THE SPIRIT AND THE QUEST
 
A journey to black belt
The following is a copy of a lecture that I gave to those students who took part in a Shodan exam in July of 1999.
 
The Quest
It is today as it was in days gone by. Students enter a karate dojo for the first time for a wide variety of reasons. Just look around this room. I think, however, it is safe to say that few would declare as they enter the dojo "I joined because I want to be a black belt".
 
Black belt may be the goal, but you will come to find in most cases it is not the driving force.
 
Karate as we know it had it's roots in China, and it's youth in Okinawa. Originally, for a wide variety of reasons Okinawan karate was taught in secret. A Master would only take on a very select number of students, all of whom he would first evaluate over a period of time in order to learn their true character before he taught them anything. Under the master's supervision the student would be carefully guided over many long years until one day his master granted him the right to take on students of his own, and to pass on what he had learnt.
 
Over time the Okinawan masters saw the need to establish a ranking system to provide a series of levels, or steps, by which the student could measure his progress. This system was introduced by Sensei Kano and basically involved six steps known as kyus. This was comprised of three white belt steps, and then three brown belt steps, these were then followed by the dan ranks, of which the Shodan is the first level. There was then, and there are today, ten dan levels in the black belt ranks in most karate systems.
 
After being publicly demonstrated for the first time by Sensei Gichin Funakoshi karate eventually found it's way from Okinawa to Japan where it enjoyed great success up until the end of the pacific war. The war however took a terrible toll on the art of karate and by the war's end in 1945 many masters and senior students had been killed. Soon Allied troops occupied Japan and karate and other Japanese martial arts were forbidden by General McArthur. The one exception to this edict was judo which at that time was considered a sport by the American's probably because of it's similar to their own sport of wrestling.
 
As a result of the chaos that existed between 1945 and 1950 karate was left largely "unguided" by any form of central authority, and it was precisely due to this lack of a central authority that karate started to experience a wide disparity in how basic techniques and kata movements were taught.
 
By 1950 the American's had finally eased their ban on martial arts and karate training once again was allowed to flourish under the Japanese guise of it also being a "sport"; as a result many new schools sprang up, often with instructors whose training in many cases had never been completed, or sanctified, by any pre-war master. These different schools ultimately experienced many problems since often each instructor only remembered bits and pieces of the katas they had been taught so many years ago. This often resulted in these instructors creating their own interpretations of kata movements and bunki, and their own set of standards when it came to the testing, and the conferring of dan ranks.
 
It has been said that this disparity of standards could have been summed up as, the higher the dan claimed by the new master, the further from the "truth".
 
Fortunately for all of us Sensei Gichin Funakoshi survived the war, and he knew that for Shotokan karate to grow and to expand it must have a have two things :
 
1. A consistent set of standards.
 
2. A recognized ranking system.
 
Further more, he knew that these two things would have to be universally accepted, and just as importantly universally consistent so; just as a man six feet tall is always equal in height to another man six feet tall no matter where he lives, so the measure of a karate students progress should be the same in any Shotokan dojo anywhere in the world.
 
After Sensei Funakoshi's death in 1957 this concept of standardization was carried to the next level when in the early 1960's senior students, usually with the rank of 4th dan or higher were sent by the JKA (Japan Karate Association) to countries all over the world, not only to spread the art of Shotokan karate-do but just as importantly, to help maintain this desired level of quality. This worldwide program by the JKA continues to this day.
 
Time changes all things, and so it has been with the methods of karate training. Today in a "legitimate" Shotokan karate school such as ours, where the instructors have what I refer to as a proven history or lineage, lessons are "taught" to you instead of "beat" into you - except of course on Monday nights. (please note that this is an inside joke at the dojo and should be taken as such).
 
As a student progresses through the various belt levels, he or she will gradually become aware that a "molding process” is taking place and they will often find that the positive changes they are experiencing within the dojo will carry over to many other aspects of their life.
 
Given enough time, given continual effort, and supported by desire to "touch the light at the end of the tunnel" approximately 1 in a 1000 students will finally find themselves on the threshold of a life altering experience. Their black belt grading.
 
This then begs two questions.
 
1. Just what is a karate black belt?
 
To me, “ a black belt is a visual symbol of an individuals physical, mental, and spiritual progress in the art of karate that is globally recognized when conferred by a legitimate authority."
 
2. What does a black belt represent?
 
In the end there is only one way for you answer that question - guess what that is? And I assure you the answer to that question will be as individual as you are.
 
Is my black belt important to me?
 
Yes.
 
Is it important to anyone else?
 
No.
 
Why?
 
Because in the end, anything of value holds a different value for each us, and a black belt is no different. In life what makes anything important is the price you paid for it, and I don't just mean money.
 
When you finally receive your black belt you will have paid for it with hours, days, months, and years of your time. You will have paid for it with tens of thousands of punches and blocks. You will have paid for it with aching legs and arms that couldn't do one more push up. You will have paid for it with kata, after kata, done again, and again. You will have paid for it with your sweat, your heart, and your spirit.
 
So if I was to ask those of you here today who doing the grading: "what does a black belt mean to you?" You will I am sure give me a very good answer, but if I was to ask you the same question at 3:00 tomorrow afternoon I bet you would give me a much more emotional response. Why? Because by then you will have finally paid the price.
 
Now today there are three established standards and criteria for advancement and promotion within the dan, or black belt ranks. They are as follows: 
 
1. Honorary rank : - This requires no previous physical training in any style of karate. This is a ceremonial dan rank awarded to any individual who renders a direct or indirect service that supports the development of karate. (An example would be the President of a country or other high government official).
 
2. Regular rank : - This is a dan rank awarded in recognition of a level of progress reached by a student as a result of their physical and mental practice of the art of karate.
 
3. Recommended rank : - This is any dan rank conferred by a Sensei in recognition of a high level of character development reached by a karate-ka through their continued practice, and unselfish contribution and service to the art of karate, over an extended period of time. This in fact is most difficult dan rank to achieve due to the criteria of "time". In most cases 10 years or more of continuous teaching and training are required before a student is even considered for this type of promotion.
 
In most styles today all dan ranks awarded after 5th dan are recommended rank, and since such a significant period of time passes between these promotions it is not until a karateka reaches their 70's and 80's that they ever finally achieve a rank of 8th dan or higher, 10th dan is awarded only when a practitioner has demonstrated their complete mastery of their particular style of karate.
 
The Spirit
So black belt may be the Quest - but what is it that gets you there?
 
To me the answer in one word is spirit.
 
Your growth as a martial artist as you know by now is not just a physical one.
 
In your grading you will have noticed that technique alone is not enough. You must also begin to develop an increased level of mental toughness. As you progress on your journey up the karate ladder you will come to rely on the mental side of your training more and more. It will to help take you not only through the highest and lowest days of your training, but also ultimately through your own black belt grading. As many of you are about to find out.
 
But is mental toughness spirit? 
 
The answer to that is no.
 
Many people in all walks of life are mentally tough, but that same number can just as easily exhibit a total lack of spirit.
 
So what is spirit and how do you get it.
 
To me, "spirit is an invisible force that lives in all of us that gives us the capacity to strive beyond the limits of the mental and physical beliefs that we hold at any particular moment in time."
 
Do you all have spirit - yes - without a doubt.
 
Can you call upon it at will - absolutely.
 
But here's the catch. As teachers none of us can give you any more spirit than you give yourself. In the end when it is all said and done, what you get out of karate is in direct proportion to what you put in physically, mentally and spiritually.
 
In closing I would like to offer you the following thoughts and ask you to try and bear some of them them in mind when you are training:
In closing I wish to thank all of you for your time, your energy, your effort, and your spirit. I learn from all of you, I am today a better person, and a better martial artist because of all of you. So as you continue to seek for, and to reach beyond your current limitations, I wish you every success.
 
Thank you.
Sensei Peter Lindsay
 
Part the clouds - see the way.
 
"The objective of karate-do is to contribute to the evolution
of the human spirit through physical and mental training."
Sensei Peter Lindsay