by Bob Orlando
Yes, they're out -- the annual Yellow Pages promotions. Walking through the 85 or so schools listed in our area, I found no less than: Two ninth dan (ninth degree) black belt masters, four eighth degree black belts, three sevenths, one sixth, and multiple fifths. Not impressed by numbers? Try this. There was also: one Professor, two Grandmasters, three Grand Masters, a Master-Teacher, and one just plain Master. The master category was further divided into: American Master, Certified Master, and an apparently ultimate, The Master. All of these with the usual assortment of Shihans, World Famous, and World Champions.
But, there was one blight on those bright yellow pages -amongst all those highly credentialed luminaries was one school that had -the bare-faced, unmitigated gall to advertise its chief instructor's rank as a third degree black belt. Unbelievable! This guy says he has trained for twenty-six years and yet he is only a third degree black belt? The guy down the street (any street) has been in the martial arts for just ten years and he is already several degrees above this fellow. What gives?
In fairness, some of the titles listed in the yellow pages are legitimate. For example, in some Korean arts, those holding sixth degree black belts and higher are permitted to use the title of master. That aside, there are still too many self-promotions in the arts.
Anyway, being an area resident since 1964, I have had ample opportunity to follow these annual promotions, and it is amazing how fast some of these individuals have moved up. Oh, I'm sure that everyone listed in the phone book can produce a certificate backing up the rank claimed, but some certificates are, like many of today's black belts, less than what they imply.
How much is that black belt in the window?
There are many reasons for this situation, but the upshot of it has been a cheapening of the coveted black belt. A black belt today simply doesn't mean what it used to. It used to be that even a first degree black belt certificate represented between seven and ten years of hard work. Now, some schools advertise that you can receive a black belt in three (eighteen months by mail order). Walk into many commercial martial arts schools today and you will be pressured to sign up for the "Black Belt" program. Pay X-number-of-dollars and in less time than it takes to earn a college degree, you can have your very own black belt.
I am not faulting anyone for wanting to make a decent living teaching martial arts. I am, however, faulting those who flatly and flagrantly sell belts. No wonder so many martial artists (even experienced martial artists) now claim ridiculously high ranks and bloated titles. After giving away (selling) black belts to every Tom, Dick, and Harry, about the only way instructors can distinguish themselves from their students is to claim rank that is beyond their own progeny.
Where will it end? Great Grandmaster? Supreme Grandmaster? Great Great Grandmaster? Sadly, even the late kempo master, William Chow, fell prey to this ugly monster. In the second edition of "Who's Who in American Martial Arts," published in 1985, Chow's rank is listed as fifteenth degree black belt. If anyone deserved recognition for his skill in the martial arts, he certainly did; but his titles of Professor, Grandmaster, and fifteenth degree black belt came about precisely because belts had become so cheap that even his credentials had to be pumped up to be recognized.
The pressure to make everyone equal in our society has also contributed to the erosion of the coveted black belt. Today we are told that everyone can be a black belt -regardless of age or physical ability. The truth is, however, that not everyone can become a black belt. There are a variety of mental and physical conditions that prohibit many from reaching expert level.
For example, karate is defined as "an Oriental art of self defense in which an attacker is disabled by crippling kicks and punches." In reality, an 8-year-old black belt is incapable of delivering such blows. Moreover, the requirement to kick effectively would be a barrier to one confined to a wheel chair. Proficiency in other areas of the art may be well within reach of one so impaired, but black belt level may not. I am not saying that a black belt is based solely on physical skill, it is not. Black belt rank stands for much, much more than just the ability to kick and punch. A black belt, even a first degree black belt, must possess more than technical proficiency. He must also possess a maturity greatly exceeding his skill. A black belt must also have an understanding of the principles employed in his art and be able to pass that knowledge, skill, leadership, and maturity on to others in a precise, clear, and systematic manner. All these things are what make a "black belt" a black belt.
But, back for a moment to our highly credentialed luminaries -- one has to feel sorry for them if they have to carry around so much excess baggage. They can no longer learn from anyone because, after all, a ninth degree grandmaster must have it all locked up, right? How could he possibly learn from any one of lesser rank?
Also, when was the last time some high-ranking master actually do something aside from taking bows in class? (I'm not talking about those who are in their latter years and who have already paid their dues -- I'm talking about those still young enough to train). It seems that once one takes to being called a master, he ceases to train because it may prove embarrassingly tough to live up to his credentials.
How much is pride worth?
Say what you like, but I respect that "third degree black belt" with the twenty-six years of martial arts experience. He received his rank the hard way -- he earned it. He studied under a hard teacher who had high standards, and a third degree black belt from him really meant something. That third degree black belt may never get another degree, but he will continue to learn. His rank (or the lack of it) won't be a hindrance to his growth and, as long as he grows, he will continue to have an art that is alive, vibrant, and of real value -- not in dollars, perhaps; but in pride.
When I think of masters, a few individuals come to mind, but when asked what rank or degree they have, most of them simply reply, "student." Their credentials are often little more than remarks like "I study with so-and-so," (usually someone most of us have never heard of). What should impress us are not ranks and titles, but the fact that real masters are ever students of their art. After decades in the art, these teachers still seek to learn. Teachers like that do not have to proclaim their greatness.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Bob Orlando is a Colorado-based martial arts instructor.