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The meaning of a Black Belt

A Black belt can have many values, Shihan Liam Keaveney gives his own views.

People begin their karate training for an assortment of reasons, ranging from “keeping fit” to being able
“to defend oneself’. One “goal” in karate training, although not the immediate perhaps, is to obtain your
Shodan (first Dan – black belt).

Black Belt

Why do people strive and battle for this symbolic reward? There are many arguments in the martial arts world which disagree with the traditional grading system. Why should a person submit themselves to such a system? Is it worth it, and in effect does it mean anything?

These questions can be answered differently by every individual karateka. I offer here, some of the initial and obvious meanings of obtaining a black belt in the Kyokushinkaikan.

Initially it is the “ultimate” symbolic reward for many years of persistent physical and spiritual development gained through hard training, whereupon a grasp and basic understanding of the techniques and basic principles of karate, will have been learnt and understood. Throughout this process of learning, a gradual strengthening of the body, spirit and positive mental attitude may perhaps be discovered. But to say that Shodan is the “ultimate reward” is, upon reflection, a falsehood both physically and spiritually. Since upon gaining this grade, the threshold of a long and endless struggle of ambitions and achievement has been reached.

Indeed, it may not be until this point has been reached that the difficulty and actual depth of karate training may transpire. Since in the formative years of training, the aim of Shodan was, perhaps considered the end of a long and difficult path and not its beginning. Each student can with hindsight see that the way and means of achievement is only in its infancy and the student must continuously bring something from deep inside him of herself into their daily training and must always expect to put more into training than will ever be taken out.

It is true to say that Shodan, to some degree, is an actual measurement of an individual’s skills and proficiency to a required level; but it is by no means correct to assume that all the hard training has finished and everything will now become easier, as perhaps unfortunately one could easily assume.

Those who seek Shodan for exhibitionism have failed to grasp the actual depth and meaning of Kyokushin karate. One must look beyond the colour of a belt to discover the true meaning and significance of the grade. This critical examination of the· newly acquired grade will give an actual meaning to the reward and it will be seen that Shodan will be the foundation upon which each individual’s advancement both in karate and in life itself, can be built upon and will also be one step further in pursuing the “true meaning of the way”. The karateka should be aware that the spirit of self perfection must always be kept in view and it must be this ambition of self perfection that will be the
ending point of training.

One of Sosai Oyama’s·Kyokushin training mottos deals with introspection – the examination of one’s own thoughts and teachings – he states:

“In the martial arts. Introspection begets wisdom. Always see contemplation on your actions as an opportunity to improve”.

Through such training up to and beyond Shodan the aim of every student (Shodan or Not) must be to unify knowledge and action by the means of self discipline and to arrive eventually at a level of understanding that would be unattainable by any other means.

This, I feel, attempts in some way to outline briefly what the passing of Shodan grade means to me – it illustrates clearly the fact that one perhaps will never reach the peak of knowledge and perfection.

However, the discovery and awareness of this fact must not detract a person from attempting to achieve total perfection. It will be seen that learning is accomplished by constant practice and training indeed making training part of one’s daily life.

Although Shodan, in the final analysis, carries greatest meaning to the individual it cannot be viewed totally in isolation, as other people will have been involved directly and indirectly in the student’s daily karate training. Throughout the many years of preparation for Shodan each student’s instructor will have instilled: encouragement, teaching and given understanding of Kyokushin karate, all of which assists the
individual’s personal effort. I cannot but believe that upon each student passing the Shodan grading his /her sensei will also feel rewarded, be it perhaps only in a sense of satisfaction and pride.

The students within the dojo will also be affected by the event whereby one of their fellow karateka has gained Shodan. Once again a sense of pride may be felt, but above all it is the element of encouragement given to each student and the example set, which will be stimulated into every Kyu grade, as a result of this achievement.

Finally, if not stating the obvious, I believe that the Intemational Karate Organisation Kyokushinkaikan will be directly affected by each individual who passes their Dan grading. It is, by the individual effort of each person, who raises up the Kyu grades to Dan grade, that expands and strengthens even further our Organisation. Indeed, it is this reason (together with the teaching example set by Sosai Oyama,
Shihans, Senseis and Senpais) which propagates the very existence of budo karate in the world today.

In conclusion and for the brief reasons I have stated: Shodan can therefore be seen as one step by which greater meaning is given to – “all our lives through the discipline of karate we will seek to fulfill the true meaning of the way”.

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