Even though I’ve been a martial artist since I was seven years old, I don’t take much time these days to think about the philosophy of martial arts. But a recent article by Syr Gemini called “The Black Belt Myth” got me thinking again. It’s a very interesting read, and while some of the concepts were ones I had come across before, it did help put things back into perspective.
In the article, Syr Gemini addresses the popular culture myth that a black belt is some exalted master worthy of a place amongst the greatest mountaintop sages. But rather, a black belt is someone who has achieved a “basic level of competence.” In my own martial arts experience, we were taught that a black belt is not necessarily a “master,” just a “master of the basics.”
I also appreciated the fact that he addressed the perception as black belts (or knights, or dons, or other “master”-level practitioners) as teachers. While a high rank implies a certain level of competence, it does not in and of itself instill an ability to teach or be understood. Not everyone can teach; some people just can’t break things down into easily-digestible chunks, or be critical in a productive manner while still being encouraging. I do disagree, however, with his sentiment that non-black belts (or squires, or cadets, etc.) should not be teaching. When I was practicing taekwondo, it was common for more advanced students to assist in teaching lower-ranked ones. While a black belt instructor still led the class, this was viewed as a good way to develop leadership skills, as well as gain a better understanding of the curriculum. After all, if you ever want to really make sure you understand something, try teaching it to someone else. I also think that, while not everyone is a natural teacher, most people can bring a unique perspective to things that may make more sense to some students than others.
Like I said, this article really made me think about being a black belt for the first time in a while. I was only 11 years old(!) when I tested for my first degree black belt, and I don’t think I truly understood what that meant. I continued training, and I’d like to think I gained a better understanding of that as time went on. But one thing I haven’t really done is think of knighthood (the SCA’s closest equivalent to a black belt for heavy fighting) in that context.
Knighthood, at least from my perspective from the outside, is an interesting hybrid. Of course you have the martial aspects, which correlate strongly to the black belt’s “mastery of the basics.” But there is also a cultural prestige associated with the award. Knights are viewed as leaders and teachers, upholding the ideals of chivalry and the Society itself.
I guess one thing I’ve struggled with is thinking of knighthood like I do being a black belt, especially as a “master of the basics.” I often feel I’m not “good enough” to be a knight, since there are much better fighters out there than me. After all, if it’s a martial award, shouldn’t a candidate display the proper level of marital prowess? I’ve slipped into the trap of thinking of knighthood (or being a black belt, or don, etc.) as being a “master,” rather than a “master of the basics.” And those are two very different things. Mastery implies that the journey is done, that the accomplishment has been achieved. Mastery of the basics, however, implies that the journey, rather than ending, can finally begin. And that opens up a whole new world of possibilities.