Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Purpose of Rank

This blog is a continuation of the previous one about respect, if you haven't read that one, please do, it will give you insight into this one.

In our school we promote slowly. Its not because we don't like to promote, but rather because we as a school believe in focusing on foundations and not rushing to a rank. After all what would you be rushing to? There is no "end" to rush to. To give you an idea of how slowly we promote-I have currently held my rank since 1999. It never entered my mind to consider my next rank (OK, it has entered it once or twice) but never to actively pursue it. Its not my place to award myself rank, just like I didn't award myself the rank I now have. So after much thinking I started wondering what was the purpose of rank?

The system of ranking isn't very old compared to martial arts. The first shodans Shiro Saigo and Tsunejiro Tomita were recognized in 1883 by Kano. Even then there weren't obi or belts. The actual belts didn't arrive until much later. The first delineation was made in 1886 when Kano had his seniors(yudansha) wear black obi over their kimonos. In 1907 Kano introduced the judogi and the obi we see today, yet even then there were only black belts and white belts. The first karateka awarded  the shodan rank by Funakoshi were Tokuda, Otsuka, Akiba, Shimizu, Hirose, Gima, and Kasuya on April 10th 1924.

The hierarchy of belts was established to represent a progression of learning with a syllabus and a corresponding grade indicating an individual's level of proficiency. Achieving shodan is like graduating from high school or university- It indicates that you have achieved a fundamental level of skill, learned the basic techniques and can execute them in a functional way. It means you are now prepared to pursue your art on a more serious and advanced level.

So rank at its inception was just a means to indicate how much you knew and that at a certain level you should be able to execute certain techniques. It can also mean that I have been on the path longer than you have, but remember that can be deceptive since not everyone  progresses at the same rate.

So if that is all rank is for, a shorthand for instructors to determine the level of skill of the students, when did it become a situation of being a black belt is better than being  brown belt  or any other rank?

 I think the moment ego enters into the equation, that is when the comparisons start to occur. This is a danger that every school and student must be wary of. The moment I begin to believe that I am better than another student simply by the fact of my rank, I have stopped growing and learning. I become a danger to myself and my fellow students as arrogance becomes part of my practice.

Another point worth mentioning is- Is my rank static? If I decide to  neglect my practice of  the material that is required of my rank, to the degree that I no longer can execute the techniques required of me with proficiency, should I still be considered the rank I am? That is a topic for another post.

So the belt, sash, rope you are wearing -while you have worked for it, sweat for it and in some cases bled for it, remember its just a piece of material that keeps your uniform closed. Its not the rank that makes the person, but rather the person that makes the rank.

strong spirit-strong mind-strong body

Sensei Orlando