You might recognize the title of this article as a play on an old theatrical phrase. After the end of a scene or at the end of a movie the screen is said to fade to black. That marks the end of a scene or of the movie. I am using the title I chose to try to illustrate a concept in rank and position in martial arts.
In a previous article I discussed the history of the kyu and dan belt ranking system. In this article I would like to delve into some other concepts of growth and rank in the martial arts. The ranking system as we know it today describes a full cycle. From 10th kyu to first kyu is 180 degrees of that cycle. The progression from 1st dan to 10th dan represents another 180 degrees making a complete 360 degrees or a full circle. If I left it there I wouldn’t have much of an article but I would like to take it a step further.
Circles and spheres are common throughout nature and creation. Water tends to form in round droplets. The planets and stars assume a spherical shape. Even in nature we see many cycles. For instance we see the water cycle. Water evaporates and eventually forms clouds. The clouds form rain which in turn feedes the streams, creaks and rivers that feed into lakes and eventually to the sea where it first started. All water seeks to reach sea level which completes the full cycle. Likewise we have the life cycle. Man comes from the earth. You may or may not embrace the theological explanation of creationalism but any science student recognizes in the human body the elements of the earth. Man is conceived in the womb. He is born and goes through infancy, childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, adulthood, old age and eventually death. From there he is buried and the elements of his body go back to the earth completing the entire life cycle. I can go on and on with that but you get the general idea. These cycles guarantee that nothing is wasted and nothing is lost. In it we see the balance of the universe.
Now let’s apply this universal law to the belt ranking system and see where that takes us. The white belt marks the very beginning of a student’s martial art journey. We can look at white as representing a number of concepts. White can mean emptiness as in an empty page. An empty page has potential but tells one nothing in its present state. On the other hand white can incorporate infinite possibilities. Scientifically white isn’t the absence of color. It’s the inclusion of all color. White light refracted through a prism will reveal every color in the visible spectrum. Therefore we can see the white belt as showing raw potential. All possibilities are reflected in that strip of cloth that the beginner ties (probably improperly) around his waist.
On the other end of the first 180 degrees of the cycle we have the black belt. We recognize the 1st degree black belt not as having attained perfection or expertise but as having learned the basics and having emptied oneself of all false precepts. That is when a student truly begins to learn his art and to perfect the basics that he has been given. The foundation has been laid that the student will now build on.
Actually by the time the student has reached 5th dan he has pretty much mastered the physical side of his art. The last five degrees in his journey if he ever makes it that far will be devoted to mastering himself and building in others. Teaching and researching the arts will deepen his understanding of himself and of his art. It will also build patience and character. Should a student reach the tenth degree he has completed the cycle. Usually at that rank a master will wear a special belt to recognize his mastery of himself and his art. I would like to look at those masters belts and explore what they might mean.
As one gets higher in rank one may wear a renshi belt. Usually these belts are red and white. I like to think of that as representing the blood sweat and tears shed in growing from the emptiness of our lowly beginning toward mastery of self. The ninth or tenth degree black belt may wear a red belt. Red here again, in my mind, represents blood. Blood represents life. We have to grow to our full awareness to be fully alive and to live life in its entirety. Also life can create life. The master has reached a point where he can look back and see the many students that he has breathed life into. Those are of his lineage which in a sense is a blood lineage.
I feel that the final master’s belt should be the masters white belt. Back in the day a master wore the same black belt that he was first given when he earned his shodan or first degree. You knew the old seasoned masters because over time the belt he wore frayed and eventually became more white than black. The master’s white belt is different from the one worn by the beginning student. Usually it is wider than the beginners white belt and more often than not it is trimmed in red. I like to see the white of this belt as representing the purity that is reached in the fuller’s fire. Like gold has to be heated and melted in the crucible to remove the impurities so the master through his own sacrifice and suffering his been through the fires of life to get to that point. All impurities have been removed in the heat of the furnace and he comes out pure and untainted. The white of the master’s belt like the beginner’s belt represent emptiness. Not because there is an awaiting of filling but because he has emptied himself of all misconceptions. At this point he has completed the cycle. In a sense he no longer has a rank in the arts; he has stepped outside of rank.
By that point the master has probably reached old age. To reach that rarified position takes a lifetime of studies. He has devoted at least fifty years of his life to reach that position and the sacrifices he has made are taking their toll and are making their demands on his life. The efforts that he has put forth, the blows and falls he has suffered and the trauma that he has visited on his body over his many years of sacrifice are visiting him in his old age. He is nearing the end of his life cycle and soon will sow the elements of his physical body back to the earth. That replenishment of the earth starts another cycle and the release of his spirit yet another. Likewise he has reproduced of his own kind. He has passed his knowledge and wisdom on to others who will continue the cycle. That is only as should be because the cycle is continuous. A circle has no beginning and no end. It meerly continues its cycle into infinity.