Someone at work the other day asked me something with the idea of “Are you always a black belt even if you don’t practice anymore?” I thought it was a very interesting question, because it speaks to the heart of many discussions martial artists have with the ‘outside’ community. It can be a short and long answer. The short answer is yes; once you’ve earned it you keep it. The long answer is, of course, much more nuanced and complicated. I think it is important to understand the ‘why’ of things. I wish it had nice, succinct answer like “How long does it take to get a black belt?” If you have to ask, it probably isn’t for you.
The black belt derives from the idea that a beginner enters the dojo and is given the white belt, and after years of training the belt becomes stained with blood, dirt, much failure and a little success, and sweat. It becomes black over time- you never wash your belt. In today’s schools and systems we have many different ways to move through ranks, and award and distribute the black belt. One of mine was awarded with much ceremony, while my sword school Sensei simply bowed and said “Congratulations, you have done well,” and passed me a scroll at the end of class (I was his only student, but that’s another story).
It is understood by practitioners that attaining a black belt is really the beginning of training. Prior to this, we learn technique and make its practice fundamental to every class. In my discipline, we blend these techniques a little at a time, switch hands, and move different ways. All of this is mixed with a bit of language lesson. Achieving a black belt is quite an accomplishment! There is so much to learn and so much to perform well. Many consider achieving a black belt among their highest accomplishments. Once reached, though, there is so much more to learn. We still practice fundamentals, but we explore the concepts much deeper. Our movements must become more fluid, more anticipatory rather than reactive. We want to understand how our opponent moves and why we move a certain way. We bring action to the phrase “knowing yourself is true wisdom,” and as O Sensei Morihei Ueshiba said, “The Way of the Warrior has been misunderstood. It is not a means to kill and destroy others. Those who seek to compete and better one another are making a terrible mistake. To smash, injure, or destroy is the worst thing a human being can do. The real Way of a Warrior is to prevent such slaughter – it is the Art of Peace, the power of love.”
There are many levels of practice and many ways to practice. There are many things in martial arts practice that the student must discover for themselves. They must experience the movement, the pace, and how their actions affect and are affected by the opponent. They must find their comfort zone in breathing and seeing the opportunity. When they are ready for black belt testing, Sensei will let them know. When they pass, they are a black belt. No one can take it away. Hopefully, though, they will continue on and experience the real beauty that brought them into the dojo in the first place. As my Sensei once told me, “Never forget the second word in Martial Arts.”