By now several of you have heard me say that in Karate Black Belt is the beginning of the journey, or you don’t really have a rank until Black Belt. Well I thought that it was high time that I explained that concept.
For starters, lets look at the concept very literally.
In traditional karate there are two types of “rank” that a student can have. There are “kyu” (prounouced key-ew) and there are “dan” (pronounced don). Kyu translates to mean grade, similar in concept to grades achieve in primary school. Dan translates as grade, level or rank. In our system of grading Kyu count down from 10 to 1 with the lower number signifying the higher seniority. It is similar to the way that in the military a 1st lieutenant is senior to a 2nd Lieutenant.
Dan ranks go up from 1 – 10. Again the corollary can be made to the military in that a 4 star general is senior to a 1 star general. When a student reaches black belt they are called a shodan (sho -don) or literally a person of the first rank. In our system is not until 2nd degree black belt, or nidan (knee – don) that a student has learned the entirety of our basic curriculum. Then it is not until 3rd degree that a student is of sufficient seniority to promote another person to Black Belt.
Conceptually, the the premise is that it takes a person several years (until they reach black belt) to put their mind, body and spirit into a condition where they can apply their basic principles effectively. Techniques at this point, cease to be a matter of thought and mechanical action and start to become a matter of reflex. It is at this point that the student has sufficient foundation to learn to apply the techniques and principles that they have been practicing for the years leading up to this point. Additionally, it is at this time that the student begins to appreciate the often dangerous potential that their skills have. With this realization comes a new level of responsibility and (hopefully) humility on the part of the student.
A dedicated student will from this point, spend the rest of their lives refining their skills, and themselves as an individual. The hope is that one day you reach the elusive concept of mastery. The mastery we seek thought goes far beyond martial skill. It is a total mastery of self. It is for this reason that the highest ranking person in our system is regarded as Hanshi (Han – She), or model person (gentlemen, or samurai). Though we at times Americanize this title to mean “grandmaster.” The true meaning is far deeper.
Interesting thing is most Hanshi will tell you that reaching that level of personal proficiency (9th or 10th degree black belt) returns them to a single undeniable notion…They are still as student. So in someways the beginning (10th kyu) and the end (10th dan) are endlessly linked in the journey of the student. It is for this reason that you will never here me say “we are a black belt school.” We strive to be something much more than that.