What Does Having a Black Belt Mean, and How do I Earn One?




Many people begin martial arts with the sole purpose of learning how to become dangerous, or to earn the famous black belt.  I am going to concentrate on the issue of becoming a black belt.  Reason being, I have had numerous conversations with people inquiring about this.

The History of Color Belts

I heard a popular story that martial arts students way back in the day started out with a white belt.  Through years of training, sweat and blood soaked into the belt causing it to darken.  When it darkened to black, you earned the rank of black belt.  My research reveals this story is probably more of a popular myth than truth.

Research more accurately demonstrates that Jigoro Kano, the man credited with founding the Japanese martial art Judo, created the color belt system as a way to measure his students’ skills when paired with other Judo players. The color belts are a visible recognition of accomplishment in the style of martial arts.  Mr. Kano created the black belt rank to represent completion of the first step of training, which is mastering the basics.  Once you earn a black belt, it is like starting over at white belt again, but just on a more advanced level.  It is important to look at earning a black belt as reaching a destination.  The destination itself is not important; it is the journey that is important.  The journey involves becoming stronger, more flexible, more knowledgeable, and more humble.  Through the journey you will temper your steel; your body, mind, and spirit.  Chances are you won’t be wearing your martial arts belt if you ever have to use your martial arts skills in a real life situation.  The skills you learned during the journey will always be with you.  The good news is no matter where you are in the world, your martial arts skills go with you.

How to Earn the Black Belt

To earn a black belt you start by finding a martial art that interests you, and then a good teacher.  A dojo located in a convenient location makes it easier to attend regularly.  A wide range of serious training partners also helps. If you are an adult, I would encourage you to not go train with mostly children.  Children normally require more attention and have less focus.  This may slow your progress since the teacher may have to use more instructional time helping the children.  Training with teenagers can be beneficial.  They are usually in great shape and will present you with a friendly and energetic challenge.  Most importantly, you must devote yourself to training.  Martial arts is not something you do only when it is convenient.  It is a way of life—used to strengthen the body, mind, and spirit.  It is a step-by-step training process designed to take you from no knowledge (emptiness) to a wealth of knowledge (well-rounded).  It may take you a few years, or even ten years, to earn a black belt.

There is a famous story about Yagyu Matajuro, the son of the Yagyu family of swordsmen in 17th century feudal Japan. Yagyu was kicked out of the house for lack of talent and potential, and sought instruction from the swordmaster Tsukahara Bokuden.  Yagyu hoped to achieve mastery of the sword and regain his position in the family.

On their initial interview, Matajuro asked Tsukahara Bokuden, "How long will it take me to master the sword?" Bokuden replied, "Oh, about five years if you train very hard."  "If I train twice as hard, how long will it take?" inquired Matajuro. Bokuden replied, "In that case, ten years."

If you worry about earning a black belt, your mind is not empty.  In order for your instructor to fill your cup (brain) with water (knowledge), you must have an empty cup.  Otherwise the knowledge will go in but pour out.  As stated before, the journey is the important part, not the destination.  Also, remember what Lao Tzu said: “The journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.” As you approach the black belt testing day, you will realize that the color of the belt is not as important as the lessons learned and the obstacles overcome along the way.

Of course in LOTUS, there is a syllabus of required testing material for you to perform and complete to be awarded your black belt.  The syllabus is important so you know what to learn in order to achieve your black belt.  This is also important to preserve the integrity of the martial art.  For example, it is not fair if one student has to complete a torturous test, while another student in the same style gets awarded a black belt for performing a less rigorous test.  When that happens, it degrades the integrity of the style and lessens the respect of the black belt bearers who completed the full and complete test.

Who is a Black Belt?

The martial artist, especially the martial artist who possesses a black belt, strives to live the martial way.  The martial way is a way of life that promotes harmony, knowledge, integrity, respect, and courage. 

Possessing harmony means you have conquered your inner warrior.  Confucius said, “He who conquers himself is the mightiest warrior.”  Being in a state of harmony keeps you in control.  Nobody can hurt you emotionally or anger you unless you allow them.  You are not quick to anger and you don’t feel you have to prove your martial arts skills by beating people up or teaching them a lesson.

Knowledge is power because knowledge promotes confidence.  Due to many hours of hard training, you have learned much.  You know the proper way to punch and kick, and also the proper way to block and defend against a multitude of attacks. Your knowledge of martial arts and the human body makes you confident in all that you do, inside and outside the dojo.

The American Heritage Dictionary defines integrity as adhering to a strict moral and ethical code, and as the quality of being complete.  This strict moral and ethical code is practiced by respectful traditions, such as bowing to your instructors, students, and classmates.  The bow is not a religious act, but an act of respect and discipline.  Martial arts without rules is nothing more than violence.  LOTUS black belts achieve completion by strengthening not just the body, but also the mind and the spirit.

My college psychology professor told our class that another word for respect is fear.  There are many people who are respected out of fear, but the black belt earns respect by showing respect.  The black belt doesn’t forget that he was a white belt at one time.  A black belt strives to refrain from thinking "I am better than so-and-so.” He knows he cannot compare his struggle or achievements to other people.  This is why a black belt encourages everyone in the continual pursuit of improving the quality of one’s life through the martial arts.

A black belt possesses courage.  Courage is not the absence of fear, but doing what needs to be done in the face of fear and adversity.  The black belt test is an act of courage.  You are performing all your movements and having to fight other well trained classmates in the presence of your instructor, fellow classmates, friends, and even strangers.

This does not mean black belts have no faults.  Black belts are ordinary people who try harder and don't give up.  True black belts strive to live the martial way by practicing these virtues every day.  Application of the martial way, in and out of the dojo, is one of the traits that brings black belts together. As a black belt, strive to apply all the principles you have learned in class to the rest of your life: harmony, knowledge, integrity, respect, and courage.

Written by Tucker Axum III