Martial Arts Musings – What is a Black Belt?

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photo of GM Jeff Helaney and Master Mike Munyon

by GM Jeff Helaney

This summer will mark my forty-fifth year as a martial artist. In that modest amount of time I have been fortunate enough to meet a number of the contemporary legends and leaders of the martial arts world. Great men and women who through their sweat and sacrifice have accomplished amazing things. These visionaries helped shape a generation. While keeping their roots firmly planted in the past, they helped define a new paradigm for the practice and growth of their individual styles.

It is upon these these accomplishments that the majority of us exist. Perhaps we do not possess names that will be written in history book or faces that are immediately recognizable by our peers, but this does not lessen us … rather it establishes a benchmark that we are obligated to maintain regardless of notoriety or anonymity. When we accept that we are part of an unbroken chain that extends backwards and forward through time it is humbling. It creates an imperative that we maintain standards. It is a message to carry to the next generation.

So in light of this obligation, what is a black belt? Is it just a piece a cloth or is it an extension of the wearer? Is it something to be coveted, respected, or admired? Too often the trappings of rank are confused for the substance of rank. There is an unfortunate tendency in our modern society to seek expediency in the attainment of goals. Therein lies the rub, when something is bought, sold, or stolen rather than earned it no longer has the same value. When integrity is traded for instant gratification then core of what we hold to be true is lost.

It is the burden and duty of each of us to define the parameters of what we find acceptable in the delegation and achievement of rank within our arts. Set aside unusual physical skills, does even the most amazing 6 year old possess the depth of knowledge, maturity, or understanding to adequately represent the spirit and rank of a true ‘black belt’? Is the self promoted 25 (or 85) year old “umpteenth” degree supreme grandmaster ultimate puba cum guru worthy of the rank they hold high and espouse loudly? What are the standards we wish to pass on to those who come after us?

So what is a black belt? Perhaps a true ‘black belt’ is just an individual who has made a significant, knowledgable commitment to themselves (and to others of like minds) to uphold the spirit of their art. Certainly they have dedicated countless hours to the perfection of esoteric skills and opened their minds and hearts to learning. A ‘black belt’ can be seen as the wheat separated from the chaff. A true ‘black belt’ represents something of worth, but belt ranks and titles in and of themselves hold no value. It is the wearer who creates or loses the respect of his or her rank. A black belt is not found in a piece of cloth or stamped upon a document of any size, but is built upon the integrity of the wearer.

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