Got Your Black Belt? You might Not Really Be One!
Out of a thousand people that begin a study of Karate it is estimated that as few as ten will actually reach Black Belt rank. The unfortunate truth is that out of a thousand people that actually reach Black Belt as few as ten are real Black Belts.
At this point I am sure there will be a lot of readers who protest my words. “What? Who is this guy? He’s not talking about my school! My school has the greatest Black Belts in the Universe and furthermore…
Furthermore, the statement is as stands. And the purpose of this article is to discuss what a ‘Real’ Black Belt is.
To begin with, let’s take a look at the history of Karate. Let’s look at a couple of places where the Art itself could have broken down.
Karate was developed in Okinawa over the last few hundred years. It was developed as a way for people to defend themselves when they were refused the right to carry weapons. There is talk of sailors and various other envoys influencing the Art, but we can pretty much agree that Karate as a concept, separate from other Arts, was originated on Okinawa.
During it’s formative years the idea of a weaponless Art being developed to take on Arts which utilized weapons must have been quite astonishing, and during this period there are many legends concerning those people who actually Mastered Karate. While this article hopes to get to the truth of today’s standards for a person achieving Black Belt, this writer has no argument that there had to have been some mighty powerful practitioneers back then.
Around the turn of the century a young teacher named Gichin Funakoshi introduced Karate to the public school system. And here is where the first breakdown of the Art occured. In creating an Art for school children Funakoshi is said to have simplified it for teaching purposes. This is understandable and not reproachable. After all, he was teaching children for health purposes. He had to have an organized curriculum that could be taught to a number of children in a fast and comprehensive manner.
In 1922 Mr. Funakoshi visited Japan, where he demonstrated Karate for the Emperor and began to teach Japanese people. Here, again, we have the potential for Artistic breakdown. While this writer doesn’t pretend to have an intimate knowledge of the cultures of nearly a hundred years ago, it is reasonable to assume that there had to have been some sort of cultural difference between an Okinawan teacher and the various Japanese people who studied with him.
Did he again simplify the Art? Some people may say he made it more effective. But consider the fact that he was again teaching masses of people with differing backgrounds and outlooks. The chances are that material was somehow distorted or altered, if not by him, then by his students.
As the years passed Funakoshi’s teachings changed. Did they improve? Did they deteriorate with the aging of the body? People have argued over which is the true transmission of his teachings, but the only thing certain in this particular is that there were differences in his teachings or, at the very least, differences in his students teachings. For proof of this theory one need merely look at the difference in various schools which are directly attributed to him.
During the late forties American sevicemen were introduced to Karate, and they began to covet the sacred black belt.
And here again we have the potential for cultural breakdown. In addition, the potential for true linguistic translations was severely hampered. In modern times I have heard people claim that to understand Karate (or various other Martial Arts) they have to speak a foreign language, and even should they learn the language they are hindered by their inability to understand concepts supposedly ‘Unique’ to another culture.
Anybody who has played the school game of whispering a statement through a line of people will agree that there is great potential for misunderstanding something. But if there was a degradation of the Art, as this writer claims, during the Art’s formative years, past the 1940’s it was about to become very, very real.
In the second half of this century Karate laid claim to America. While there were some truly great Martial Artists landing on the shores of this country, the truth is that there were some very mediocre ones. It is a high probability that some so called ‘Masters’ in this country got on the plane in Japan a Brown Belt, and got off the plane in this country a Black Belt.
Furthermore, the people who studied the Art in this country were not always of the highest calibre. To demonstrate the truth of this matter I would like to relate an anecdote that actually happened to me.
I was studying Kenpo Karate in 1967. After a year of study I happened to be talking to a green belt from another school who had known my instructor for some years. In the middle of our conversation he suddenly pointed at a wall and said, ‘Look, there’s my name!’ Looking where he was pointing I realized that he was indicating my Instructor’s black belt certification. And sure enough, his name was where he pointed, attesting to my Instructor’s rank!
And over the years I have met people who were awarded their rank, or who ‘Assumed’ their rank, without ever stepping into a school and doing any black belt training. I even met a few people who were Black Belts solely because ‘They could fight good.’
I do not mean to imply here that everybody who has studied Karate has been a degenerate, or that the Martial Arts are merely the invention of a bunch of thugs. Many people, regardless of whether their Black Belt is valid, are honest and sincere in their efforts. But there has been potential for less than accurate transmittal of the concepts of Karate, and there have been abuses.
History and abuses aside, what is a Black Belt?
When a person is promoted to Black Belt he is elevated from ‘Kyu,’ which means ‘Boy,’ to ‘Dan,’ which means ‘Man.’
So a real Black Belt, regardless of age or gender, is a ‘Man.’ Being a Dan doesn’t actually refer to sex or age. It refers to a ‘Statement of Maturation.’
One definition of the word Mature states, ‘Worked out fully by the mind.’ This is a very interesting implication regarding a physical ‘Work out’ in relation to a state of mind.
To be honest, I have known grown men who were mere children in their attitudes and pursuits. I have known children who were more mature in their lives than ‘Grown ups.’
Maturation, you see, in the Karate sense, has more to do with responsibility than anything else.
One fellow I knew told me that his workout partner told him he was better than a Black Belt, so he was a third degree Black Belt.
Or preoccupation with being better than somebody else? Or worse?
The fact of the matter is that when somebody achieves Black Belt the fact of being able to destroy another human becomes less important than the fact of learning the true meaning of such concepts as sincerity, trust, honesty, and so on.
In a word, Virtue. And now we come to the fact of methodology.
Karate is an Art. As such it is an outpouring of spirit. Interestingly, in Karate, and in so many other Arts, we have that weirdism that Instructors often say, ‘Do exactly as I do, never deviate from what has been passed down!’
The fact is…an Art is meant to develop creativity.
Should we change what has passed down?
I always tell my students that they should remember exactly as they have been taught, and create whatever they want to. In analogy, in the classical forms they have a frame and canvas, but what they paint on the canvas is up to them.
But beyond this there is a problem with the methodologies of today. The problem is that in today’s age of instant communication systems have started bulking up.
When I learned Karate I was taught 21 forms to Black Belt. Today, in that same system, there are even more forms. Yet when I read various histories and follow various accounts of Martial evolution, there were originally supposed to be only ten forms in the system.
In Uechi-Ryu there are eight forms. There used to be three.
And so on.
So the road becomes longer. And more distorted.
Nowadays systems are designed with large numbers of forms in mind so as to ‘Entertain’ students. The truth is, when a student is bored he should not be entertained, he should be taught how to overcome boredom!
Only in this way will the student find the depth of character necessary to find True Karate.
And True Karate is something that must be found. It is not something that can be taught. Karate is a strength of spirit that grows within as the individual faces problems and grows. It is not entertainment so that the student won’t be bored and wander off.
This has been an article about being a real Black Belt in todays modern martial arts.
This brings us to the question ‘What is a Black Belt?’ For the Art will exist whether there are people to appreciate it or not. But a Black Belt is a contrivance for validating effort and real knowledge, not, as we sadly perceive in some systems, social climbing.
In addressing this question I am going to leave behind considerations of whether a person is humble, has virtue, is polite, and so on. Not because they are not real, but because anybody with an ounce of common sense will realize that they need no explanation or espousal.
A Black Belt is somebody who has achieved CBM.
CBM is a phrase coined by myself to describe a fact of body motion which heretofore has been rather loosely described . It means ‘Coordinated Body Motion.’
CBM is when:
‘All parts of the body support One Intention.’
This means that the structure of the body will achieve and utilize proper alignment. This means that the angles of the limbs will be guided by a knowledge of the most effective arrangement of muscular exertion. This means that knowledge of the ridges and flows and explosions of Energy within the body will be utilized geometrically and correctly. This means that the body will expand when breathing out and contract when breathing in, or breathe out when striking or getting struck, and so on.
It is said that if a butterfly flutters it’s wings in the Amazon the effects will be felt everywhere in the world.
Similarly, move your little toe slightly and every cell in your body will have to adjust.
If you were a bald man with one hair you’d understand exactly what I mean. The slightest touch upon that hair would be felt everywhere within your body.
Now, I have to tell you something about this CBM thing. If you have it, and have had it for a long time, and especially if you have taught somebody else how to achieve it, you can see it in others. If you don’t have it, chances are you will not be able to see it except in the broadest of senses.
You may understand the concept, but you will not understand when somebody uses it, except to appreciate the inherent grace of the practitioneer.
And there is grace within the use of CBM, and more.
When somebody achieves CBM it is not just that their body becomes powerful or graceful, it is that the Intention of the Human Being begins to course through it, and this Intention is not visible except to those who already have it. And it becomes more visible as you become more practiced and knowledgeable in the function of channeling your Intention.
Describe color to a blind man.
While Forms are especially handy in the teaching of CBM, by themselves they do not teach CBM. CBM can only be taught by the rare individual who has it. In my three decades in the Martial Arts I have seen perhaps a half a dozen individuals who had achieved CBM. All of them had stumbled across it, usually without knowing what it was, and often in spite of the person teaching them. In fact, most CBMing individuals recounted to me that the first time they CBMed they thought they were doing something wrong!
How do you teach CBM? You have to put aside what you have been taught and start from scratch in aligning your body. You can’t step and drop the weight and punch. You must do it all together, making sure that the hand and the foot start at the same time…and end at the same time. You must coordinate the breathing so that it goes in the same direction as the Intention. And you must pay minute attention to the functions of the body in Karate. Attention to detail is a severe understatement when it comes to understanding CBM.
Obsessed with doing Karate fast? You can forget about CBM. In going fast you lose the ability to look at the details.
Are you proud of the Power popping in the Tan Tien? You can forget about CBM. CBM doesn’t have to do with minute explosions in the Tan Tien. It has to do with aligning the whole body with Intention. And while an understanding of body Energy is important, Intention is quite a bit different than a manifestation of Energy.
This brings up an interesting point. Energy, in the body, in the most general of terms, can be equated to fire. There is the callow practitioner who knows how to fan the fire for a fierce explosion, but this is just the shadow of CBM. The fellow who has achieved CBM is able to delve into the subject of Energy and is able to create Ridges and Flows and explosions all sorts of things, and realizes that those functions are secondary to the one question…’Who strikes the match?’
Now, understanding, at least intellectually, what CBM is and what it entails and where it goes, let’s ask ourselves the question, ‘What is a real Black Belt? Who really has CBM?’
I have to tell you that I have never seen a politically oriented person who has achieved CBM. I am not saying it is impossible, but let me just say that a politically oriented person is more interested in controlling other people than in soul searching. So there goes all the great organizations out there in Karate land. If you belong to an organization the chances are reduced that you will have CBM. Ergo you might not be a real Black Belt.
And the people who play in tournaments. Here again we have a preoccupation, this time with ‘beating their fellow man,’ which supplants the very real need for depth of soul searching necessary to CBMing. So if you are a tournament fighter you might not a real Black Belt.
Well, I seem to be alienating people. So be it.
Are you preoccupied with whether your Black Belt certificate was signed in another country? While I have seen lots of Energy displayed by people trained by people from other countries, I have also seen rigid training methods and virtual roboticism, which would be the result of somebody trying to learn something through language and cultural barriers.
So being trained by an oriental, even going back to the orient, is no guarantee that you are a real Black Belt. It might even be a hindrance!
Now that I have made enemies the world over let me make my point. Following is a test. Follow the directions exactly, consider the questions honestly. If you can do the things I describe in the test there is a chance that you might be a real Black Belt.
1) Create a circle with your thumb and forefinger. Have somebody attempt to pull them apart (not sideways, but directly apart.) If you can keep them together while wiggling the little finger of that hand there is hope for you.
2) Stand in a Crane Stance with one hand outstretched. A real Black Belt should be able to stay in the Crane Stance when somebody pushes (Slowly but with great weight) on his hand.
3) If somebody slaps you in the face do you get mad? If you do you are not a real Black Belt.
These three items can reveal your ability to handle Intention, not just Energy and, as simple as they are, they reveal you. It is possible that somebody who has falsely CBMed can pass them. In fact somebody who is good at learning tricks could manage to pass this test, but tricks, even while helpful in the context of this test, are not the real Art, and they can only help you learn to be honest with yourself, which is the true test of whether you are a real Black Belt.
Want another test? Want to dig deep in your soul? Then consider…does the subject matter of this article upset you? Are you ready to come over and beat me up? Want to get me on the mat and pound some sense into my deluded head?
A real Black Belt would only be interested in integrating my data for his personal understanding and enhancement.
In closing let me say that you may not agree with all that I say, but you should have some way of gauging yourself and others as far as Black Belt rank goes. And as Martial Artists we should come to some agreement concerning the matter. To not do so is to leave the door open to further degradation.