Apr 22

Canada IUKF Administrator’s Blog

Rank by David Mott

dave_mott2The rank that I really wanted above all ranks was a green belt. Since I started Uechiryu at the Boston YMCA and spent a year as a white belt there, followed by another year at the Mattson Academy as a white belt, It seemed like I was forever a white belt. Remarkably the rest of the ranks came relatively quickly. After teaching for some years at the Mattson Academy as an apprentice teacher, (1967 –1971) I started my own dojo at Yale as a Nidan and advanced through Sandan. After coming to Canada, I decided to wait for further testing until I had students from Toronto to be tested for Shodan and so the rest of my advancement was a bit sporadic. I tested for advanced rank with the idea of benefiting the dojo rather than as achieving a personal goal. Now, my Hachidan/ Kyoshi belt is wearing out. It is rapidly becoming stripped of its black cloth covering and so it is, fittingly, turning white. I am returning to the beginning.

One of the perplexing problems in Uechi-ryu, which has a ranking system to Judan, is how do you define what qualities are required to advance to the next rank? I have some ideas about this. Let’s start with the pre-black belt ranks. White belt signifies not much more than raw material. Green belt is really a good beginner –able to move relatively correctly with a modicum of skill. Brown belt is really a good intermediate student. There is some fire and heaviness in the movements which are becoming real. There is also some evidence of real karate spirit.

Shodan. In some ways this rank of first degree black belt is the most important rank of all and, in other ways, it’s not all that important. The reason it has great significance is that the physical skills and the embodiment of karate have developed sufficiently that one is a true Uechi-ryu karateka. Karate has begun to seep into one’s bones. Shodan is also important because it signifies a level of competence of practice that can sustain. But in reality, this also means that Shodan is a new beginning where learning can now really begin. While Shodan is a culmination of everything that led up to this attainment, and this is a significant achievement, the distance from Shodan to Judan is quite vast. If I use the analogy of mountaineering, you’ve arrived at the base of the mountain with all of the necessary skills and equipment to climb it. Now you have to climb.
My Shodan test took place in Providence, Rhode Island at Charles Earles’ dojo. The night before my test I was performing with a jazz band that was supposed stop at 1 a.m. but got hired on until 4 a.m. With travel time back to my home, an hour away, and rising in time to drive for the 9 a.m. start, I had two hours of sleep. It served me well. I was simply too tired to waste any energy on being nervous. Although I found Mr. Earle’s dojo disconcerting –all four walls were covered in floor to ceiling mirrors–I made it through the test. Among the successful candidates that day were a number of the North American seniors: Robert Campbell, Jack Summers, Buzz Durkin and Jimmy Maloney. The test, in spite of my tiredness, was both exhilarating and an immense relief. I can remember feeling a sense of culmination and a new beginning. The wisdom traditions point out that it is the Path that is the goal. I could feel my feet firmly placed on the Path of the Way of Karate.

What are our expectations for a candidate at any level? Before I go further, it is
important to point out that no two people are the same in what they bring to karate. Any attempts at creating a uniformity of students is a vain endeavor. So there is a base line of expectations mitigated by who the karateka is and how far they’ve come developmentally. While there are identifiable traits to each dojo’s karate form, there will still be a fairly wide spectrum of abilities within each rank, within each dojo, as well as within Uechi-ryu.

There are a number of things to look for in a candidate .

Kata/Junbi Undo/Hojo Undo/Zhan Zhuang (–a traditional qigong standing meditation as practiced at the beginning of each class at Cold Mountain)

1) Accuracy of movement.
2) Refinement of movement.
3) Integration of movement.
4) Quality of movement.
5) Speed/heaviness.
6) Strength/power.
7) Spectrum of movement –from the large to the detailed or nuanced.
8) Understanding.
9) Presence of being.
10) Intensity or projection of intent.
11) Centre.
12) Spirit.
13) Depth.
14) Stillness.

In addition to the above:

1) Timing and distancing.
2) Flow.
3) Consistency.
4) Footwork.
5) Clarity.
6) Accuracy of targeting.
7) Defensive skill.
8) Resilience.
9) Ability to control another’s attacks with followups.
10)Strategy and tactics.

Obviously, the higher the Dan rank, up to and including Godan –where the emphasis on the physical reaches its apex– the higher the expectations. In general, as a matter of comparison, one would probably rarely give more than a five out of ten to any Shodan candidate whereas, for a Godan candidate one would expect 10 out 10. But this is ideal. Such scores do not account for the person, their body size and strength, their depth of being, their athletic ability or lack thereof, their age, their gender and so forth. Nor does it recognize that in some individuals where one area is lacking, there are compensatory skills which more than make up for any weaknesses. The frustration for test board members is that, if we established absolutes for any particular rank (if that were even possible), few would ever pass their test and advance. So we have to look carefully at the individual, understand what a base line expectation is, and assess from that basis. Any test board also has to assess whether or not advancement or delay is in the best interests of the candidate. Advancement can offer encouragement whereas delay can discourage a candidate. On the other hand, a delay can offer a meaningful “gateless gate” to pass through. The pretest for the lower Dan ranks is an excellent means of providing feedback to a candidate. (For Sandan candidates and above a pretest hardly seems necessary unless there is a particular area of weakness to be addressed).

If we only reward good form with advancement, any candidate with natural physical skill will succeed. But is there depth? Is there stillness or centre etc.? What if the form is lacking but those last categories are abundantly present? The Dan test itself is a great help in this. Sanchin Kata, primary Kata and sparring all must meet base line expectations with, at least, minimum scores. The remainder of the scores must average out to a base line average. This means that some categories may not be as strong as others but the over all profile of a candidate’s ability must meet minimum expectations.

Border line cases are often difficult and result in considerable test board discussion and even debate. And test boards don’t always get it right. Since each member has a vote, a simple majority is all that is necessary to determine the outcome. The critical thing to remember is that determining a candidate’s test outcome should not be approached from a rigid frame of reference since the practice is designed to benefit the candidate, not to reward or punish. While it is a fairly select group who will achieve advanced rank in Uechi-ryu, it must not be an exclusive group.

We are not looking to reward only the “best of the best”. We are offering a Way. The Way is not limited to the physically gifted, it is available to all who undertake it and diligently pursue it. The question always to be asked is, will passing or delaying a candidate further them in their pursuit of the Way? This decision must be made from a place of wisdom rather than absolutes. The higher the rank to be granted, the more that intangibles must be assessed. In other words, there are three areas to be assessed in Uechi-ryu: Body Mind and Spirit. At the lower end of the Dan ranks we assess mostly on the basis of Body. In the mid range of Dan ranks, Mind plays a greater role.

At the upper range of Dan ranks, Spirit is paramount. Of course, for the master ranks, we are also assessed on the basis of our contributions to Uechi-ryu.In the end, the only thing that matters is one’s practice. Rank serves to advance the dojo more than its head teacher. All benefit from advancement that is real. But there is a danger in that advanced rank, when personalized, can become a matter of ego fulfillment.

Years ago at a gathering of Zen students a young man came up to me and introduced himself as being a fourth degree black belt in a Korean sword martial art. He was aware that I had some background in martial arts so he promptly asked me what rank I was. I told him that I too was a fourth degree black belt. I then asked him how long he had been practicing his martial art and he replied, “Four years”. Somewhat taken aback I said, “Well then you are a much more gifted martial artist than I”. (And I tried to say this without any intended irony as I could see his pride of accomplishment). After quite visibly basking in that praise, he thought to ask how long I had been practicing and I said, “Fifteen years”. That ended our conversation.

We should neither take pride in being stingy with awarding advanced rank nor should we be indiscriminate by handing it out like candy. Advanced rank should be meaningful. However we view a test candidate, the rank attained must be merited. Furthermore, while those of us who teach can neither take the credit nor the blame for a candidate’s outcome, we are still responsible for them.

I have also had students, off and on over the years, who are very judgmental towards themselves (and others). Usually after a test, they come to me and say, “I really don’t think that I deserve . . . .” So I’ve always said, “You’re questioning the test board’s judgement? Give me back your black belt!” They never have. It’s always a transparent ploy for reassurance. I then say, “I guess that you’ll have to work extra hard to fulfill your own standards.” Sometimes karateka dip down into a bit of depression following a successful test. As if life would suddenly change for the better with their new rank. I guess that the disappointment lies in the reality that they are no more skilled a day after the test than they were a day before the test. The achievement is, in the end, ephemeral. In Zen, there are “gateless gates” to pass through. Barriers that present various challenges to the depth of our realization. There are times when the barriers seem  insurmountable and it takes every bit of our effort to squeak through. But that required effort, brought to bear, is the means of opening to transformation. Never easy but always essential. In a recent Nidan test, one of the successful candidates had her daughter video her test. She told me that, after viewing her test on video, she finally realized, “I’m a martial artist!”

I said, “Welcome”.

1 comment

  1. Al Wharton

    Sensei and brother Dave Mott,

    A bit late to offer my comment, however not much to say except that your article confirms why I have always had such respect and admiration for you.

    Your thoughts and views are much like my own, so I do not have much that I can add or complain about…I certainly remember grading at that Charlie Earle Dojo sometime after you. The mirrored walls were either going to disrupt your orientation, or force you into “the zone” (smile).

    Hope our paths can cross again in the near future.

    Best Always,

    Al Wharton

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