps who expected black belt to be the magic bullet, I was confronted with the realisation that there are plenty of bullshit artists, and not so many martial artists.
I think I was hoping that when I hit black belt there’d be a moment of enlightenment – the instant where it dawns on me that there really was something special about those other folks wearing black belts walking around the dojo. They really were uber martial artists, somehow better then the other students. Black belt, after all, was always explained as something that couldn’t be understood until you’d done it.
To some extent, that’s true. Six or seven years were spent learning about bushido or training as a warrior. I froze on the beaches in winter doing pushups in the sand at 6am. I Learned to demonstrate the type of respect that is given based solely on someone’s rank and without any consideration to their character. People that, anywhere else, would be treated with contempt were heralded as paragons of virtue…
Ever heard the term “martial arts widow”? Plenty of relationships have failed to survive a partner commencing martial arts training. Marriages dissolve, affairs between students and teachers are commonplace. These people then stand in front of a class and talk to the students about the “seven virtues of bushido”. Amongst these are honesty, loyalty, courage and rectitude. Don’t get me started on ego. Especially with kids and tournament wins. Blech.
Genuine martial artists are rare. Very few people walk their talk. There are some excellent technicians, even great fighters out there. But give me an instructor who doesn’t compromise on what he or she believes over someone who can do a jumping spinning hook kick or break a pile of bricks any day. If you find one of these people, consider yourself very fortunate. I’ve met two or three in my ten years in the martial arts.
It’s hard not to become disheartened when schools start approaching the martial arts as a linear progression, or an education in the western sense. Sure, there are exams, lessons and skills to be learned and perfected. There’s also the tempering of the psyche, and that really isn’t something that can be achieved properly with a “must grade every six months” type model. If that were true then we wouldn’t have any egocentric black belts.
Sadly, more and more schools are bowing to pressure from parents and financial issues and compromising their art. All that’s left is a facade, and once you’ve seen through it, it’s hard not to be just a little jaded.