Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Lessons in Budo - Humility

The last couple weeks have been busy with belt grading at our dojo.

Just as with belts themselves, I have mixed feelings on formal testing.  Some are positive, some are negative.

It’s done for a while, likely quite a while.  My Sensei doesn’t believe in rapid ascension through the ranks.  It occurs to me that part of the journey with him is that of humility.  He decides when, and if, people test for a belt, and there is no automatic time frame or schedule.  This may not be the best business model for profit, but then again, he isn’t in it for the money.  Years ago, he moved away from having a commercial dojo.  He now has a small group of dedicated students and he teaches on his terms, which is fine with us lucky enough to call him Sensei.  While we are associated, or friends of, larger schools, his standards are his and his alone, and they’re high.

Personally, I wouldn’t have it any other way.  You work for it, through blood, sweat and tears.  No student in our dojo ever need feel that they haven’t earned a ranking.

I share my teacher’s belief that your motivation shouldn’t be a ‘shiny new belt’.  In fact, we trained with no belt colour for the first couple of years when I returned to him.  It wasn’t until he decided to take on a few select students that rankings of any sort were added.

Here’s the conflict – from time to time students do want to be recognized for their study.  It’s really a non issue while we’re actually in our dojo, but that little hint of ego (is it ego?) can pop up when visiting other schools or attending seminars or demonstrations.

I’ve had the opportunity to attend quite a few great seminars or events with martial artists from a variety of different styles and schools.  It doesn’t take long to get to know the ‘regulars’.  From personal observation, I’ve seen a few of these students who have a higher belt each time I see them. 

I’ve seen one martial artist who I met as a white belt that has climbed 6 belt colours (in his belt system) since the last time our Sensei did a grading.  This isn’t to suggest that he didn’t deserve them or work hard for them (we are talking years here), but it’s interesting none the less.

Some students can have trouble dealing with this situation, feeling that they ‘deserve’ the next level.  They would probably not last in our dojo. 

There are valuable lessons to be learned here, such as humility as previously mentioned, and patience, and discipline.  

One of my loftier goals is to never be touched by ego.  While I aspire to be completely free of any desire for the next level, I wouldn’t be completely honest if I didn’t say that, over the years, on occasion, I’ve coveted the next level, rank or designation.      

There are a couple reasons:

The first one I’m ok with.  Having a visual indication of experience automatically puts you ‘at the grown up’s table’.  In mixed groups, you are usually paired by belt or dan groupings.  It’s always a pleasure to train with experienced people from different styles.  You can learn just as much from working with newer people, mind you, but in some situations, (such as a seminar) working with similar ranks can maximize your learning while minimizing the chances of unintentional injuries.  Simply put, you can go harder and faster in the short time you are there.

The second isn’t quite as altruistic.  Ego can rear its ugly little head from time to time.  While I think people naturally like to receive praise or be recognized for their accomplishments, it should be by your skill level and attitude, not by the colour of your belt.

I don’t know if I’ll ever completely banish any inkling of ego, but I am working on it.  I know this is part of my journey.  It’s one of the main reasons that I ditched any and all belts from my meandering martial journey and started over when I re-connected with my Sensei several years ago.

There will likely not be another grading in our dojo for several years.  I’m ok with this. It keeps ego at bay, teaches humility and patience, and removes the pressure and distractions of prepping for a test.

This style or timeframe isn’t for everyone, and it’s not the only way to go.  Some schools or styles promote their students more quickly than others.  The requirements of the teacher for different levels can vary greatly.  Some schools may promote to black belt in two or three years of dedicated study, some may require ten or more at minimum.  Neither is necessarily right or wrong, they’re just different approaches.  As long as you’re always striving to do better and to keep learning, it probably doesn’t really matter how long it took you to get to a certain 'recognized' level.

At the end of the day, it only really matters what you think and what you know.  If you are not confident that you can apply what you’ve learned in a real life situation or violent encounter, it doesn’t matter one bit what colour your belt is.  Ideally, this should be the only measure of success or progression that you need.  In reality, this is often easier said than done. 

I may post soon on some of my thoughts on the actual grading, but for now, I’ll let my body keep recovering from the pounding it took…

Food for thought.

Train well with a beginners mind. 


  1. I've thought a lot about my belts and while I tend to wax and wane on this, I am of the general mind that I would rather wear my white belt until I am given (read: EARNED) my black belt than go through all the colors. They're a nice mile marker, sure, but they are a distraction.

    Besides, if I wear the colors of a beginner, it may just help me keep the mind of a beginner, too.


  2. I guess you could say I'm a proud person; when I first started Jitsu in September I had an issue with Rei(ing) to my Sensei and did it simply because I was told to and everyone else did. Something in my mind questioned it but the more I trained the more it became genuine

    As for belts, we are graded externally so it's about performing on the day as the grading Sensei is unlikely to have seen any of your Jitsu before. My own Sensei well and trully put me through my paces for green and I thoroughly know I deserved to make it to the We have more belts than your system; I have greengrading (although it's external we have to have permission from our own Sensei to attend). Getting my green belt meant a lot to me, proof to myself how far I've come.

    I'm green now but there are two more before dark blue which are a lot more widely spaced than the first few. I train at a lot of clubs and regional events so it's good to be able to train with people knowing how hard you can train with them but also because they know how hard they can go on you.


  3. This question about belts is never far from most martial artist's minds, which ever side of the fence they fall on! Apart from a few exceptions I don't think it's possible to convince most beginners (i.e kyu graders) that belts are not important. It takes the martial arts maturity of a black belt (or kyu grader of great longevity!) to understand that belts are not really important and actually get in the way of good training. However, we all start as beginners so it is part of the journey everyone has to go through at their own pace - you can't put a 'black belts' head on a 'kyu graders' shoulders! I call this the black belt paradox - you need to achieve the black belt to realise that you don't need it (or any of the belts that came before it)! To deny kyu graders the chance to work through their belt system though may be counter-productive. Most students need that 'prop' of acquiring ranks to keep them motivated to continue training until they reach a level of understanding about their art to realise it's not so important. I think the attrition rate would be much higher than it already is and we would lose many a person who has the potential to be a superb martial artist once they reach the right level of maturity and understanding.

    Though I appreciate the arguments against the coloured belt system I still think it has value for most students, so it still gets my vote!

    1. Sue,

      About the rate of attrition, I think you're right. Going back to my point before, belts can be useful if they serve as just a mile marker (or kilometer, for you!).

      As a former runner I can tell you that it was always easier to run a route if i knew how far it was. Same thing applies to MA training, I think.

  4. Brett,

    I like thinking of the belts as mile markers. I, too, am tempted to forget about colored belts altogether from time to time. They can serve as a way to keep yourself in check though. A reminder that while you've progressed, there is still much to learn. Thanks.


    I found your comment interesting about bowing. It does show that there is more to it than might initially meet the eye. I've met a few people that felt bowing was a subservient act. I've felt it is a sign of respect for those who have come before you, and for those who know a lot more than me.

    My Sensei runs the testing, but the grading, or scoring, is done by a few of his trusted black belts. Your system seems to have even more separation between teacher and those grading, but I support having different sets of eyes judge your progress.

    By the way, green is a significant accomplishment, so congratulations on your progress. I hope your training continues to go well. Thanks for commenting.


    This paradox has always fascinated me. You need to have it to know you don't need it.

    There are many good points about the belt system. I think you are spot on about students needing to have that 'prop'. Especially with younger martial artists. There's nothing wrong with a visual 'nod' to your experience, as long as it's tempered with a degree of maturity and perspective. I think you've really hit the nail on the head about maturity. Belts are a great mile marker, as Brett says, but they certainly don't always tell the whole story.

    Keeping students interested until they get some martial maturity is important for the longevity of the arts. If colored belts help get students there, I guess that's a good thing.

    Thanks everyone for the comments.

  5. An understanding of the history of the kyu-dan grading and belt system puts the issue in perspective, and also supports what has been said to a large degree above.

    Kano introduced the black belt. Until then, everyone wore white, reflecting Brett's comment. The coloured kyu belt system was introduced by a Japanese jujutsuka/judoka who emigrated to France. This was one of his introductions. He found/thought that Western students needed a symbol of their progress and so introduced the kyu grades with different coloured belts. This methodology has since been adopted by many other unrelated martial arts.

    There is obviously a lot of merit to the many arguments that are put up in support or against the belt/grading system. That is why I think each and every grading system needs to be assessed on its own merits to see what those grades 'mean' as the meaning is different for each martial art and martial art school.

    Keep up with the meditations that forces people to think about what they are doing.

  6. John,

    I didn't really get into the history of the colored belt system, so thanks for the snapshot on how it came into being. I always liked the competing theory that originally everyone had a white belt, and after many years of training, it eventually went black from time, sweat, dirt etc. Not sure it's accurate historically, but I like it none the less.

    Knowing what a grade 'means' is quite important. Does it refer to self defense ability or covering sections of a curriculum, or learning certain katas? These things do matter. Good points. Thanks.

  7. Journeyman: I think the community/dojo/organization sets the lesson in humility. I feel fortunate to be part of an organization that promotes sharing of information without the ego. The focus is on the training. This past weekend was our Annual Training seminar. There were people on the floor with 30, 40 or more years of training. It puts things in perspective...

  8. Michele,

    You are lucky to be part of that type of community, as am I.

    And yes, it's always been humbling when I've shared the mats with masters who have been training for longer than I've been alive. It's always a great shot of perspective. Just when I think I'm getting pretty good, I realize I've just scratched the surface.

    I hope your annual training seminar was a great time.

  9. i see many good points being mentioned here about the pros and cons of a belt. one important point you seem to forget (my sensei stresses this a lot) is that a belt is also a way for other people to see your degree and by that degree they can judge how far they can go on you and how far they can let you go on them.

    when sparring, if a green belt is wearing his white belt and he is sparring against a yellow belt, the yellow belt may be misguided by the belt of his opponent and this may result in injuries.

  10. Waldomarek,

    Your point is not lost on me. I used the analogy of sitting at the grown ups table to me that you get grouped with people of similar skill sets, which allows just want you mentioned. You raise a good point that it isn't just for you to enjoy the color of your belt, it is so others can judge your abilities or tolerance levels.

    It also does serve to assist newer members in understanding what it takes to get to a certain level and to be satisfied with their own progression (at times).


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