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.
When I was training and still in the kyu grades, I had my own preconceptions of what it represented, and this changed as I got closer.
In the early grades I saw anyone with a black belt as someone who ‘knew their stuff’, who I could turn to with almost any question about this art and they would know answers, or be able to show me any number of ways to do whatever it was I couldn’t get. As I was graded higher in kyu grades I was always looking to attaining my shodan as a point where I ‘got it’, to a point in my training where I could look at a tenchijin ryaku no maki and then demonstrate any technique in there. The closer I got to it, I still had this feeling, but there was an undercurrent of doubt. I was getting better, or I wouldn’t be graded, would I? So if that was the case, why didn’t I have the confidence that I knew the majority of what I was being taught better than I did? Still, I had faith in my shidoshi, and the other black belts I was training with, after all they were black belts, so they knew right?
Then the day came. In December 2003 I was given my black belt. There it was sitting in my hands (after just being given it by the yondan that had been teaching me for most of the year, as well as my shidoshi). Great. My first thought? What the hell do I know? I had such a crisis of confidence when I held that black belt. Don’t get me wrong, it was one of the landmarks in my training and I was very happy to get there, but…
I had expected, with all my misunderstanding of this point in my training, to have an air of confidence and competence. But a week later I was still making the same mistakes I had made six months ago, ‘to rigid’ ‘to much strength’ ‘relax more’. These seemed to be the only words my instructors had to say when I trained. Of course that was my own interpretation, I was focusing on the negatives, not really hearing the positives that were always present. It took me a long while to get what it really meant to me to get the shodan grade.
About eighteen months later I started to understand. I had taken the risk of restarting the dojo in my town. With a good friend from my shidoshi’s class who was a nidan at the time I started to try and teach not only adults, but kids as well. Talk about blind leaps of faith! To my amazement it seemed to work. As the year progressed I grew in confidence in my ability to teach. Of course it was not all smooth sailing. There were some classes that went completely off course. I tried stuff that I was not that good at.
But it got better. I still had problems relaxing and using too much strength, but the flow improved. As I got some really positive feedback from the students, some who had trained before, some complete novices, my confidence grew. When a student can’t get a technique and you show them how, its great to hear a surprised ‘Hey that works!’ when they apply the principle you just showed them.
Now I still have moments, sometimes days of questioning my ability (and if I didn’t I’d be worried!). But I understand that it’s ok, that this is as so many have said before, a journey not a destination. I hope I am improving, and only time (and my shidoshi!) can tell. But when I train with other kyu grades, and they say ‘You have a black belt, you know this stuff.’ my most honest reply tends to be ‘It’s not black, its just a dirty white belt...'
That is what I wrote about 12 years ago about what it means to have a black belt in the Bujinkan. As time has passed and I have helped people get a black belt under my instruction I think I have expanded on this fairly simple statement somewhat.
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. So, again, what is the black belt worth in the Bujinkan?
The simple answer is that it 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 this is a finite goal they will slow or stop their training and their standards will become stagnant at best or recede (most typically).
A black belt is a way marker on a journey, its shows how far you’ve come and more importantly points the direction of your journey onward. No matter the grade, from shodan to judan, these are all just waypoints. To quote a particular favorite story of mine
“The road goes ever on and on, down from the door where it began, now far ahead the road has gone and I must follow if I can…"
This to me sums up the journey that starts with shodan - the first step.