Some of the masters in Japan used to have a saying: “Black belts don’t sweat.” Not only is this an incredibly inaccurate statement, it’s an ignorant one as well. Reaching black belt level is genuinely only the tip of the iceberg and the beginning of one’s in-depth training in the martial arts. My Sensei used to say that passing your black belt test was a way to finally and formally ask your Sensei to teach you karate. That perspective always stuck with me.
But the sweating perspective is one that has been circulated and that I’ve heard on occasion during my time in Japan. What I have found over the years, both in Japan and in Canada, is that advanced students will often have a stigma against students of a lower rank. Especially white belts.
Some schools have an established standard in which green or blue belts will take time to provide introductory instructions to new students and white belts. This is reasonable, since black belts and the head instructor are likely to be smaller in number than lower ranked students. So for the most part, it’s a matter of structuring. Which is fine.
The problem begins when one holds any sort of stigma against lower ranked belts simply for the sake of their inexperience. I’ve seen some advanced belts who have made their feelings clear, “my forms and techniques are way too advanced to be spending time with a white belt…” Terrible, terrible…
I’m reminded of a story that originated out of a school related to my style, in the United States. They put on a seminar and were teaching a variety of techniques and weapons and students could partner up or work alone and learn a little bit from every station. At one point, an older gentleman (I wouldn’t begin to guess at his age) came into the dojo wearing a white belt. He began stretching and warming up, and I noticed a number of younger students chuckling among themselves and making jokes. It seemed the majority of students were of the opinion that the man was too old to be starting karate and that his presence at the afternoon’s class was a waste of time.
We paired off for some light sparring at one point and a green belt was left with the old white belt as a partner. It was almost like one of those scenarios where you get chosen last during a dodgeball game… You could tell the green belt felt pretty confident about his odds and squared off with a smirk in his face.
I won’t bore you with the play-by-play of how the match went, but I will tell you this: the old white belted man kicked the living s&*t out of the green belt and made him yield! We came to find out that the old man was actually a master from Okinawa who had attended the seminar. He had a personal philosophy against the ranking system and chose not to wear a black belt. The look on the green belt’s face was priceless.
The lesson here is that there is always a lesson. That is to say, no matter what rank one holds, you can always learn from someone higher. You can always learn from someone lower. Some of the best lessons I’ve learned have come from training with lower ranked belts. Especially since their lack of experience often provides an unpredictability that we often don’t get, through structured martial arts. In the real world, things won’t always be structured and will rarely be rehearsed. So take the lessons where and when you can get them, and don’t be afraid to give up some of your time to teach when needed. In fact, the martial arts ladder requires it. You only get what you’re willing to give. And don’t forget that at one time or another, you WERE a white belt…
I’ve taken a break from writing about my strange odyssey for the next couple of days, since I’m essentially enjoying some down time and have nothing pertaining to the journey happening until next week. But rest assured I’ll keep you all updated once things get back into the swing of it! ☯