It is nearing the end of the International Convention. We have been training for the past couple of hours, and the energy level in the room is palpable. With a gentle wave of his hand, Sensei bids us to scoot back to the very edge of the mat. As I proceed to join the rest of the participants, I feel a hand on my shoulder. It’s one of the senior students in Kokikai. “Come sit over here by us,” he says, and we line up along the edge of the mat, facing the open space.
Another instructor, standing near Sensei, is holding a clipboard in her hands. Her voice rings out:
“It is time for testing! For SHODAN….” and she begins calling out a list of names. With each name, a person rises from the midst of the students and runs calmly and efficiently towards the center of the mat, where they then turn, face the audience, and sit in seiza. I am very nearly beside myself, for three of my own students are among the test candidates.
For those who do not train in the martial arts, acquiring one’s blackbelt seems a significant event. And indeed it is, but not for the reasons that you might think. Say the words “black belt” and one immediately thinks of martial art movies, corny catch phrases like “My hands are lethal weapons.” In other words, we equate the black belt to mastery of a given martial art. And, no doubt, there are many martial art schools who encourage or foster this mindset, either by making the path to black belt extremely grueling, or by offering special “instruction paths” that are the only way to achieve the rank.
If you haven’t figured this out by now, let me be clear: the idea that a black belt signifies mastery of anything is nonsense. It is the equivalent of an undergraduate degree in college: a very significant accomplishment, but you are by no means an expert. I currently hold the rank of sandan, or 3rd degree black belt, and the notion that even this rank bestows some sense of mastery of aikido is absurd. In other words, mastery is an elusive, ambigious concept, and acquiring it has nothing to do whatsoever with your rank. I always chuckle when I see people advertising that they are a “10th degree black belt” or that they are a “master” of a martial art. Being a master is not a title–it is a state of mind, and the real masters see no need to advertise their capabilities.
But I digress. If a black belt, or shodan, rank does not signify mastery, what does it mean? The answer is simple: competency. At the shodan level, you are demonstrating that you have learned and studied enough that you can competently step onto the mat and demonstrate the principles, strategies, ideas, and techniques that form our particular martial art. This is a tremendous accomplishment, if for no other reason than because so few actually attempt to reach this level of proficiency. It is also an important milestone because it says, in effect, that you are eventually willing to take on the responsibility of pushing the martial art to the next level in the years to come. After all, this year’s shodans are tomorrow’s sandans, and today’s sandans may become, eventually, the future leaders of the art. I mention this because many people consider the rank of shodan only in the context of what it means for their skills as individuals. It’s important to realize that it also has a context in the martial art as a whole. Tell someone you are a “blue belt” and they will nod knowingly, but have little understanding as to what your skill level really is. But someone finds out your a blackbelt? At that point, you are THE representative of your style, whether you like it or not.
But reaching shodan is not just a burden of leadership–it is an opportunity for real personal growth. Something happens when you become a shodan–you have the opportunity and the capability to really delve into your art, explore it, pick it apart and put it back together. You have already demonstrated that you have the physical skills–now is the time to hone those skills in a way that best suits you. This is why I hope that everyone who steps onto the mat eventually reaches the level of shodan–because I want everyone to have the opportunity to explore this art at its deepest and most personal levels.
This past November, when my dojo had its first students test for shodan, I began thinking about what black belts mean to a dojo. I’ve come to two conclusions so far–first, it is a testament to the dojo itself, as a community. No one reaches shodan on their own; you get their through the combination of your own efforts plus those who have taught you, trained with, and learned from you. I must admit: seeing my students test well told me that our club is indeed doing its part to continue the study of Kokikai Aikido made me very happy. Not because it proved my skills as an instructor–far from it–but because it showed that we were not a dojo of just one person, but a dojo that has an ever-increasing depth of skill and passion.
This brings me to my second conclusion: the introduction of blackbelts in our dojo signifies that our dojo no longer relies on one person. When I first started teaching, I was the only one who could run the show. If I wasn’t around, the dojo literally shut down. Now, however, I have taken a week off on occasion to find that the dojo runs very well in my absence. (Sometimes almost too well–but such is life!) It is a pleasure to return to the dojo from a break and see that everyone continues to study, learn, and thrive. I firmly believe that, for any dojo to thrive, it must not be a cult of personality, but a collective group that studies together. Seeing students test for their shodan was a validation of this fact.
I must, in the interest of full disclosure, admit that these thoughts did not just come to me as I sat watching testing that day. They’ve been on my mind for some time. In fact, the first time I started thinking about this occurred just over a year ago, when a good friend of mine decided to join our dojo shortly after reaching his own shodan. While I could not, at the time, claim him as my student, he acclimated so well and provided a clear and solid example to others what it meant to be a senior student. It was amazing how quickly he became a part of the dojo. While the dojo can’t claim him as its first shodan, I’m sure it will claim him as its first nidan in the not too distant future.
There are constant discussions over how to determine the strength of a given martial art, or a given martial art club. One thing I would encourage anyone to do is to look at the senior students of that dojo. Are they strong? Independent? Welcoming? Such traits, I think, imply a school that is worth considering.
I belive I have rambled enough on this post–writing it has shown me that I have more to think about. But I would like to end with a personal thank you to all my senior students, and all those who have supported them in the dojo. Their efforts to improve our club and our community have been tremendous, and they deserved to be thanked far more often they are. I look forward to the next group of students testing for shodan next year!