Martial arts is a society built upon rank. Rank is utilized to denote importance and position as well as to give reward and incentives to learn. Rank and rank systems are based upon peer group acceptance as well as mandates of authority given from one teacher to another.
James Mitose is a part of this system as his signature denotes a mandate of authority. This authority is important to the public as it is the public that believes knowledge must be given. We live in a culture of reference. We demand that information and knowledge must come from a source and we expect instructors of martial arts to name that source. Sometimes the source of information is that it is what we see, it is what we feel, it is what we hear; but to the public, history is the mandate of authority. Obtainment or at least justification of a mandate is a critical aspect of the martial artists quest, establishing the politics of the society.
This essay, specifically, is a reflection upon the meaning of belt rank in regards to the study and practice of martial arts in the hope of generating a better understanding of its necessity and process. Rank is a critical aspect. It cannot simply be denied for it is a relationship with the human collective knowledge set and the history of that knowledge set. Information is found and lost, only to be found and lost again. My friends always says that there is nothing new under the sun and the we will all find it if we keep working to learn. He goes on usually to say that he has no issues taking short cuts by finding folks who know different pieces of the puzzles so he can get there faster. As the conversation usually ends with the stating of the fact that no one has a monopoly on the truth.
It took along time to understand that that makes sense. On the surface it makes sense, but at its core it means that all the work we do is nothing more than a charade-a game to fool ourselves and others as to the importance of our knowledge. What is true is that there are degrees in terms of our aptitudes, abilities, readiness and willingness to accept certain kinds of information. It is interesting to see often that the course and process of education leads most to a common road of human inter-relationships. It is a fascinating process and worthy of its diversity and focus. Thus, the final intention of this essay is to influence the reader in terms of understanding a more diverse rank concept.
The typical martial art practitioner would most likely describe rank as a process or at least the acknowledgment of a process. Many will describe that this process is variable for each individual and that it may in fact change over time due to growth in study, social peer group influence and economic livelihood. The reality is that the instruction of martial arts is a laborious task imparted upon students predominantly seeking temporal knowledge to fulfill their desires. This leads instructors to course a path for their students-an often rigid path. One must understand that a course that is too rigid as well as one that is not structured enough leads to difficulties in the formation of the student. The base function of rank is to course an initial path of growth into an element of the knowledge set for the beginning student. Rank above this level has a variance in terms of its meaning and function.
The most common categories of belt rank achievement are as follows:
1. Acknowledgement of a student's personal development and growth.
2. Acknowledgement of a student's completion or achievement of an end of study.
3. Establishment of a higher level of personal motivation for the student.
4. Acceptance of an individual into a social peer group.
5. Establishment of a political hierarchy and authority within the social peer group.
6. Establishment of mastery in the pursuit of economic development.
7. Economic favorability by a contributing individual.
8. Reflection of a personal bond between a teacher and student.
The difficulty in establishing a ranking system is that the system in the end will have difficulty meeting all of the needs for its practicing members. Each issuance of rank must be justified by one or more of these eight guiding rank principles, the end result is a corresponding disparity amongst the ranked practitioners. For example, a student of skill will be angered by the promotion of a student who is economically favorable whilst a student of personal honor will often become fearful of the student of skill. From here, we can conceive all of the many interactions of the martial art political hierarchy. The politics of martial arts is the politics of rank. They are the same and there are no exceptions.
We need to be realistic about humans and the human condition in regard to rank and achievement. There are very few individuals that would truly study beyond a window of six months to a year without some kind of self-acknowledgement, yet alone three years, seven years or even fifteen years. This is a part of being human. The acknowledgement can be as simple as a meaningless paper of achievement-which of course is the most typical as we very often don't really know our students. The other which is more subtle takes place when the student is given acceptance into a social peer group. This acceptance may take place upon receipt of personal inclusion and participation. In the end, some form of transaction must take place, whether it is a physical, mental or an emotional transaction. As humans, it has to take place.
The lowest rank transaction is that in which we must lie, purchase or steal our rank. It has to happen and it does. It does not make you bad as a person necessarily. Sometimes you need to feel important about yourself. Sometimes it is that you need to be authorized as an authority. Sometimes it is that you feel insecure about your lack of knowledge and need to build a system of political defenses. The rank system must address these needs. They are needs as realistic as any other. Satisfying these needs comes at a sacrifice: your honor, your school, your family, your peers, your teachers and most importantly the study. The study is a process. It is a living process and more important than any one person. The knowledge will change but the process does not. The process is that of scientific inquiry, artistic expression and connection between world and self. It is the most primitive and most essential of human processes.
The highest rank transaction takes place when the teacher knows our "name". We are given our first real rank when the teacher knows our name. The teacher will know our names only when we are students. I teach 500 students at the university level every semester. I will know the names of maybe 2-3 students. I do not just mean their first name or their last, but that I know and understand their process of life. They make the experience real. The environment encircles their needs. The testing is the game for them to play. The interaction is an experience of growth and acknowledgment of being alive. Every subject is the subject to explore. Life is explored and the connections are made. This is knowing their names.
There are so many students that have no names yet they seek paper and trinkets as a means to say they were students. It is not the paper. It is not the trinkets. It is the process and an honored moment. It is from my experience that the following principles hold and it will be for those of name to understand:
1. A true student will seek a true teacher.
2. A true student will seek and know true students.
3. A true teacher was and is a true student. The teacher is one that is farther along in the process.
4. To know the process is to have been known by name.
5. To have been known by name is often all that the true student will desire of any teacher.