When I started one of my latest continuing educations a few years ago, it was in a dojo, “a place to learn,” and in our dojo–like most American dojos–there is a belt system. Our dojo, Thousand Waves, has a large and wonderful youth program where hundreds of youth learn Seido.
In addition, dozens of adults with disabilities train through TW’s adapted program and dozens of non-martial artists come to learn self-defense skills through the dojos programs. In each of these, gauging competency is important, as is being rewarded for it. So, we have belts.
While I appreciate the belt system–really, I need it for different reasons–there were no belts in traditional Japanese karate. I like that because participating in martial arts is a means of pursuing integration of my physical, spiritual, and mental strength. Karate, for me, isn’t about belts but practice.
Now, the belts serve a purpose. They allow me to go through our structured curriculum at my pace, assessing my own needs. The curriculum builds in ways for me to know when I’m ready to test for a belt. But, by then, I’m not testing for a belt. I’m receiving a belt, but I’m testing to assess my effort and my practice to a point.
I read once that in the earliest Japanese arts, white belts were the only belts, that they weren’t associated with ranking in the earliest martial traditions, and that the longer a student wore that white belt, the dirtier it became. The belt aged as the artist did. By tradition, martial artists clean our gi’s, the outfits we train in, but not our belts. Your belt contains your energy, your effort, and your history with the art.
You never wash it or otherwise disrespect it because you’d be disrespecting your energy, effort, and history. It’s a part of the practice, a part of the way you learn to discipline yourself, respect yourself, and develop your art. I call this spiritual work.
The belt, then, gets dirty with use. Folding in a bag, tying it and tightening it around your waist for 2 or 3 classes a week, letting it rub the floor as you learn how best to fall–all of these movements, in a traditional sense, changed the nature of the belt. In that older sense, the fibers ripped with wear, the strands pulled apart over years of use. What was once white would, slowly, became black. You can imagine that white belt reflecting a number of colors on the way, no?
White turning yellow with the sun. White fading into gray. White smudged with brown flecks of dirt. White turning into black. Running barefoot down New York streets–the way Kaicho trained his earliest Seido students–the sun reflecting against a multi-ethnic group of students, rain or snow shining against the dull and moving group of people punching and kicking and offering guttural groans that weren’t decipherable to the uninitiated.
The blackness would emerge over years of practice, over failed attempts that in a martial sense were never failure. Blackness would skid across fibers, be indistinguishable from effort, identical to energy. Blackness would come through the repeated kicks you’d receive from your fellow karatekas who worked with you to show you how to form a weapon. Blackness would line the fabric of that once white line, never cleaned and only used and used and used.
I’m not “a black belt,” a modern way that people who aren’t martial artists speak of those who wear those dingy-but-not-so-dingy straps. The image with this post is of my master teacher, Sei Shihan Nancy Lanoue’s belt. I have a green belt, hope to move to advanced green in a couple months according to our curriculum and my practice. Gauging our curriculum and my schedule fairly–and my ambition to stay ahead of my oldest boy–I have about 3 years between advanced green and the first degree. In one way, it’s complimentary to say, “You’re a black belt.” It is a compliment because it can be a remark of integration. You become your practice. You become a black belt.
In another way, it is a misreading of the historical effort a person put into the martial way. You’re not a black belt. You’re a person. The belt is the image of the person you are. You put it on. You take it off. You better respect it. But you wear it. You’re a person with a black belt. In that way, I think, the belt is still available to be sullied by the next class, the next kata, the next senior teacher.