Ok. So if you know me at all, or have read many of the things I've written, you know that one of my serious gripes about Asian martial arts (and their western copies) is the custom of "ranking" or awarding level-markers to practitioners. I'm not going to spend too much space in this article discussing the carrot-on-a-stick principle, the love of rankings as a japanese cultural phenomenon, or my opinions about the mental health of those who place too much importance on what belt they wear. I do plan to discuss a particular philosophy of meaning as it applies to martial arts ranks. Before I get on a roll here, I would like to direct your attention to this belt-related article at 24fc. Let me also point out that the irony of me downplaying the importance of belt rank in an article I have written about that very subject does not escape me (and for the record, I have yet to make any claims to mental health on this web site). I think belt ranks have exactly the meaning and importance that we ascribe to them. I tend to take a semiotic view of meaning and a transactional view of value, so don't expect for a second that this article is going to try and analyze the concept of ranking in some sort of rational vacuum. Martial arts are founded in competition - they are about combat (internal and external). Anyone who tries to tell you differently is trying to get you to enroll your child in his McDojo. Competitiveness is pervasive in the martial arts world. The kinds of people who do this sort of thing (develop and test their physical abilities against opposing parties) are competitive by nature, though some may deny it. I used to believe that I was not competitive, but I have since realized that I was merely fooling myself. I am competitive - just not when it comes to fighting ability or belt rank. I can jump and shout all day long that belts are not a big deal, but the fact is very clear that a great many martial artists care a great deal about the issues surrounding belts and rankings. Thus, belt rank is an issue of great importance, by definition. So belt rank is important. There is no denying it. It may not be very important to you, or you may not want anybody to know how important it really is to you, but it is important, and understanding this does matter to you. With that out of the way, we can turn to what belt ranks actually mean. This will be a much more difficult exploration.

Belt Equivalence Concepts

One popular notion of the meanings of various belts is the idea that the rank of shodan is akin to a bachelor's degree from a university. The argument goes that the four years of traditional post-secondary education are thought of as preparation for entering the workforce. This is supposed to be roughly equivalent to the idea that a shodan will have basically learned the technical curriculum of a martial art.

I have also seen the comparison stretched to suggest that higher degrees of black belt may be likened to graduate studies. I can only hope that this is intended as a joke. Though I have yet to participate in any graduate-level studies in university, I know a lot of extremely "educated" people, and I do not consider my relatively high rank in Taido to be any kind of match-up to that level.

Though martial art grading syllabi often require "research" or some kind of "thesis," close examination reveals that the actual requirements are very light. For shodan and 2dan, the world-standard Taido examination requires the applicant to answer 5 fill-in-the-blank questions. For 3dan, the requirement is a 3 to 5 page paper on the topic of "Taido." I wrote five page papers on more specific topics in high school. Yet, this "academic requirement" is one justification for exalting higher belt ranks.

I would suggest that, if one were truly serious about drawing a comparison between martial arts education and standard western academia, the analogy receive a thorough overhaul. I say that reaching shodan does not require anywhere near the amount of work or learning we expect of college graduates. I would place shodan as a high school graduate.

We could look at it this way:

White belt is like kindergarten. You learn the rules. You get indoctrinated into the group. You figure out what is expected. You move around a little bit, but you still can't really read or work with numbers too well.

Purple belt would be the primary school of martial art education. You learn the basics and simple combinations. You build vocabulary. You gain core competencies and study skills.

Green belt is junior high. Here you start to have a little more autonomy in your training, but more is expected of you. There is more sense of competition among classmates. Classes are harder. Tests are harder. You realize that it is very possible to fail your next grading.

In high school, you have to demonstrate that you have learned all the stuff the school system has told you to learn. Brown belts must do the same if they wish to reach black belt level. Upon graduation, many students get jobs at the video store. Upon reaching shodan, many martial artists cease to practice.

I'll suggest that shodan is like freshman year of college in that students have to learn how to teach themselves. Perhaps 2dan and 3dan could be seen to represent the remaining three university years, such that reaching 4dan would equal a college degree (in a very figurative sense). If actual research were presented, I would have no problem calling 5dan a master's and 7dan a doctorate in that martial art.

Actually, scratch that

Looking back over those last few paragraphs, I still believe the comparison to be really, really limp. An academic education requires codified and objective standards to be met. Furthermore, grades are awarded. Graduating high school with a 2.0 average does not guarantee admission to college. Graduating college with a BA in comparative religion will not do much to land a steady job (nor will a PhD in astrophysics, in case you were curious).

In the martial arts, a black belt is a black belt. We don't qualify black belts based on their grades at the time of promotion (though perhaps we should). Would it be ridiculous to suggest that a 2dan with a 4.0 outranks a 4dan that barely passed his last exam with a D? Maybe it would, but we could easily see a student failing to reach brown belt because he couldn't pass punching.

Another thing we don't do is specify someone as a 3dan in sparring or a shodan in basics. Martial art belt ranks are supposed to be comprehensive (though they seldom are) in the scope of expertise they signify. I often hear martial artists talking about their senior instructors in terms of being good at one aspect but not another. Why don't we just go ahead and specify the rank to a particular skill? My guess is because it would destroy the hierarchy our egos demand.

For the above reasons, I have to say the analogy to any real educational system (designed by trained educators and tested by objective third-parties such as prospective employers) is seriously lacking. However, I wouldn't mind using a system that made use of letter grades, subject concentrations, objective standards, and verifiable research. Under such a system, my transcript might look something like this:

  • Date passed 4dan: 10/2004
  • Cumulative Grade Point Average: 3.3
  • Major course of study: Education, with concentration in Taido Theory
  • Minor course of study: Hokei

Of course, this transcript doesn't show that I barely passed my sparring requirement, still can't do shajogeri worth a damn, have a knack for pissing off my instructor, was the founder and head instructor of my own Taido club, and have participated in several "study abroad" programs. Nor does it include a list of publications or shit-lists I've landed in, but I don't think it's anything to worry about - somehow, I doubt if the majority of the Taido community is going to go for this system.

What is involved?

I feel we should attempt to relate the meaning of each level to the kinds of things we expect of people at those levels, or possibly to the kinds of things we expect of people prior to achieving that level. This means we will look at what students do at a particular belt rank. As one of my poetry professors once told me: adjectives describe reality; verbs define it.

Shu, Ha, Ri

The traditional Japanese view of the educational process works through three stages:

  • Obey (shu) - beginner-level.
  • Adapt (ha) - advanced-student level.
  • Break (ri) - mastery.

Shu, ha, and ri are said to mean obedience, divergence, and transcendence, respectively. A more accurate translation would be: follow, break, separate. For an in-depth discussion of shu, ha, and ri, see (once again) 24fc.

In a nutshell, the idea is that a student begins by doing as the instructor says to do. Eventually, he knows enough to make small adjustments for his own purposes. He goes from copying to adapting. Beyond a certain level, the student will have have learned all he is capable of learning from someone else, and he will have to teach himself. At this point, the student leaves his instructor and goes off to learn the lessons that will make him a master in his own right.

"Shu, ha, and ri" sounds nice and poetic. It would be great if things actually worked that way. After spending three years as a school teacher in Japan and as a member of a Japanese Taido dojo, let me give you a better description of the process:

obey, copy, obey, copy...

it goes on like that for a very long time. Eventually, a small percentage of students get to a point where they may: think, and try something new. The student will then: seek approval from his instructors. If they do approve, he will continue to obey. If they do not, the student has the option to: leave. Whichever path the student takes at this point, there is a good likelihood that he will then: teach, either as a representative of his own teacher (whom he will continue to obey), or as the leader of a new organization. In either case, he will expect his own students to obey and copy him.

Traditional Western Approach

In the west, we have a different terms for this process: indoctrination, memorization, practice, application, which would be roughly equivalent to the school analogy I gave above (primary, junior, secondary, university). I mention it again only for the purpose of comparison to the shu, ha, ri idea. Though focussing on what the student actually does at each level this time around, I still don't see this way of looking at belt ranks as holding much water unless some very concrete changes are made to the way we administer gradings.

The Meaning of Meaning (or, what meaning means to me)

To come back to my earlier statement about value being transactional, my belief is that personal meaning of an object is tied to what one does to acquire that object. If one would willingly trade $10,000 for a Rolex, that watch means $10,000 to that person. If one believes that having a Rolex will allow him to sleep with beautiful women and impress other men, that watch means sex and power. The important questions surrounding meaning are:

  1. What would you do to acquire the thing?
  2. How do you expect to benefit by acquisition of the thing?

These two vital questions are just as true for objects (or situations) that we do not believe we are capable of acquiring, as well as those we have long-since acquired. With regard to belt ranking, we could sum it up by asking:

What are the requirements, responsibilities, and privileges associated with this level?

Looking at these factors scientifically would perhaps allow us greater understanding of why so many martial artists get their proverbial panties in a wad over belts. (Un?)fortunately for us, such subjective questions are outside the realm of science. The best we can hope to do is keep these subjective factors in mind when we think about belt rank issues, realizing that objective comparisons are not going to be attainable.

This is Not a Competition

So, let's all get over ourselves. Martial arts are inherently individual sports. There is a social aspect to being a member of a dojo, but the actual practice is personal. In order to get the most out of our practice, I believe that we all need to spend less time comparing ourselves to others and a lot more time exploring our own experiences. Competition is an inherent part of that process, but the overall goal is not competitive in and of itself.

Instead of all this focus on requirements, responsibilities, and privileges (ranking and what they mean to us), we could all benefit from viewing our practice as a gateway to greater self-awareness and actualization. The irony is that, as we improve ourselves and our abilities form the inside out, we meet all of the external signifiers naturally and effortlessly. We also find greater joy in what we do. Finding this peace makes it difficult to be concerned with what other people say and do.

Looking at things this way, I suggest that ,if we're not going to be rigorous about it, let's just drop the belts. There's nothing to be afraid of. People can still tell who's good and who knows what he or she is talking about. Bullshit stinks in any form, but people will always know the genuine article when they see it. Talented martial artists and skillful teachers needn't fear a lack of credential. Only the charlatans have anything to lose by relinquishing their fancy uniforms, titles, and stripy belts.

As instructors, the only thing we really have to lose is our integrity.