Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Why not Ichidan?

The term shodan literally means beginning degree, as opposed to the term ichidan which would be translated as first degree. It is a term used to describe the lowest rank of black belt in most modern japanese martial arts. The question I always asked myself was; why isn't this rank called ichidan? It would be the most appropriate form of address for the first degree rank. Shodan implies that all the basics of the style have been mastered.

What was expressed to me by my sensei when I asked this question was, that once I reached this rank then I was ready to begin training in earnest, hence the name beginning degree. Let’s look at this for a moment. What I was told in essence was that all of the kyu up to and before black belt were basically preparation for the real training that would start once I reached first degree. It did not sit well with me at the time of this revelation that I would invest years of my life only to be called a beginner after attaining my black belt. However, it is typical of many martial arts, that the real training begins after years of learning basics. The problem (which I didn't see at the time) was that I was approaching my training with a western mentality. I figured, in my youth and with ample doses of hubris, that once I attained the rank of shodan that I would have arrived, right? That upon attaining my shodan some mystical black belt prowess would be conferred upon me and I would have reached IT, the summit.

It was a rude awakening after my shodan promotion. I discovered firstly, no mystical transference of powers took place, much to my chagrin. Then the realization hit me, as a shodan I was expected to train harder, longer, and with more intensity than the kyu who came after me. I was expected to be a model to those who came after me, no longer was I given special consideration; the kid gloves were off, revealing the rock hard fists of serious training. Everything radically shifted overnight. The classes were longer and harder. The only word that comes to mind is grueling. When there was any question in our eyes (it would never dare escape our lips) the only explanation given was, you are shodan now, time to really train. So what were the previous years about getting to this point? Preparation.

The term is shodan because the mindset required at this stage of training is that of a beginner. You have prepared for however long it took you to get here, and now you are ready to truly train. In our school, for a few months before the actual shodan promotion takes place, the student must don a white belt again. This is not a demotion (how can you demote years of training?), but rather a symbolic gesture that prepares the student for the transition to begin yet again. Even though there is a white belt around the waist, the body does not lie. I have had the privilege to wear a white belt in other martial arts. I get questioned during class as to what I have studied before, because it’s apparent. The purpose of the white belt is to tie the belt around the students mind, that no matter the actual belt being tied around the waist, we are always just beginners.

I eventually embraced being shodan. I don't think I would be where I am if I had not. I was recently informed by a Hachidan (8th degree) who has been teaching longer than I have been alive, that out of every thousand people, one makes it to shodan. I would add that the numbers of those who progress past shodan are just as small, because many become disheartened to learn that black belt is not the summit but rather the base of the mountain. What about all the ranks that preceded shodan? Those are the paths that lead you to the mountain.

Stay on the path, the mountain is usually just around the next bend.

strong spirit-strong mind-strong body
Sensei Orlando