White to Black – Black to White: The journey ends at the beginning
by James Herndon, 8th-Dan, Hanshi
Daiko Kaicho-Kuniba Kai International
Most martial arts novices hold the black belt in great esteem. In one dojo I recently visited, the sign on the wall stated, “My goal is Black Belt.” This is all well and good. Goals fuel behavior and lead, usually, to self-development and personal growth. There is nothing wrong with having a goal. But, is the goal the symbol of progress, or the actual progress? One must remember that a belt is just a belt.
Black belt (kuro obi) is just a piece of cloth worn around the waist when one has on a gi (uniform). Some say the obi is functional (or used to be); others maintain that it is only symbolic. The origins of belts or sashes worn on martial arts uniforms are, no doubt, culturally based. Some accounts give more weight to the origin of the practice than do others. Tales and legends speak of the belt beginning as white, to signify purity, and then progressing through various shades of dirtiness – yellow, green, brown – as it is worn year after year, until finally it is black. Thus, very experienced practitioners become black belts.
Modern times and modern dyes have altered the process remarkably. Nowadays, you can buy a belt in almost any color imaginable. Blue, orange, purple, red, red/white, and red/black; all are seen in dojo today. More colors usually mean more promotion opportunities and more testing/promotion fees. Whether more learning occurs is debatable. Personally, I prefer the practice of “earning a black belt” with few color belts en route. Kyu (grades below black belt) is kyu, no matter the hue. All kyu are dan-gai (i.e., outside the dan rank). Kyu progress is a necessary transitional phase to black belt.
When one attains dan (degree of black belt) status, usually after 4-5 years of continual practice, training and progress shift to an inward, perfection oriented focus. In many traditional Japanese dojo, the black belt given is made of cotton wrapped in silk. As time passes –weeks, months, years, decades – the silk frays and wears away, leaving only the white cotton liner. Neat freaks and OC-types might be inclined to replace the frayed belt with a new black belt as necessary. They miss the point.
The return to white as the black silk falls away is a visual reminder that the essence of lifelong practice is to return to the beginning, the state of beginner’s mind or Shoshin. Those who pursue the black belt through all its levels will start out as white belt, and if they are good enough, will end the journey at the beginning: older, wiser, and white belt.

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