Meaning of Black Belt Ranks

Requirements and Intrinsic Meaning of Each Level of Examination - Part 2

Part of a series of articles by Sensei Roger Catchlove

First Degree Black - Shodan, “Completion of the First Step, The Fledgling Warrior is Apparent”

The privilege of the first formal opportunity allowing the student self expression through the mandatory essay and free form Katas (empty hand and Bo), as well as choreographing and presenting their own Yakzus with prescribed weapons, are now offered to the student. This first step into creative self expression along their Martial Arts’ path, provides the opportunity for the student, the partially, nearly formed warrior, to demonstrate their potential to contribute to the body of knowledge which is the supporting foundation of the Martial Arts.

This is an opportunity for the neophyte black belt to display an early familiarity and facility, with weapons, used in both attack and defence, and is a recognisable introduction to the more technical, broader understanding of weapon requirements which will be necessary to pass the 4th Degree - Yondan examination.

At this level the student, through their closely observed personal preparation and the public presentation of their essay and freeform Kata at the examination, should be revealing the cognitive reasoning and independence of decisive thought and action which is the hall mark of an emerging teacher. The ability to independently develop and communicate their personal understanding of their progress through and contribution to, the Martial Arts, should now be apparent. All movements, stances, postures, focus and appropriate attitude should be performed to a high degree.

After approximately 4 years of energetic, consistent, application to their training, the enthusiastic committed Karateka should now have the self confidence to be able to eloquently express their progress through, their understanding of, as well as their role and place in, the Martial Arts by designing and comprehensively explaining their own Mon (badge). They may begin at this point to publicly discuss and present their view on various matters regarding the Style and their personal vision for how the style can develop and improve. The principles of the Style and the learnt techniques should be coming together in the practitioner and the way in which they present themselves.

It may be that at around this time, the student, particularly if they are actively involved in teaching as well as running their own Dojo, could be granted the right to wear the Phoenix Pendant as a sign that they have now been unreservedly accepted as a member of the Bushido Martial Art’s family. The acceptance of the Phoenix Pendant is an indication by the recipient that they have the interests of the BMA family, the advancement and protection of the lower ranks, as well as the expansion of the BMA Style at heart and are committed, as role models, to expanding the role of the Style in the general community.(3)

Learning to move in a balanced way through the low, strong, elegant, Zenkutsu Dachi (Dragon Stance) while using crushing strikes, tearing pulls, strong kicks and whipping turns is the main element of Saifa (Destroying Strikes or “Lightning Strikes Twice), the fifth of the traditional forms in our style. It also teaches that striking the same target twice in succession might be an appropriate strategy in destroying an opponent.

The first proscribed weapons Kata, performed with a simple staff (Bo), is the introductory step for a student to begin their own exploration of traditional weaponry.

Mind and body are now mostly in accord. (2)

You are now a Kengo (Ken = matter, case, go = language/word = learning to verbalise and communicate, ergo: finding your voice (3)

Second Degree Black - Nidan, “ The step to the next level, the warrior is formed, revealed and is ready to be transformed from a student"

After this, the most important of all the examinations, the apprenticeship is over and the student is gone. The chrysalid warrior, by triumphing over the ordeal of extreme physical exhaustion, will complete the transition to emerge finally as formed and ready to be independent in thought and action. The new warrior is ready to become a teacher and to independently develop their own progress in the Way.

It is at this point in the Way of a Martial Artist that, if they have understood and performed to, the full depth of the intrinsic meaning of the examination, they can recreate themselves as a newly formed Warrior. The student is gone, the apprenticeship is over. Some think that the apprenticeship is concluded with completion of the Shodan examination - not true! If performed properly and with true understanding, the ordeal of the Nidan examination becomes the rite of passage through which the new Warrior is now fully ready, and has the obligation, to think and act for themselves and to develop their own ideas. They are now ready and have the obligation, to contribute to the body of Martial Arts’ knowledge AND to impart that knowledge to their students.

If they have performed the examination properly, with complete integrity and true regard to its fundamental intention, a new Nidan examinee will have deservedly earn't the right to have their name embroidered on their fighting rank belt as an illustration of their newly achieved state and status.

Because of the overriding need to be able to achieve mental dominance over themselves, which will be necessary to take the student beyond their physical limitations, this is the most important and hence, should be the most difficult, examination!

It is likely that the student will have been training consistently, frequently and with increasing commitment and intensity, for about 6 years before they will be considered as ready to attempt this ordeal.

Originally descended from Mas Oyama’s Kyokushinkai’s bare knuckled, full contact, brutal One Hundred Man Kumite grading (only 13 successful gradees to date!)(3), for the Nidan examination to be properly undertaken, a huge physical and mental commitment is required from the student in this examination.

The purpose of this examination is to provide the applicant with the opportunity to take themselves beyond their known and until this point, accepted, physical and mental levels of strength, focus, endurance and purpose to unsuspected levels.

To truly benefit from the intention of this grading, the participant must reach and then exceed, through the application of their own internal mental, spiritual and internal resources of self, the limits of their hitherto known level of endurance and must, with the assistance of their colleagues, drive themselves well beyond the point of physical and mental exhaustion so that they can symbolically die and then, by their own efforts, be reborn as a new being, much more capable than they were in their recent past form. They are now self supporting, self thinking martial artists, capable of becoming teachers. By extending or overcoming their self imposed barriers of exhaustion, they reach and can experience the state of functioning known as “no mind – no thought”. They need to explode through their physical barriers to the new, higher physical and mental realm of understanding of themselves and their role in life.

In acknowledgement of its “One Hundred Man Kumite” full contact, fighting origins, the preferred vehicle for this examination is the 30 by 2 minute rounds of controlled contact sparring - 75% of which rounds the examinee should be judged to “win” - against fresh opponents of equal or higher rank. The purpose of the examination (to triumph beyond imposed exhaustion) could also be achieved by kicking and punching bags, performing continuous Katas or simply doing push-ups, sit-ups or running nonstop for an hour or more.

It should be noted that the use of the sparring medium clearly permits the examiner to better determine as to whether the examinee reaches and overcomes the point of exhaustion. This can be seen by the examiner through the level of consistency of activity, skill, control, strategy and spirit which the examinee demonstrates throughout the examination.

Making additional use of the deep low stances previously learnt, the sixth traditional form, Sanseiru (Thirty six or Eye of the Tornado) is a Kata representing one fighting against taller opponents. It features a sequence of 27 continuous techniques performed while circling on a stationary left foot and overcoming opponents threatening from all directions.

The student’s presentation of the required freeform Kata should show elements of originality and an understanding of matters beyond those actually required at this grading level. In other words, one’s own research, thinking and original contribution to the martial arts should be emerging and becoming clearly apparent at his point.

The Nidan examination is the most important examination in a student’s progress– if you stop at the level of being presented with your black belt - Shodan, then you haven’t understood the purpose of the Way.

Note: - it is possible to do this examination without achieving, reaching or understanding its purpose – which is to realise yourself by breaking out of the old self and emerging as a new being/warrior/ teacher/student. This would not be a successful outcome. This presentation is not about fitness and pacing oneself appropriately through the bouts of sparring. It is about destroying oneself and being reborn anew from the remnants of that destruction. Just as the subject of our badge and pendant, the mythological Phoenix did.

It may be that one could be promoted to the teaching rank of Dai Sempai (Senior Instructor or mentor, that is one who guides other students through the Sensei’s and higher rank’s, teachings (3) ) around this time of one’s progression in the Arts.

The practitioner’s mind and body are now often moving together without the body always being driven by conscious thought – occasional prolonged episodes of “Mushi” (no mind, unthinking eloquence/elegance) actions and reactions can occur.

The mind does not abide in any one place – this is called the “immovable wisdom” (2, pg 20)

Note: In this context the mind is moving without stopping on any one thought and is flowing in all directions with the immovable wisdom of not being distracted from is task.

You are now a Metsumidan (Metsu = ruin, mi = single person, dan = level, grade = person of fighting level, ergo: protector of the system.(3)

Third Dan Grading - Sandan, “The Mirror Reflection of Self through one’s Students”

After approximately 8 years of training and teaching under the supervision and instruction of their own teachers, the student should now be able to realise that their future advancement and progress in the Way requires more than just repetitive, arduous, physical and mental exercise. Such activity still has its place in the student’s personal training schedule but they will now be thinking about new and better ways to approach their involvement in the Martial Arts. This is a natural development as each individual is physically different and they will also have differing views and attitudes to the facets of learning and experience that they have had presented to them as compared to their peers (3). This enquiring, exploring, experimenting, implementing state of mind is what is required to make them the teacher that they should have been for the last few years. It is the time by which the student should have formulated, consolidated, understood and can articulate their own ideas, principles and techniques for the elucidation of their own students and for the advancement of the style that they are practising.

The Sandan (3rd Dan) examination is a presentation, a proscribed rite of passage, in which the Karateka has the opportunity to show, through their students, how far they, the Karateka and the students, have progressed in their respective journeys along the Way. The proficiency and status of the Martial Artist practitioner is not designated by the colour of the belt they wear; but rather by the proficiency and understanding demonstrated by the practitioner’s students! In this context, for us, Sandan means the, ‘Mirror reflection of self through students”. It means that you are not presenting yourself, but your students are, by their conduct and actions, are mirroring and representing you, so that the observer can understand and know you through what they see of the students!!

In this examination, through the presentation of the Dan Kata and through the choreographed Delta simulating repelling multiple attackers, with all the moves based on the moves in the previously presented Kata, the presenter demonstrates not only the skill, elegance and presence of their assisting students, but the fact that they have planned methodically and systematically, leading the small group of students for some months. All fine traits that the efficient, thoughtful warrior should possess. The presented freeform Kata, the publicly read essay and the proudly described and displayed Mon should be balanced and demonstrate the theme of the presenter’s existence as a Warrior and should clearly and unambiguously reveal the presenter’s unique contribution to the Style – be it an original thought, an original revelation about themselves or the style or even an original movement or technique - all interwoven as one coherent whole, self supporting and understood by the interested observer. (4)

If the student can present this symbiotic three part whole, then they will demonstrate that they are truly ready for the examination and their step into self sufficiency in the Arts, and probably have been so for some time. (4)

The seventh traditional form, Seisan ( “Thirteen” or “Wrath of the Python”) is a strongly performed, meditative Kata in which the proponent is deemed to be defending against 3-5 opponents who are all within close range and are grabbing at the defender. Slow trapping movements are combined with strong, swift strikes (of a snake), thrusting kicks and fast, lunging punches.

By this stage, it may be that the practitioner is, or is about to be, promoted to the teaching rank of, a Sensei (“Teacher” – or literally, “Sen = Superior being”, sei = at winning beforehand”(3)) in the Arts and thereby has the right to wear the teaching rank insignia of a Red Gi top and black Gi pants with 3 red stripes.

The mind is now ready to proceed to places outside the Artist’s body and to be revealed by one’s actions and by the actions of one’s students.

You are now a Monjin (Mon = gate, jin = person, = person at the gate or crossroads. ergo: finding your own path.


(1) Inazo Nitobe, Bushido, The classic Portrait of Samurai Martial Culture

(2) Takuan Soho, The Unfettered Mind, Writings of the Zen Master to the Sword Master

(3) Kyoshi Dean Woodhams, Traditions of ZDK 1988

(4) Sensei Roland Winter, ZDK Sydney, frequent email conversations over the last 5 years


Sensei Heinrich Hofer

Kyoshi Gary McRae

Renshi Anthony Hudson

Sensei Renee Romeo