Think a black belt symbolizes the skill and knowledge a person needs to be a master? Better think again! A veteran martial artist examines the issue and finds that the answer requires a bit more introspection.

There’s a Zen parable that was given much lip service when I was coming up through the ranks. It’s about how, in the heyday of the Japanese martial arts, a person used only one obi (belt) during practice — from the time he was initiated into the arts until he became a master. The point of the story is to show that changes in the color of the martial artist’s belt over time are symbolic of advances in his degree of insight. For those unfamiliar with the parable, it goes something like this. In the beginning, you have a white belt. It symbolizes the beginner’s mind, pure and unfettered. There are no questions about right and wrong, and no hesitation because the beginner hasn’t enough skill to intentionally do anything wrong. He’s all innocence with intentions as clean and white as the belt around his waist. Gradually, as the novice trains, his belt becomes stained. First, it turns green from grass stains. Then it becomes brown as dirt stains are added to them. Finally, after years of staining, the belt begins to take on the black hue we now associate with mastery. But the parable tells us that this is really the middle of a true martial artist’s journey. At this point, he’s in the darkest and most dangerous place in his journey toward mastery. He has more skill than wisdom. His intentions are tainted by his ability to hurt people. In the third and final stage, the belt ages along with its wearer. It becomes frayed and tattered as its wearer learns difficult lessons about being seduced by anger and hate. It becomes white again as the martial artist’s intentions become pure again. Experience deepens his insight, and he now knows when it’s right to fight and when it’s not. His journey comes full circle in mastery. He has the skill of a great fighter, a clear and unfettered mind to guide his use of it, and a white belt around his waist to symbolize it. Physical + Mental The parable offers a great lesson in the development of a martial artist, but I believe the strength of this story is that it shows us the real meaning of a black belt. A black belt indicates expertise in fighting. Anyone who wears one should be able to easily beat people within the focus of his art. In other words, a karate shodan (first-degree black belt) should be able to easily punch and kick an opponent into submission, and a judo or jujitsu black belt should be able to easily take an opponent down and choke him unconscious or break his arm. But this is not enough. The parable shows us that attaining a black belt is the middle of a journey toward mastery in the martial arts — and the most dangerous part of that path. It’s a black time in two respects. First, it’s when the martial artist possesses great skill, and if he isn’t careful, he can commit great sin. Second, it’s the time when he is truly “in the dark” about when it’s right to fight and when it’s not. At this point, his martial skill is relatively new, and he hasn’t the life experience to know how to use it judiciously. This is the middle of a journey toward mastery because martial skill doesn’t automatically lead to wisdom — even if it does require us to seek it. Two Questions If you’ve ever wondered whether your black belt means anything, you should ask yourself two questions. The first is, Can I fight? If the answer is no, that belt is just a fashion accessory to a pair of Japanese pajamas, and there’s no moral dilemma to master. But if the answer is yes, you should ask yourself a second question: Can I swallow my pride and look for guidance? If the answer here is also yes, your black belt means a great deal. It means you’re on your way to becoming a white belt again. It means you’re on your way to becoming a master. Resources To order Keith Vargo’s book Philosophy of Fighting: Morals and Motivations of the Modern Warrior, go here. For more information about Keith Vargo and his martial arts writings, visit his blog.

SUBSCRIBE TO BLACKBELT MAGAZINE TODAY!
Don't miss a single issue of the world largest magazine of martial arts.

To Master the Supreme Philosophy of Enshin Karate, Look to Musashi's Book of Five Rings for Guidance!

In the martial arts, we voluntarily subject ourselves to conflict in a training environment so we can transcend conflict in the real world. After all, we wouldn't knowingly train in a style that makes us weaker or worsens our position. The irony of all this is that we don't want to fight our opponent. We prefer to work with what an opponent gives us to turn the tide in our favor, to resolve the situation effectively and efficiently.The Japanese have a word for this: sabaki. It means to work with energy efficiently. When we train with the sabaki mindset, we receive our opponent's attack, almost as a gift. Doing so requires less physical effort and frees up our mental operating system so it can determine the most efficient solution to the conflict.In this essay, I will present a brief history of sabaki, as well as break down the sabaki method using Miyamoto Musashi's five elements

Keep Reading Show less

Enter our partner's current Sweepstakes. They are giving away a Grand Prize 'FKB Wardrobe'.

TAKE NOTICE!

FIVE KNUCKLE BULLET 'Wardrobe' Sweepstakes

Feeling Lucky? Enter our current Sweepstakes Now! We are giving away a Grand Prize 'FKB Wardrobe' which consists of our most popular sportswear items. Prize includes the following:

Keep Reading Show less

"Yoshiharu Osaka sensei was always the textbook of shotokan," one experienced karateka said."True," his colleague replied. "But Kanazawa sensei was always the book of its poetry."

Stories of Hirokazu Kanazawa are a soundtrack of post-training bull sessions. Kanazawa, who won the first All Japan Karate Championship in 1957 — with a broken wrist. (When his mother heard he was dropping out of the competition because of the injury, incurred only days before the event, she asked him why he couldn't win with the other hand and with his kicks, compelling him to stay in. Moms then, and Japanese moms in particular, were a little different.)

Keep Reading Show less

It's a difficult subject, but perhaps I'm finally old enough to examine it with some objectivity — and with some insight that's worth sharing. The issue, of course, is when one should retire in karate or other forms of budo.

A quick clarification: No serious martial artist "retires" in the sense that the person ceases to train, study and explore life by traveling along a martial way. There's an expression in Japanese that one should live one's life as a kara kyohi, a dry husk, one that's used up completely. In other words, one should leave nothing left undone. There is no retirement from any martial art; they all represent a lifelong path.There is a moment, however, if a budo teacher lives long enough, when he or she must contemplate retiring from a position of authority. More accurately, the person must be willing to step back, to allow a new generation to take over the active teaching role.
Keep Reading Show less
Free Bruce Lee Guide
Have you ever wondered how Bruce Lee’s boxing influenced his jeet kune do techniques? Read all about it in this free guide.
Don’t miss a thing Subscribe to Our Newsletter