There’s been a little talk on Facebook lately about (earning) rank. Black belt rank, specifically, about high ranks, like 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, and 9th dan. I’ve put some thought into how rank is earned; as many of you may know, how people earn high rank today is subjective. Some people can serve years of apprenticeship under another teacher to earn high ranks, while some people can get it the way I did a year or two ago, by buying it.
Two years ago a Korean friend of mine persuaded me to buy my “Kukkiwon” 4th dan (I was already a 6th dan under Ernie Reyes, Sr.) with a check for $100. The price started out much higher and included a referee’s class, but as I continued to decline the offer and say I wasn’t interested, it finally came down to $100. I wouldn’t have paid that either, except I could tell my friend was under some kind of pressure to produce money, so I acquiesced. When the certificate came, as it had absolutely no value to me, I threw it in the trash.
Today you can actually watch people, on Youtube, being filmed taking their high ranking belt tests. In way too many cases, it’s not pretty. You have to wonder what these associations are thinking when they graduate these people to the highest of belt ranks? However there are also some fine examples of people who show a level of skill that is extraordinary.
Take for example the short clip (2:51 min) of Mikio Yahara’s 8th dan test. Here you see a man, in his 60’s, who is stronger, faster, and more practiced that most black belts are in their 30’s. That this test was even put on video is remarkable. The video is titled: “Mikio Yahara karatenomichi,” if you’d care to see it.
There is also a wonderful National Geographic documentary on Youtube about what kendo practitioners go through to earn their 8th dan. According to the piece, the pass rate for the 8th dan is less than one-percent. Find it on Youtube under the title, “Documentary about Kendo Part 1.” Special thanks to martial artist/writer David Lowry for pointing me to this remarkable video.
How I See It
I recognize that as many of us age (I’m currently 51 years old), our skill levels change. I’ve had both of my hips replaced, so while I’m not crippled, I do have to train and practice with an understanding of the consequences should I dislodge one of the prostheses (artificial hip joint and socket) or wear one or both of them out. A dislocation, I’ve been told, is extremely painful, and once your joint has popped out of socket once, it’s easier to happen again. The second hip replacement, I’ve also been told, is not nearly as strong or functional as the first.
So when I, someday (if ever), test for my 7th degree black belt, I do believe my physical skill level will be high, but nothing at all like it would have been had I not suffered the near-crippling deterioration of both of my hips. Nevertheless, I will arrive at that test in that absolute best shape of my life, all things considered. Anything less would be, in my opinion, a slap in the face to what my teacher taught me about being a black belt.
But for a test of high rank, there must be, in my opinion, an additional set of requirements, beyond physical skills. I would like to suggest that people testing for ranks of 4th dan or higher, bring with them an on-line “Project Portfolio” of their work —and that “work” should be one-half (or more) of the determination of their success or failure in being awarded.
A Project Portfolio would contain all of the activities the tester has applied herself to that serve as an example of how she is using her level of skill and experience to affect the world.
- What programs has this tester designed and initiated that perfectly illustrate what they know and practice?
- Is the martial arts world better because of this person’s contributions?
- Has he or she designed and/or created programs to benefit the international martial arts community and/or the world at large?
- Is their work in peace education, health education, exercise physiology, or in the creation of best practices?
- Has this tester championed any particular subject, such as martial arts history, injury prevention, environmental self-defense, heart disease or any other killer-of-men, and/or any subject that might indicate a level of understanding and awareness indicative of mastery?
Jigoro Kano infiltrated and deeply affected the educational system in Japan and promoted his Judo around the world. Choi Hong Hi took his Taekwondo for one heck of a ride. Morehei Ueshiba left an undeniable mark on the world and is still revered today. Bruce Lee? Yeah. Helio Gracie? Undeniably. Dan Inosanto is a living example of someone who is deeply engaged in the work of the high-ranking master, as is Ernie Reyes, Sr., Jhoon Rhee, Keiko Fukuda (as age 98), the Machado and Gracie families, Bill Wallace, Joe Lewis, Jeff Smith, and __________ (name your favorite martial arts master teachers who have a stunning Project Portfolio of contributions to the arts, here).
Breaking boards, owning profitable schools, hanging out for long enough, being politically connected, being in black belt magazine, and looking tough in photos shouldn’t, I think, be considered in a test for ranks of 4th dan or higher.
High ranking black belts should (and could) be the Jane Goodall’s, the Rosa Park’s, the Wangari Maathai’s, the Samuel Mockbee’s, the Aung San Suu Kyi’s, the Ellie Wiesel’s, and the Thich Nhat Hanh’s of the martial arts world. Our high ranking teachers and leaders should be examples of what years and years of disciplined, focused training DOES for someone; the kind of training thats intention is to bring clarity and empowerment to the practitioner.
As it is today, we have 30 and 40 year old 6th, 7th, 8th, and 9th dans (and, sadly, there’s an organization that’s actually giving out 15th dans and higher —to young people), that have, honestly, not done anything (or even attempting to “do” anything), put in a portfolio of accomplishments, that would speak of any extraordinarily developed skills.
In fact, like the group that is giving out Ph.D. (doctorate) rank to people / applicants who join their “Hall of Fame” association, far too many high ranking black belts are, quite simply, an embarrassment of mediocrity.
Rather than point out the embarrassments of our current “system” (or lack thereof) for high ranking black belt testing, I am working to set an example of one way it could be done, by assembling my own Project Portfolio for my upcoming 7th dan test.
I am currently in my 11th year following my 6th dan test and have logged 40 years of continuous study and practice of the martial arts. But beyond my physical skills (always lacking), I see my writing, my projects, and all of my work off of the mat as part of my “test.” It is meant to serve as one example of how I think the process could/should look. You can see the work in progress (evolving) at www.TomCallos.com.