Tuesday, June 13, 2023

What is a Black Belt? By Scott Shaw


By Scott Shaw

I always feel like I need to apologize to you readers out there when I write a piece about the martial arts, because I understand that most of you who read this blog are not martial artists. So, “Sorry.”  But, I also hope that what I discuss in these martial art related pieces is wide-spanning enough that maybe you can gain a bit of new life-understanding from reading them. So, here we go…

If you ask the average person, “What is a black belt,” they will most certainly come up with a definition about a person who is very good at the techniques of self-defense. As the typical individual possesses very little knowledge about the ranking system of the martial arts, they probably know that there are a few different color belts in the learning stages, but the black belt is the end-goal of training. “They are a black belt,” and that’s that. Maybe the term, “Wow,” is even thrown in as a symbol of respect for that person’s accomplishment.

As you martial artists out there understand, there are many levels to the black belt. In fact, in Asia, when an individual has earned their first-degree black belt, they are simply understood to be an advanced student and nowhere near the level of a teacher, which traditionally comes at the fourth-degree black belt level. Of course, here in the West, there is a completely different level of definition. Many a first-degree black belt immediately moves to the position of instructor and maybe even school owner. 

Somewhere along the way, however, especially here in the Western World, the level of black belt rank or, “dan,” a person holds has become this highly sought-after goal; more so than a student becoming a better practitioner or anything like that. It seems many practitioners don’t even care about that. The minute they are a black belt, how good they are is good enough and forget about the formalities of the years associated with further training. All they care about is getting up there to that higher level of black belt degree ranking. From this, there arose all of these organizations selling rank. From about the late 1960s forward, black belt rank has become so convoluted that, to the true practitioner, it means very little. Yet, everyone wants to claim it. Look at the martial art magazines of that era, (and forward), you will see numerous organizations presenting advertisements that offer rank certification and advancement based solely upon the paying of a price.  

Whenever I speak or write about martial art rank, I often quote the statement that Bill, “Superfoot,” Wallace, made to me when I was asked to write an article about him for a magazine. He profoundly stated, “Back in the day if a person was a 1st degree black belt, they were impossible to touch. If they were a 2nd degree black belt, forget about it, they would tear you apart. Now, everyone is an 8th, 9th, or 10th degree black belt and they are terrible.” That is so true. So few modern practitioners, no matter what rank they hold, embrace a deep and true understanding of the subtle elements of the martial art style they claim. Why is that? Because they stopped learning the moment they received their black belt and transitioned to the mindset of self-believed mastery.

Then there was this whole wave where instructors, particularly in the Korean martial arts, began to refer to themselves as, “Master.” Then came Grand Master. What does that even mean? It sounds like something out of a mid-evil sorcerer’s tale, a video game, or a Satanic cult. Do you know how many Grand Masters I’ve seen get their asses kicked by a seasoned street fighter? Those who teach in the Japanese traditions do not refer to themselves as a “Master.” They just use the term “Sensei,” meaning, “Teacher.” By calling yourself a, “Master,” isn’t that just someone rock’n their ego? Like I have long stated, “If you are referring to yourself as a Master that probably means that you are not.” I cringe whenever anyone refers to me as Master or Grand Master. Just call me, Scott.

Certainly, not everyone is like that—not every black belt is like that. There are some very caring, tried and true instructors out there. But, for you martial artists out there, look around you, even look at yourself, how much new knowledge do you seek to gain on a daily basis, compared to how many people you wish to teach what you already know? How many compliments do you put out there towards other martial artists, compared to how much criticism you have unleashed?

I’ve said this in the past, but due to the fact I was a practitioner at the early stages of this modern evolution of the Korean martial arts, here in the West, and hailing from a city that was one of the primary central hubs of the dissemination of the modern Korean martial arts, Los Angeles, I have witnessed a lot of, “Hard to believe,” situations being unleashed, even via the hands of some very established instructors and organizations. Some would not believe what I have witnessed. Others would wish to deny that it happened. But, I was there. I saw it. It did happen. Yet, throughout all these years, people look to these organizations as some sort of a point of validation. Which I guess they are. But, all one has to do is look to the truth of their foundational essence and one will see that there are flaws. Even look to the fact of how many of these associations have dissolved. View how much scandal and controversy has been attached to some of the leaders and the members of these organizations. Some have even ended up in jail. This is why I have long believed that any validation, in the martial arts, can only truly be done between a student and their teacher, for in that relationship is the only true place of valid understanding and endorsement.

I am not saying that every instructor is a true proponent of their art. Nor am I saying that they are all a truly good person, just because they operate a school. In my own life, I have been cheated by instructors I worked with for years. Plus, there are all those stories out there of others who have had similar or even worse experiences. 

Moreover, I am not denying my own blame in this situation. I too advanced through the ranks in the martial arts. I will say, however, that when I was offered the ninth-degree black belt a number of years ago, I did turn it down. And, the only reason I put my credentials in the martial arts out there is because every time I take them down there is some person throwing accusations my directions. Which, again, takes us to one of the primary sources of the problem in this entire system of so-called advancement: false accusations and needless attacks. 

So, what does this leave us with? What does the black belt truly mean if people base their entire life upon what high rank they hold, what rank another person doesn’t hold, and whom they received that rank from and how many people they can teach because of that rank? What does it mean when people are out there claiming rock star status simply defined by a number on a piece of paper?  What does it proclaim when many do this without possessing a true understanding about the essence of what they are teaching?

First of all, let’s just think about this… What if there was no black belt?  What if you simply studied a system of self-defense and got good at it? How life freeing would that be?

What if your instructor or your organization did not charge you money for your rank advancement? Because, FYI, that is what they do. Rank advancement is a money-making, business opportunity. …A student pays to be tested. What if they gave that rank away for free? Then there would not be the incentive to, “Sell,” rank. 

I get it… This is all just hopeful speculation of my part. …My wish that the martial arts would be, (would become), what they are idealized to be. 

I believe it is very sad that in the mind of the non-practitioner they have this idealized image of what a black belt is. But, once one become involved at the high levels of these arts, many lose their way and base their entire existence off of how many stripes they have on their belt and how much money they can make by teaching these ancient forms of self-defense and then charging others to advance them towards their own black belt and beyond.

What if all that rank stuff just didn’t matter? What if rank was no longer the sought-after goal? Wouldn’t the martial arts then be allowed to exist in the place where they were truly designed to inhabit? A place where the individual would learn the intricacies of physical movement, the refined use of internal energy, and meditation. What if the martial arts were not burdened by the desire of rank advancement? Would they then not exist at the place where they truly emulated what they were designed to actually communicate?

Think about it…

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Originally from the Scott Shaw Blog

Scott Shaw Hapkido Taekwondo International