A View of the Purpose, Intention, Relevance, Requirements and Intrinsic Meaning of the Bushido Martial Arts’ Belt Rank Examinations
A series of articles by Sensei Roger Catchlove
Purpose - “A Rite of Passage”
The purpose of examinations in the Martial Arts is not for the student to demonstrate what learnings that they may be capable of reproducing, but it is rather “a rite of passage” in which the examinee, through their preparation for and presentation during, the examination, is judged as to whether they have earnt the right to progress to the next level of the Way in the style which they are practising.
Being granted a black belt, no matter the personal effort and dedication expended in achieving that rank, is not the end point in studying the Martial Arts. It is in fact just a late stage in an apprenticeship (which is usually completed at the Nidan (2nd degree) black belt level) during which the student, as they have progressed through the colour belt stages, has been strengthened and shaped, both physically and mentally, as preparation to attaining a transitory position from which it is possible for them to begin the real journey on their Way to achieving their true potential.
The preparation for and their presentation at, an examination is the means whereby the Karateka clearly reveals the degree of progress that they have reached in each of the three facets of human potential available through dedicated Martial Art training(3), being the Physical, Mental and Spiritual aspects of one’s life, and as to whether they are ready to undertake the next stage of their personal development.
Intention – “Distinguishing a Student’s Progress”
The current feudal system of hierarchically ordering and thereby distinguishing, the rank of each Karate student by the use of symbolic belt colours, was first introduced by the founder of Judo, Jigaro Kano, in 1882.(3)
Other than by the increasing wear and advancing greyness of their once fresh, new, white Gi’s and belts, it had become difficult for Jigaro Kano to recall the individual and, hence, discern the relative progress and ability, of the large number of students in his Kodokan. This method of distinguishing between the individual students, that is, by judging them according to the shabbiness and darkening shade of their belts and uniforms, actually may only have indicated the length of time that a student had been training and wearing their Gi, rather than positively revealing the earned progress, and developing ability, of the student to that point in their training.
Recognising the problem, so as to indicate an individual student’s level of progress through the Art, Jigaro Kano subsequently formalised a system of incrementally darker belt colours to be worn by the students as they achieved their next rank. Up until the rank of Shodan (1st Degree Black Belt), the darker the belt colour achieved, the more advanced and experienced the student. After Shodan, the belt colours granted are gradually become lighter. Interestingly, “Jigaro Kano is the only person to have achieved the rank of Twelfth Dan and was given the title of Shihan – “teachers of teachers.” (3)
In our style, Bushido Martial Arts, which is directly descended from the GoJu Kai Karate system introduced to Australia by Tino Ceberano in 1966 and further developed into an eclectic freestyle by Kyoshi Sama Bob Jones (Zen Do Kai, 1970), as well as Kyoshi Gary McCrae (Kin Bushi Ryu, 1990) and now our Head Instructor, Renshi Anthony Hudson (Bushido Martial Arts, January 2009), we have adopted the grading levels and belt colours described below. Between these levels, a Bushido Martial Arts practitioner may receive a probationary promotion (usually denoted by granting tips of the next rank on a coloured belt or an “Ho” suffix to the next Dan rank) to the next higher rank before a formal examination for that next level is undertaken.
Relevance – “Providing a Structured Path”
The relevance of an examination is that the training curriculum provides an organised structure whereby the student - and their teachers – can judge the student’s progress in all of the three major elements of the Martial Arts. Those elements are the Physical, Mental and Spiritual levels of personal advancement along the Way. It is not surprising that the further along the way that one is advanced, the more difficult it becomes for one’s peers to define as to how far one has progressed through the three elements of the Way.
The body of knowledge known as the Martial Arts is so broad and deep, that a student could randomly follow many of the esoteric paths and opportunities within the Arts and may not, or may, reach their personal potential. With a structured curriculum and recognisable periods of testing, the practising Martial Artist is guided on their path along the Way. Note that the Martial Arts is just one of many vehicles by which such potential may be reached.
It is a fact, that in the preparation that is required and performed, by the examination aspirant in anticipation of the presentation for each level, is the true revelation as to whether the aspirant has reached the level and is worthy, of being acknowledged as having incrementally advanced to their next level in the three elements of human endeavour.
As a student progresses, it is usually true that their personal actions and demeanour, and more revealingly, the presence, presentation and poise of their students, will indicate to the knowing observer the truth of the student’s advancement through the three levels of personal development.
The remainder of this article will be available in "Requirements and Intrinsic Meaning of Each Level of Examination - Part 1" and "Requirements and Intrinsic Meaning of Each Level of Examination - Part 2" to be published in the coming weeks.
(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