There’s a Zen parable that was given much lip service when I was coming up through the ranks. It’s about how, in the heyday of the Japanese martial arts, a person used only one obi (belt) during practice — from the time he was initiated into the arts until he became a master. The point of the story is to show that changes in the color of the martial artist’s belt over time are symbolic of advances in his degree of insight.
For those unfamiliar with the parable, it goes something like this. In the beginning, you have a white belt. It symbolizes the beginner’s mind, pure and unfettered. There are no questions about right and wrong, and no hesitation because the beginner hasn’t enough skill to intentionally do anything wrong. He’s all innocence with intentions as clean and white as the belt around his waist.
Gradually, as the novice trains, his belt becomes stained. First, it turns green from grass stains. Then it becomes brown as dirt stains are added to them. Finally, after years of staining, the belt begins to take on the black hue we now associate with mastery. But the parable tells us that this is really the middle of a true martial artist’s journey. At this point, he’s in the darkest and most dangerous place in his journey toward mastery. He has more skill than wisdom. His intentions are tainted by his ability to hurt people.
In the third and final stage, the belt ages along with its wearer. It becomes frayed and tattered as its wearer learns difficult lessons about being seduced by anger and hate. It becomes white again as the martial artist’s intentions become pure again. Experience deepens his insight, and he now knows when it’s right to fight and when it’s not. His journey comes full circle in mastery. He has the skill of a great fighter, a clear and unfettered mind to guide his use of it, and a white belt around his waist to symbolize it.
Physical + Mental
The parable offers a great lesson in the development of a martial artist, but I believe the strength of this story is that it shows us the real meaning of a black belt. A black belt indicates expertise in fighting. Anyone who wears one should be able to easily beat people within the focus of his art. In other words, a karate shodan (first-degree black belt) should be able to easily punch and kick an opponent into submission, and a judo or jujitsu black belt should be able to easily take an opponent down and choke him unconscious or break his arm. But this is not enough.
The parable shows us that attaining a black belt is the middle of a journey toward mastery in the martial arts — and the most dangerous part of that path. It’s a black time in two respects. First, it’s when the martial artist possesses great skill, and if he isn’t careful, he can commit great sin. Second, it’s the time when he is truly “in the dark” about when it’s right to fight and when it’s not. At this point, his martial skill is relatively new, and he hasn’t the life experience to know how to use it judiciously. This is the middle of a journey toward mastery because martial skill doesn’t automatically lead to wisdom — even if it does require us to seek it.
If you’ve ever wondered whether your black belt means anything, you should ask yourself two questions. The first is, Can I fight? If the answer is no, that belt is just a fashion accessory to a pair of Japanese pajamas, and there’s no moral dilemma to master.
But if the answer is yes, you should ask yourself a second question: Can I swallow my pride and look for guidance? If the answer here is also yes, your black belt means a great deal. It means you’re on your way to becoming a white belt again. It means you’re on your way to becoming a master.
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For more information about Keith Vargo and his martial arts writings, visit his blog.