Dirty white belt - However much I train, it is not enough
Updated: May 28, 2022
Dirty White Belt
What does it mean to be shodan? That first step on the ladder to learning an unlearnable art…and if that isn’t confusing enough, there’s all the expectations attached to a black belt. Like it or not most uninformed people see having a black belt as being a mark of ability and competence.
The value of the black belt is debated ad infinitum in many martial arts styles, and various attitudes are shown ranging from ‘a black belt only covers 2” of your backside, you have to cover the rest’ to ‘a black belt is more than proficiency in fighting, it’s a life style / mind set / way’ to ‘belts are nonsense, what you do in the ring / on the mats / in the street / etc is what counts’ to ‘if you haven’t ever used it for real / walked the walk / trained with X, Y, or Z it doesn’t count’.
So how do we look at the black belt in the Bujinkan? Well this can also be a can of worms. Firstly there are no fixed standards… well that’s awkward. One of the biggest differences (in my limited experience) between the Bujinkan and other martial arts organisations / styles is there is an implied but explicit requirement to take responsibility for your own standards. This is evident in the practice within Japanese culture of awarding grades for students to live up to, as opposed to awarding them after students have achieved the standard. So the obvious downfall with this is when the grade is given and a student thinks ‘I’ve got it!’ as opposed to ‘I need to get better to be worth this’... and, as is common with human nature, there are all shades between the two extremes.
The view that a new black belt has all the answers, or can explain intricacies of a technique, is (in my opinion) a fallacy. The black belt practitioner, especially in the early grades, has a grasp of the techniques, but is still developing that deeper understanding and insight. It is essential that when you achieve, are awarded, or get to black belt you retain the learner mindset. Approach things from a white belt perspective, being open to seeing things afresh each time. This does not mean abandon what you know so far, just be mindful there are different levels and layers of understanding.
The simple answer is the black belt is worth no more or less than the standards or ethos of the person wearing it. If they have had the Japanese mind set explained to them, then they would hopefully be aware that they have to work harder when they get each grade. If they believe black belt is a finite goal, they will slow or stop their training and their standards will become stagnant at best or recede (most typically).
One of my favourite quotes that I have read, possibly attributed to Takamatsu sensei, is "No matter how much I train, it is not enough..." and that sums it up for me.
In the end its not actually a black belt, its just a dirty white belt.