In the dojo where I've been learning karate and kobujutsu for the past year, there is a ranking system. Colored belts are used to designate the level of achievement in what is called karate do, the Way of Karate.
The beginner who has only just set his foot upon the Way wears a white belt. As he progresses, the Sensei, the teacher (literally "one who goes before"), determines when the student is ready for promotion, and then the Follower of the Way dons a different colored belt to mark his progress. Within each dojo, the Sensei is the sole arbiter of merit. He has the power of promotion and demotion. He awards the belts.
Within the dojo, it is easy to "read" the belts and know whose rank is higher. Higher rank accords "greater respect," along with other perks, such as standing and sitting closer to Sensei. As one advances in rank, one is also expected to assume greater responsibilities, such as the obligation of setting a good example for and of actively ensuring the continued progress of those who come after them, thus becoming sensei, too. The highest rank holds the greatest responsibility.
Those who are of higher rank are usually more accomplished in karate skills, of course, but that is not enough in our dojo to take you up through the ranks. And all the rules for advancement in the dojo are not set down in writing. There is no checklist, whereon the ticking of every item will ensure advancement. But the rules are not arbitrary though many of the criteria for advancement are subjective.
Because karate itself is a physical skill, a Martial Art, a certain demonstrated skill in the execution of the karate forms is a requirement for advancement. Sensei, as the expert, judges the student's level of skill in the Art. But the level of skill that must be demonstrated before the student is allowed to advance is entirely up to Sensei's subjective judgment.
In our dojo, there are also some general principles of character and behavior that must be demonstrated by the student. These principles, set forth in our Dojo Kun, are: a dedication to the development of one's character, a dedication to practice, personal honesty, loyalty, respect for others, courtesy towards others, personal humility, and an effort to maintain harmony with the self and others. As with physical skills, those of higher rank must assume also the responsibility of setting an example for those who come after them.
These are the principles that the sincere student will try to live up to and embody, while also learning the skills of karate. But again, in the dojo, it is the Sensei who decides whether the student has met these challenges, and he awards advancement accordingly. The color of a student's belt is the outward sign of his accomplishment in Sensei's judgment.
Sensei's right to judge is awarded by those who have gone before him upon the Way, his teachers. They have determined that he has successfully absorbed and now embodies their values, and they are satisfied that he is competent to try to pass these values on to his own students. In making him Sensei, they imbued him with the right and privilege to judge others by their values. It is something of a sacred trust.
In the dojo, the belt you wear is the one Sensei thinks you deserve. In the dojo, your rank is clear for all to see.
But there are dangers in awarding a tangible, visible symbol of rank. One lies in forgetting that outside of the dojo in which it was awarded, your rank may count for nothing.
There is a vast world outside the dojo. Outside, in the wild, unstructured world, who decides merit then? Who awards the belts? The answer is, each and every other person on the planet has the right and privilege to judge you and to award you the rank he believes you deserve.
Based solely on a unique set of personal rules and values, quite subjectively, each person totes up what he perceives to be your accomplishments and your shortcomings and makes his award. You have no say in the matter. You can only hope that you will be judged fairly. Even as you can be promoted in the blink of an eye, so you can be demoted. (In the real world, this is where we get the principle that "One 'Oh, shit!' wipes out all your 'At-a-boys!'")
Much as you may hate the idea, in the world you will be judged by every person you meet whether you think him worthy to judge you or not. I can tell you that, in the dojo, lowly orange belt (roku-kyu) that I am, there are those who out-rank me whom I do not at present respect as people, inside or outside the dojo what right have I to say such a thing?
Each of us, whether we are aware of it or not, keeps a dojo in the heart. Each of us sets the values by which we will measure others; each of us is free to award or revoke rankings. When the dojo is my own heart, I am Sensei and the awarding of belts is mine.
But my values may not be your values. And you may disagree with the rankings I award. You may most strongly disagree with my ranking of you. You may argue that I don't understand you and that therefore my decision is incorrect. You may rail that I am wrong. You may think me unworthy to judge you. But you are wrong. You are in my dojo, and I am Sensei. Your rank stands at my valuation. None of us can award rank to ourselves and expect others to accept it without question.
As a human being, I have the right to use my values to award what rankings I choose. My right to do so is imbued by my personal Sensei, the one I recognize in my heart. It is a sacred trust.
As Sensei in my own dojo, it is my obligation to see to it that my values are of the highest, that they are founded in truth. If I am honest, if I am truly trying to be the best person I can be, I also have a responsibility to be sure that the rankings I award are just. As Sensei of my dojo, I have the greatest responsibility. I must see to it that my judgments are founded in truth, and tempered with compassion and understanding. It is tempting to allow first impressions to stand. It is tempting to allow my prejudices to direct my thinking. But it isn't right to do so. When dealing with other people, because I am Sensei, because I am teacher and the responsibility is mine, I must strive to ensure that I am being just. If I do not understand, it is my responsibility to question, to find out the truth. It is my responsibility not to allow myself to be misled, either by others or by my own prejudices and weaknesses, into under-valuing others or into valuing them unjustly.
In the dojo I belong to, my Sensei's values come close to matching mine, I think. I believe, as he does, in the principles set forth in our Dojo Kun and I can clearly perceive and appreciate and admire the dedication and discipline that earned Sensei his high level of skill in the Arts of karate and kobujutsu. For the most part I like the way he interacts with and treats his students. But I do not know my Sensei very well, and sometimes I feel that I disagree with his valuations. Sometimes I question his judgments. But perhaps I think these things because I cannot read his heart. And if he doesn't understand me, it is probably because he cannot read mine.
One thing I am sure of is that each and every minute of each and every day, I am learning; and, because of that, my values are being constantly challenged, revised and refined. And we are all constantly learning and growing. As we grow and learn, our values change with usó for the better, we hope. And so the rankings of those we know change, too, up and down, constantly. People we despised yesterday, today rise in our estimation. People we esteemed yesterday are today discovered to have feet of clay. We disagree today, perhaps, but tomorrow could find us in complete and harmonious accord.
It is well to remember this. Well to remember, too, that ranking in one dojo will not necessarily hold in the next. You may think yourself a black belt, you may have been awarded high ranks in several dojos, only to discover that in the dojo you have just entered, you are on probation and must petition earnestly to be allowed even to don a white belt.
Each and every day, in each encounter with another human being, we must remember that whatever we may think of ourselves, however high we think we rank, that ultimately the other person will be the one to determine our rank in his dojo.
And so we must always strive to do our best, to be worthy of the highest rank in every dojo we enter. We should always be courteous and respectful towards others, and always be sure to put our best foot forward. We are constantly being judged. Constantly being ranked. It's impossible of course to always achieve the highest ranking. Often we will fail. But the main thing is to try.
In the karate dojo, one wears a real belt and the color of one's belt is there for all to see. If you join a dojo, you should realize that there can be real danger in wearing real belts. Rank may go unquestioned and unchallenged in the minds and hearts of others because everyone knows and accepts the meaning of your belt.
On seeing your belt, the others who subscribe to the accepted ranking system may take your rank for granted, deferring unquestioningly to the Sensei's visible valuation of you. They may never look past your belt. They may never look at you, or try to understand you, or try to get to know you and make their own decision as to your rank. Like Hester Prynne's scarlet letter, your belt may inescapably condemn you merely because "everyone knows" the meaning of the "scarlet letter" that is your belt. Or, like an accidental hero, you may find yourself elevated beyond reason, beyond your abilities, because upon seeing your "hero's medal" of a belt, the adoring masses, unthinkingly, will expect you to be something greater than you ever were or can be just because of what "everyone knows" your "medal" means.
In the karate dojo, this all seems quite right and proper. You trust your Sensei if you didn't, why stay? "Everyone knows" what the color of your belt means, and Sensei has pronounced your deserved rank. When the Sensei is knowledgeable, and scrupulously honest with others and with himself, when he is a truth seeker and a true Follower of the Way, his judgments can be trusted, and the rankings he awards have profound meaning and yet, that doesn't necessarily make his judgment infallible or superior to our own in all matters. But that's the way it is. Sensei is the judge in the karate dojo.
In the wide, wild, dojo of the world we can't see what color belts others are wearing; nor do we know what color belts others see us wearing. Our belts are invisible. I think I prefer these invisible belts. Invisible belts keep us honest. You've got to look pretty hard and do a lot of thinking to be able to see exactly what color an invisible belt is.
And that's the way I think it should be. We should have to look hard at everyone we meet. And we should take a new look every time we meet thereafter. Because you never know when someone will have been awarded a different belt.
But it's our own belts we should look to, our own rankings with which we should be concerned. Scrutinize your invisible belt closely. What color is it?
20 July 2003
Belt Rankings in Our Dojo
Ku-kyu (yellow 9)
Hachi-kyu (yellow 8)
Sichi-kyu (orange 7)
Roku-kyu (orange 6)
Gokyu (green 5)
Yonkyu (green 4)
Sankyu (brown 3)
Nikyu (brown 2)
Ik-kyu (brown 1)
Shodan (black 1)
Nidan (black 2)
Sandan (black 3)
Yondan (black 4; 1 stripe)
Godan (black 5)
Rokudan (black 6)
Nanadan (black 7; 2 stripes, or red & white stripe)
Hachidan (black 8)
Kudan (black 9)
Judan (black 10)
The beginner dons the white belt.
The white belt becomes black with wearing.
The black belt worn long enough frays to white again.
The Way always returns to the beginning.
All original text and art on this site copyright © 2003 New Moon