Thought’s…on “rank”

Been thinking on this as a recent article I read was discussing ” BlackBelt Factory ” schools that issue a B.B. in 2.5 years (average time) or sell 3-4 year ” B.B. Programs “. I have certainly known of places like these, but I have been consistantly displeased with the caliber of ” martial artist ” these sort of places turn out. They are also notorious for handing out B.B. rank to 6 year olds that began ” training ” when they were 3 years old. Sorry, but there is not a child alive that has the cognitive ability to truly grasp what is going on conceptually in any so called system of  ” martial arts “.  ( It is for this reason that I accept no student younger than age 7 at my school .)  There are far more adult practitoners walking around dojo’s wearing a B.B. that don’t have a clue as to the what, how, and why of their ” martial art ” than do have a clue, never mind a 6 year old. And, truly, any parent who believes that their 6 year old B.B. can defend themselves against the average full grown adult is kidding themselves. Yes, there are specialized techniques that a small child can use to attempt to escape from a would be abductor, but these are not taught in a typical modern ” martial arts ” school ( I do teach these techniques in my ” Child / Parent ” self-defense seminar – parent (s) must attend this class ). The classes taught at most modern schools are a watered down version of what is taught to the older kids and the adults (  and the adult classes are mostly watered down versions of the original style as it was practiced in the country of origin! I have known of schools that don’t teach such things as elbow strikes because they were considered to be too dangerous! ) The issue I want to address here is toward older teen / adult classes. No true traditional school is going to allow a student to become ( yes, ” become” as the path is a process ) a B.B. or Yellow Sash ( “teacher” level in my school ) in 2.5 years. There is just way too much to learn…not only is it the basics, techniques and forms that one must be adept at, one must be able to perform all these beyond the level of imitation – like a trained chimpanzee. One must really ” know ” both literally and conceptually everything they have learned physically. Beyond this, however, is the idea that “rank”  is just a thing to be achieved for the sake of achieving something – a goal in and of itself.  Back before a Japanese man named Kano first came up with the presently used belt system – later adopted in sash fashion by the Chinese – there was no formal system of rank. Students of a school knew where their place was in the hierarchy, but this place was not advertised on the students waist. In most of the Chinese systems that pre-dated the sashes worn today, there were only three ranks : student, teacher, and master. A practitioner was awarded rank only when the Master  ( DaiShi ) decided that the student had achieved the standard of proficiency and understanding that the Master  required of his students. Always know that ” a student is a reflection of his teacher. ”  Hard core traditionalists such as myself demand a very high standard as I will be judged indirectly through my students by those who witness my students. I tell my adults ( age 16 and older ) not to be concerned with rank at all. If their concern is rank and how quickly they can obtain it, I tell them to leave and go to such and such a school as it is known as a ” B.B. Factory “. They can then go get a B.B. and attempt to impress their friends by stating ” I’m  a Black  Belt “. Their friends will quickly discover the invalidity of that statement if the braggart ever finds himself in a real fight and gets his head handed to him. The path of the Martial Artist should be one of gathering knowledge and never ending exploration. Knowledge is gathered through the instruction of a competant Master. It can also be gathered through one’s own exploration. For instance, the student may purchase a textbook on anatomy. Through study of the book, the student will understand exactly how certain techniques directly effect the human body. This will contribute to the students understanding of ” the how ” a technique such as a wristlock works and better prepare the student to ask meaningful questions of his Master concerning techniques the Master educates the student in using. The student who has chosen the path of the true Martial Artist will never ask his Master when he will be awarded rank. If the Master raises the subject to the student, the student may inquire as to where the Master thinks the student is along the path thereby leaving open to the Master a response. A Master realizes that the student who persists in inquiry as to ” when am I going to be promoted? ” is not yet ready for promotion. This is a thing the student must come to recognize. The Master will percieve in the student that the student has let go of his concern for being awarded an outwardly visible symbol. This is when the student can truly begin to receive the teaching of the Master as the students mind is free of the restraining chains of bondage that are what thoughts of being awarded ” rank ” actually are. Letting go of the consuming cancer of  ” needing to have the outwardly visible symbol to display as proof that I am somebody ”  is one of the most important of a number of  ” letting go of ‘s  ”  in the process of de-cluttering the mind. These ” letting go of  ”  such and such an ” attachment to a thing, material or temporal ”  lead to a state of  ” whole mind ”  allowing the student to progress along the path unfettered someday arriving at a moment when ” Doing ”  such a thing as performing a form becomes ” Being ” the form – the practitoner runs it as it runs the practitioner. If the practioner were to look behind him at a visual representation of the path he has followed, he would see milestones along the way marked by chains of bondage left in the wake of a moment of letting go of an attachment. The chains of bondage at the point of letting go with ones concern as to rank would be a long length of chain indeed.

2 Responses to “Thought’s…on “rank””

  1. 1 Steve
    April 7, 2010 at 12:28 am

    “Letting go of the consuming cancer of ‘needing to have the outwardly visible symbol to display as proof that I am somebody’ is one of the most important of a number of ‘letting go of ’s’ in the process of de-cluttering the mind.”

    When I began studying martial arts it was drilled into my head that rank didn’t matter. As someone unfamiliar with what “the path” was about it was easy to understand at the surface but deep down I figured rank was just something that demonstrated you were headed in the right direction. However, as I later discovered, no rank will ever gauge what direction you’re headed in. You could be a 10th degree black belt but if you stopped criticizing yourself ten years ago and just settled for where you were at then you at the very least are not moving forward. As Master Cook says, many view it as a status symbol. The point here is not that rank doesn’t have value; it’s just that it should not be used as a standalone to gauge your ability. You and your teacher know where you’re at. If your teacher decides you’ve earned the rank associated with that level then congrats…but the rank matches the ability/dedication/knowledge, not vice versa. Personally, I was proud to earn the rank of teacher. However, I was more concerned with honing my skills and knowledge without concern for what rank represented them.

    “One must really ‘know’ both literally and conceptually everything they have learned physically. Beyond this, however, is the idea that ‘rank’ is just a thing to be achieved for the sake of achieving something – a goal in and of itself.”

    This is really a core idea behind rank in my opinion. The goal is mastery of the technique, method and the concepts behind it in order to master the self and the knowledge behind the process. Rank simply reflects milestones on this path. One of the reasons studying a true martial art is so difficult is that it’s not just simply executing technique at a high level. The literal and conceptual knowledge is where the learning takes place. When you add to that the practice of Qigong and understanding of the interrelation of energy, movement, physics, geometry etc, then your average person just looking for a few moves may seem overwhelmed at the process. Not that learning a few things for the purpose of self defense isn’t great; it’s just not what it means to be a martial artist. However, it can be one way to lead someone to the path.

    “No true traditional school is going to allow a student to become ( yes, ‘become’ as the path is a process ) a B.B. or Yellow Sash ( ‘teacher’ level in my school ) in 2.5 years. There is just way too much to learn…”

    Master Cook is absolutely right in that easy access black belts are used as marketing tools in these fast food bull-shido dojos. However if someone walks into a traditional school and the master laid out what it really takes to be a “superior person,” (a product of dedication to kung fu) they would risk losing students. Therefore there are many ways to get a student interested in this sort of life but at some point the student must decide whether they are in it for short term superficial gains or long term enrichment. This cannot be conveyed right away but is revealed through hard training and proper instruction.

    “These ‘letting go of’ such and such an ‘attachment to a thing, material or temporal’ lead to a state of ‘whole mind’ allowing the student to progress along the path unfettered someday arriving at a moment when ‘Doing’ such a thing as performing a form becomes ‘Being’ the form.”

    The present is a tough concept to grasp for the new martial artist. Doing and being existing simultaneously is the ideal, but to the average Westerner this is foreign. No thanks to the indulgent Senseis and Sifus of the fast food school, popular culture would have us believe that attachment to rank and the competitive process for it is a goal of a student. This is solely a business tactic and has no place in true martial arts. As Master Cook says the student must let go of attachment in order to achieve the ideal of existing in the moment. The student that concerns them self with walking the path rather than getting recognized for their level of proficiency will find the true purpose of martial arts. Those seeking rank seek approval from others and thus can never master themselves as their self worth is measured in illusion.

  2. 2 VinCenZo
    April 18, 2010 at 5:38 am

    First, I would like to say that there is nothing wrong with a child going to a martial arts school as a fun way to spend their saturday mornings (and for an opportunity for Mom and Dad to go grocery shopping). This is basically an alternative to some of the more traditional sports and it is hoped that it should spark some interest in that child so they may really pursue the martial arts when they are ready. In my opinion it should be treated as a sport with children playing on a mat or trampoline and learning some basic blocks, strikes, kicks, rolls, a few fun throws and techniques with a lot of yelling. For this age group it should be fun and nothing more. In my opinion there is nothing wrong with giving a child who is 4, 5, or 6years old a rank every 3months until they reach a blackbelt. However, I also think there should be a distinction between that blackbelt and an adult blackbelt. That blackbelt should be considered a “sporting” or a “child blackbelt” and it should understood that it is much different from a traditional, combative, or an adult rank.

    With that said… One of my teachers once explained to me that the “Journey of a martial artist BEGINS when they have obtained the rank of teacher”. This is immensely important. I have met countless people that ask me simply “are you a blackbelt”. This term has become cliche and pathetic to the point that it is almost embarrassing to admit that indeed I am ranked as such. I have trained with grown men that have stated that they hope to achieve __blank___rank by such date, and then the next rank but such and such date. As if they think they have accomplished “something” when they achieve their blackbelt. But what separates a true martial artist from these people is that when you achieve this rank, that is when you realize that they really know nothing at all…as I know nothing compared to my teacher and as my teacher knows nothing compared to his teacher. These people need to learn many valuable lessons but none more important then that “the time is now”, “the place is here” and “our state is simply “being”.

    I will share An old Chinese Legend:
    A young aspiring martial artist approached a master and said “I have come to be the best martial artist in the land, how long will it take me?” The master said to the boy “It will take you 10 years”. “10 years!” Said the boy “but what if I train especially hard and do nothing else but martial arts?” The master said “20 years”. “20 years!!!, Thats such a long time. But what if I train three times as hard day and night?” The master said “Then it will take you 30 years.” They boy was confused and asked the master why every time he said he would train harder, the master said it would take longer? The master explained “If one eye is fixed on the destination, then there is only one eye left with which to find the way.”

    This discussion is especially important to me because I was fortunate enough to be adopted into two schools that not ONLY taught me that it was important not to focus on rank…but WHY it is important not to focus on rank. Someone that is concerned with the color around their waist is only concerned with the “WHAT”, but we are concerned with the “WHY” and “HOW”. They are concerned with the destination, we are concerned with the journey.

    I have been told that I hold the rank of black belt, but I do not own a black belt. I have been ranked as a Master, but I do not own a white sash. The yellow sash I have was a gift, it is the last sash that my teacher’s teacher’s wife ever made. Out of respect for my lineage, out of respect for the history of the art, and out of respect for the thousands of martial artists that held the rank before me, I hold that sash with the upmost honor and humility. Out of tradition and for the sake of continuing my art I ware my sash, but for no other reason but to hold my pants up, my jacket closed…and “to hide the jade beneath my bosom”.

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April 2010

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