How to Be the Black Belt You Were Meant to Be

You bow deeply when you exit the dojo.

Yet, you cut somebody off in traffic as you drive home.

You say: “Karate teaches us to be humble.”

Yet, you say “I’m a black belt” on the first date.

You train hard in the dojo, even if nobody is looking.

Yet, you won’t do the dishes at home – even if somebody is looking.

You meet your sensei several times a week.

Yet, you forget to visit your own parents.

It’s weird, isn’t it?

master-ueshiba-morihei

Respect, honor, loyalty, humility, self-control, integrity, honesty…

These were the words spoken by the ancient masters.

Words that, when successfully followed, could help us attain an enlightened life.

Sadly, for many people they remain just that.

Words.

Shallow and useless.

Spoken, yet never applied.

But as a black belt, you practice them all the time.

Often without even knowing.

  • Respect is when you bow deeply to your training partner – even though he’s a douchebag outside of class.
  • Self-control is when you stop your punch an inch from your opponent’s nose – even though you could easily have crushed it.
  • Loyalty is when you help your sensei teach kids classes – even though you’re dead tired.
  • Humility is when you ask your opponent for feedback – even though he’s “lower grade” than you.
  • Integrity is when you refuse to use brute force over correct technique – even though you’re losing the sparring match.
  • Honor is when you stand up to these black belt values – even though somebody trash-talks your Karate.

I could go on…

But you get the point.

See, here’s the thing:

When the old masters told us to use Karate in our daily lives, they weren’t just talking about the punches and kicks.

Oh no.

They were talking about the essential mental components that allow us to successfully dictate when, where, why and how to best use those very same punches and kicks.

A way of thinking.

A mindset.

Why?

Because real Karate has the power to end life.

And with that power comes a moral responsibility, manifested through a set of traditional values, ethos and codes of conduct virtually identical in all major warrior civilizations throughout the history of mankind.

Karate is no exception.

You see, although Karate can easily make us feel healthier, stronger, fitter or happier – so can jogging, ice hockey, baseball, soccer, golf, basketball, water polo or yoga.

There’s really no difference.

Unless…

Unless you make a conscious decision to relentlessly practice Karate in the pursuit of being a true representative of the black belt ideal, in every sense of the word. Both inside and outside of the dojo.

If you’re a black belt, you should brush your teeth like a black belt, tie your shoes like a black belt and wipe your a** like a black belt.

Every.

Single.

Day.

Because Karate teaches us humility, respect, loyalty, integrity, honor and much more.

But it doesn’t guarantee it.

And that’s why black belt is not really a belt.

It’s a state of mind.

A Way of life.

“Knowing is not enough, we must apply.
Willing is not enough, we must do.”

– Bruce Lee (1940-1973)

41 Comments

  • That sounds like a lot of hard work, and a lot less "fun" than things ought to be.Hmm ... that sounds like karate.
    • You got it, Ian-san! ;)
    • Brilliant Jesse, I teach a similar thing in my classes but the way you have worded it really hits the nail on the head. Mind if I use your wording at the next session I teach? Keep up the good work. Billy
      • William-sensei, spread the love! ;)
  • Pawe? Badzio
    My sensei always distinguishes these two "states of mind", as you've called it, Jesse-san. But he applies it (and now so do I)to all belt colours, not only the black ones. These two types are karate-ka opposed to karate-wa.
    • Indeed, ideally it applies to all belt colors.
  • I guess the question I find myself asking from time to time is: "Does Karate and like martial arts (Judo in particular) teach values, or does it attract people with values?" I've found, so far, in my martial journey that there is no magic in the art I practice save what I put into it. It has core values that can help strengthen what I already believe in, but it will not - in and of itself - teach me these things. I find that reading any of the thoughts and musings of, say, Martin Luther King Jr. is infinitely more enlightening when it comes to issues of integrity, humility, loyalty and so forth, but practicing an art such as Karate can help strengthen these values.
    • Cinzia
      It doesn't attract people with values or at least not ONLY people with values. Does it teach them? Yes. But it doesn't mean the students will learn them.
  • Dojorat
    Karaté cannot give a person values. The values and moral teachings associated with it are only there because they existed already among the people who first developed and taught karate. The ideal of what a black belt or martial artist should be is either foreign or out of date or both to most people who practise.A person who has not learned the values mentioned above elsewhere will never understand what they mean, nor how to cultivate them never mind strive to apply them. The proof is that there are many who have a great deal of these qualities yet have never done martial arts. Also many high level karateka who are contemptible individuals.
  • I have had my heart broken a few times on my karate journey because I naively believed that black belts are, well, black belts. Then I learnt the hard way that what is said by people do not necessarily equal what they do. So now I realise that karate can make a good person better but not make a bad person good.
    • Cinzia
      I think you can't save who doesn't want to be saved, you can't teach to someone who doesn't want to learn and so on.
  • Stuff like this is really important in my opinion, luckily the black belts (and the rest) in my dojo are really humble and nice people. Hopefully I will be too... a black belt that is, I´m already nice. And humble. And handsome. And Awesome.
  • Eduardo
    "If you’re a black belt, you should brush your teeth like a black belt, tie your shoes like a black belt and wipe your a** like a black belt. Every. Single. Day. Because Karate teaches us humility, respect, loyalty, integrity, honor and much more."One of your best articles Jesse, thank you! Your point here, well, I think a lot of black belts don't get it, or just don't wanna get it, or pretend not to get it, I dunno, maybe out of fear of not blending in with most of the rest of the people around, you know, people who complain about crap, show laziness, don't wanna try difficult or uncomfortable things, don't wanna take risks, don't wanna change and improve, etc. I think being a black belt means believing in "making the difference", in being a bit different from the rest, being the ones who may even be perceived as "overpolite" (in today's floppy standards), the ones who wanna do the right thing, the ones who show respect to every-single-individual (giving a damn about race, religion, or any other form of discrimination), the ones who are courageous and try to improve in whatever it is they do in life, work, study, whatever, the ones who wanna learn, the ones who gladly give a hand when needed.I think it's OK to blend in a bit from time to time (Bodhidharma would agree with me on this one I think!) but us blackbelts are meant to be different, even if at times it's really really difficult, and you even feel lonely. A bit of lonelyness is part of being different, and anyway us KarateNerds sure count some KarateNerds or other kind of awesome people -"blackbelts" in other fields of life- among our close friends, people who are by our side, people who encourage us to improve and, again, make the difference. Friends, you know, it's better to have a few good ones rather than a thousand bad ones.Today, 28 years ago, Space Shuttle Challenger took off for his last flight... All of them, the crew members, had lived awesome lives, ordinary people who accomplished wonders, who made the difference. One of them, Ronald McNair, was "one of us", a Karate BlackBelt! Us blackbelts, well, we have to aim high! Every. Single. Day. Ron would agree on this one!Keep the awesome writing Jesse, you're doing a great job! OSS!
  • I may have to wait a while to see some change(I'm very lazy on such matters)
  • Samuel Finger
    Hey Jesse, this article really made me think about my own karate journey-Many thanks,Sam
  • Marcus Caits
    Great article, keep it up bro!
  • Noel Minay
    True. Spiritual karate......religious karate...a way of life....Thanks, Jesse-san....NM
  • Gary
    Great reminder, it is all too easy to forget those lessons.
  • Ed
    "... and wipe your a** like a black belt."Timely article: Perhaps this is only funny to me, but I was "enthroned" when I read it. Fate?
  • Lotto Fangina
    Brilliant. Thanks.
  • Ed
    “Respect is when you bow deeply to your training partner – even though he’s a douchebag outside of class.” Is it? Or is that “courtesy”? Or is there any difference between the two?Does anyone else make a point of differentiating between "respect" and "courtesy"? I see them as very different and I make a point of explaining the differences when it comes up. I'm interested to know if others feel the same way (or to be convinced that I'm wrong, if the argument is good enough).I cannot teach someone how to “respect” others, any more than I can force two people to fall in love, because respect is a feeling – they have to “learn” that for themselves. On the other hand, I *can* teach someone “courtesy” – how to act – the things to do and not do. Bowing is an excellent example. I can teach students the proper way to bow, but a proper bow does not mean they respect each other – it means that, regardless of how they feel about one another, they’ve agreed to behave civilly. Handshakes and salutes are the same way – rivals who hate each other’s guts will still shake hands after a deal or salute each other (in whatever way) before a fight. I suppose you could say that the rivals have learned to “respect” the rules of social behavior, if not each other, but even then they weren’t “taught” to do so.I agree that these are “signs of respect”, in that those who respect each other are likely to also be courteous, but the one does not inevitably lead to the other. Don’t misunderstand: Karate provides an excellent framework for allowing students to come to these feelings, but I don’t know if they can be “taught”, directly, the way you can teach someone how to punch, or spell, or do math, etc.Not exactly on-topic, but I’m curious how others feel about this.
    • Interesting thoughts, Ed.I guess there are different definitions for "respect". I can "respect" nature by not littering and polluting, and I can "respect" a tiger or a typhoon by staying well clear of them so I don't get killed.Being courteous is certainly one way in which one can demonstrate the respect one has for other people ... but of course "respect" does not always mean that "love and admire" sort of feeling. Sometimes "respect" for others is acknowledging a certain basic human dignity of one level or another which you feel toward them and demonstrate through, among other things, acts of courtesy.I certainly think that these things can be taught. Apart from the way we all teach each other generally, through our words and deeds and the examples we set of how we live our lives, perhaps there is something in karate (and similar martial arts) which encourages and teaches respect. Think of the acts of courtesy in the dojo like the movements in a kata: when you first learn the kata, it's "punch, punch, block, kick, punch, kiai, done!" But you practice the kata over and over, again and again, and with the odd correction and encouragement from your sensei, you internalise the kata and start to "get it" on a deeper level. Practice the kata 10,000 times and you "are" the kata; practice the acts of respect 10,000 times, and you "are" respect.
      • Ed
        Good thoughts, Ian. I really want to reply, but it's time to teach class now. ;-) More later.
    • Cinzia
      Maybe by bowing u're respecting YOURSELF :P
  • Ian Fuccboi
    Some of this really hit home, thanks Jesse, for making want to become a better karateka.
  • Nice article Jesse-san! I have to admit I don't post comments too often (sometimes my exact words are already posted by others and sometimes I doubt my english so... :p ) but this is a main issue for me or something I put attention on. I think I understood I was missunderstanding the meaning of my black belt when I reached sho-dan, and through time and some out-of-the-martial-arts-world situations I started translating what I was told and using it as my Senseis wanted to. To make it a lifestyle (Finally!). I believe I improve my teaching (and human) skills and I can be better. To focus my mental energy in what is good for me and the people I care. I think I went off the topic, so I'll finish these lines just by saying that discovering your blog has made me really happy. Bye!
  • Indeed, a good article. Funny how many karate-ka can maintain complete cool when sparring in the dojo while being more on the receiving end but become hostile when someone inadvertently (or intentionally) cuts them off on the freeway...I shall continue work on applying my karate sensibilities and mindset to the other parts of my life.
  • Bryan Alstat
    Those are all good traits and should be a part of most of us before we ever enter a Dojo, but sadly not always. I have learned a long time ago there are black belts then there are BLACK BELTS. Story: not long ago a person I work with started at my Dojo. My Sensei was doing the normal paperwork and get to know you session in his office. I put on my Gi and started to warm up. The new student came in and had a hocked look on his face when he saw me. I asked why he said I did not know you were a 4th Degree Black Belt. I said, well I told that I was a student and I have been training for about 21 years. I also said Rank really is not that important it is the quest for knowledge and skill.
  • Fabian P.
    Actually the citation is from J.W.v.Goethe. It is incredibly wise!
  • Torbjörn Lekberg
    Good post! This is somthing very important, and sadly often forgotten. In this way, karate becomes somthing more than a way to get fit and capable of self defence. It becomes a way of life, and a rewarding one at that.
  • Great article Jesse! I cited it in my own blog today. I think we might have been on the same wave length when writing these :) http://wp.me/ptNgF-gpOSU ! Scott
  • mike
    great article
  • Dan
    Been a while since I last commented or even read the comment section. Jesse-san, you know you're getting big when the trolls start posting, so congrats! Hahah On the subject at hand, you really made me think on this one. About my habits, my choices... oh, and my karate too. As a brown belt (time really flies. I started reading your blog when I was green!) who knows belts don't matter that much, I've been seeking for a while now to be like those I admire, in karate and in life. It hasn't been easy, as it really shouldn't be.Well, I'll keep you posted on my journey to find my honor, respect and humility, Jesse-san!
  • Anonymous
    I was physically assaulted by a so-called Black Belt a couple of days ago. He got his belt a long time ago and then left karate and now recently joined. Whenever he walks in the class, he has this terrible attitude, crosses his arms, looks down on everyone, and never says hello or even crack a smile. He cant even do a decent warm up, has a huge pot belly and for some reason calls himself Sensei. We were paired up for sparring. This 40-50 yr old man couldn't block any of my moves (and I've only started practicing karate for just over a year). To hide his incompetence he punched me in the chest. He had no protective gear on. He violently whacked me across the head multiple times to try and knock me out. Once I started to read his moves and blocking them, he punched me again full contact. 3rd time he punched, I was on the ground crying because the pain was so bad. And I'm just a tiny 5 foot woman. I reckon he's the perfect example of a fake Black Belt that one shouldn't be and I would love to forward this article to him.
    • Loriane
      That's disgusting. I'm sorry but that's a disgusting example of a black belt. He's one I don't want to be. Disrespectful, rude... Wow, I'm sorry fellow practitioner, that you had to go through that.
  • Paul
    Hi Jesse Sensei as always you broken it down fantastically always a pleasure reading your blogs awesome.
  • Maleele Siakachoma
    That's the true spirit of Karate. The wrath of Vagira is only invoked with a pure and clean mind or spirit.
  • Loriane
    It's so true. That's why I love karate so much. It teaches all of that. I think I'm already a pretty nice person, but karate helps me become a better one. One word that I might add is courage. Karate helps me try new things in life, because if you never try then you'll never know what you're capable off. Just the other day, I was practising my mawashi kick. Front foot with the left leg, my weak leg. I hurt my toe hitting the floor. Ow. But I just kept pushing through because karate taught me to just... try and improve.
  • Stavros Prineas
    I loved this article, Jesse, and thank you. I will use it to help me teach airway management skills to students at my hospital. The only thing that jarred was in your biog. This being my first date with your article, and in keeping with your philosophy, I would remove 'best-selling'. As an author, the rectitude of your words are their own reward. I hope I do not offend with this suggestion. I love your d? - please keep it up.

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