WHAT IS A BLACK BELT?
© Tai Shin Doh, 2002
The parents of one karate student, their child in tow, approached the Tai Shin Doh sensei (teacher), with the following. “Our son’s classmate is nine years old and has had his black belt from his school for a year now. What’s holding our son up?” The sensei thought for a moment, looked at the young green-belted student standing sheepishly beside his parents and said “Nothing. Nothing is holding up your son. He’s progressing just fine.”
Martial Arts Schools Populate a Very Wide Spectrum
Modern martial arts schools across the United States, Canada and overseas populate a very wide spectrum in terms of mission, motivation, what they impart, how they impart it, the criteria for promotion, how they weigh and evaluate those specific criteria, plus a host of other variables. On one extreme is the “martial arts school” that promotes a veritable assembly line of prepubescent students - averaging only eight or nine years of age - to the Shodan (first) black belt rank… after just a little more than a year of once-a-week classes, or about as fast as moms and dads can fill out and sign checks. On the other extreme is the “purist” school that dogmatically delays promotion to black belt rank until after the 21st birthday. In the former case, the driving concern on the part of the “master” is lucre, not the student; in the latter case, there is also error – although not as egregious - as earning the black belt and the attendant recognition of that achievement are both secondary in importance to passing an arbitrary and rather vapid chronological hurdle (e.g., you are a child until the specific day you are an adult, regardless how many your accomplishments may be; and once you are an adult, you are so regardless how few your accomplishments may be).
Function Matters More Than Just “Flash”
Tai Shin Doh is founded upon – and teaches - a traditional Japanese karate style. As such, utility or functionality matters more than “flash;” simply put, it is better to be good at one’s art than it is just to look good. In practical parlance, it is far better to be confident in one’s physical abilities than it is to “look like a ninja” to the uniformed. To impart that confidence and considerable skill set, it takes significant time and effort on the part of both student and teacher.
Tai Shin Doh has been likened to a common, wooden, three-legged stool, the little seat that can bear almost any weight because of its structural stability. The three legs are:
· Tai or the intellectual/emotional component of the martial arts,
· Shin, the heart or physical part of the martial arts… and…
· Doh, the spiritual way or responsibility inherent in the martial arts.
Hence, the student of Tai Shin Doh strives to master not only the purely physical moves he or she needs in order to demonstrate kata, techniques, kumite (sparring), etc. Tai Shin Doh students also need the other two “legs” on which to stand – the intellectual and emotional maturity to be a good martial artist and the knowledge of the way to responsibly use the art. Because of this deep-rooted, tripartite value system (in which each main component supports the other two and is mutually supported by them), Tai Shin Doh students are challenged to:
· Learn quite a bit more than the usual school requires (in fact, there are actually schools that require as few as ten or fifteen techniques for Shodan black belt testing, whereas Tai Shin Doh demands a working knowledge of at least several hundred),
· Learn and compare techniques and abilities from varied styles (i.e., ju jitsu, judo, aikido, etc.),
· Compete in open competition, unafraid of comparing their progress to those from other schools… and learning from them,
· Learn quite a bit longer than the usual school requires.
Note that last point - Tai Shin Doh, as a matter of course, openly and specifically challenges its students not only to learn more but also to learn longer, in fact, to make the martial arts a lifelong Doh or path of responsibility. In so doing, it follows logically that the good student must learn to be a good teacher in order to fully comprehend how one best learns and how one can responsibly serve as a role model to newer and younger students.
The Tai Shin Doh Black Belt Marks a Beginning, Not an End
Tai Shin Doh views the coveted black belt as a beginning, not in any way an end in itself or some kind of Holy Grail on the student’s college resume. In fact, the Shodan (first level) black belt is seen by us as analogous to a door through which one goes from the top of the colored (kyu) belt ranks to the entry level of the black belt ranks, ready to begin again along another – hopefully lifelong – path of learning. This is not to say that we value the promotion to black belt lightly… in fact, it is because we truly understand its import that we are so careful in promoting to that rank.
Tai Shin Doh views its analogy to the ubiquitous three-legged stool as quite fitting. We even use it to describe that body of criteria with which we evaluate the readiness of black belt candidates.
· Tai or the intellectual/emotional readiness to be a black belt (with the abilities to control one’s self and make the correct observations, commitments and judgments needed to be a leader or role model for students),
· Shin or the body of physical mechanics, techniques, kata forms, kumite and other abilities needed to be a resource to students, and…
· Doh or responsibility of the black belt to be able to be a vehicle to preserve and pass on the art as a teacher of students.
All three “legs” are absolutely essential to provide solid support. Tai and Shin without Doh are like a two-legged stool… it cannot stand and, hence, has no validity. All three are emphasized and carefully cultivated.
For example, to help develop Tai, we ask each Shodan black belt candidate to perform research and prepare a formal paper treating the history of the martial arts. To foster Shin, our black belt testing of techniques, kata and sparring can routinely take up to five days of rigorous examination (and we ask our candidates to actually compete in outside tournaments in black belt events to understand the level of excellence to which black belts are held). And to underscore how seriously we value the role of the Doh, the way of the responsible teacher, we insist all black belt candidates serve as teaching assistants on our mats for at least 100 hours prior to their promotion; in one case, one of our candidates served 700 hours of teaching assistantship prior to his promotion.
Conclusion: We View the Black Belt as A Whole Human Being
If any point is served here, it is that a black belt can often be simply that – a length of tightly woven black fabric that costs as little as $10.00 … and has as little intrinsic value too. “There are black belts and then there are black belts,” mused one master instructor as she shook her head and sadly turned away after seeing an eight-year-old black belt from another school dissolve into tears in front of the judges because his kata performance at a local tournament was so far below those of older, more mature students in his black belt competition. “I feel horrible for those poor kids,” she continued. “Who in his right mind would throw unprepared children into a real black belt competition? My orange belts (beginning ranks) can do better.”
Tai Shin Doh does not subjugate black belt worthiness to arbitrary chronological age hurdles. On the other hand, because we view the black belt as a whole human being rather than as solely an inanimate “reward” for learning a very finite set of physical capabilities, we are careful to promote to black belt those who are mature enough and ready to shoulder the responsibilities the belt carries with it.
In Tai Shin Doh, the black belt is that individual who has been recognized by genuine masters of their art as worthy of inclusion among a select group of peers and proven to have marked maturity, outstanding knowledge and the demonstrated spirit to continue along a life path of contribution – to family, community, nation … and the martial arts.
So I wholeheartedly agree with that sensei in our school who looked at his young green-belted student standing sheepishly beside his parents and said, “Nothing is holding up your son… he’s progressing just fine.” Indeed, that student is progressing well for his age, and someday – if he has the desire and perseverance – he will mature into a fine, young black belt.
Ronald F. Balas, Soke/Judan
February 6, 2002