Belt Exams – A Conflict of Philosophies Part 1

By Ray Hughes (December 2014)

Part One – The Debate

Belt exams and promotions have been the center of philosophical debate for as long as organized martial arts have existed. It is a great example of conflict within conflict. First, should there be belt promotions, and if so, how should they be administered?

There are two contrasting philosophies on whether there should be belt exams and promotions. One view believes belt exams contradict the philosophy of Bushido (the Way of the Warrior); to hone one’s physical skills, to nurture humility, and to battle the war of “self.” They believe the seven deadly sins of mankind (wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony) have a direct relationship to the instability of the warrior (practitioner). It is felt the seeking of rank, which could fit into several of these categories, feeds the inner demon of man. This view feels “One should train for the sake of training, not to receive an award.”

Karate training is a martial art, which means many of its customs and protocols come from the military. This would include rank. This side believes that if rank should be awarded, it should be awarded at the discretion of the superior and not because of personal desire. Therefore tests are not needed, the superior already knows who is worthy of rank.

The other view of this argument believes there are many positive benefits that can come from the use of the belt promotion process. The point here is that is a process. This side believes the good out ways the bad, if administered properly. They believe that the key is to understand the nature of man. The nature of man is to battle ego; but it also understood that man requires certain things; such as the need for motivation, to understand where one is within their growth, to focus on small attainable goals, and so on. These elements can be taught through the proper use of the belt exam and promotion process.

This side believes that belt exams and awards can help motivate the practitioner through difficult training periods, give students small attainable goals to focus on, helps nurture students through the many years of training before they can apply philosophical understanding to the battle of “self” to help develop skills to deal with emotion (fear, anxiety, stress, etc.), to give that innate need of humans to know where they are in the total process of any endeavor, and most importantly to develop the understanding, pros and cons, of the belt promotion process. In other words, to use this process to learn and understand the human condition and answer the questions “why do we do what we do and why do we react the way we react?”

This understanding can come out of the belt exam process and then applied to the challenges of life. As Sun Tzu stated in his book The Art of War, “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.” This quote is about understanding how man thinks.

All of this must be a part of the belt promotion process. If this information and knowledge does not exist or is not administered properly, then it is flawed and will create more harm than good.

The question now becomes, if you believe there are potential benefits from belt exams, what process is best to disseminate this knowledge to the practitioner? The process is also a conflict of philosophy.

Next week: Three common methods used to administer belt exams; two of which are flawed.

Part Two: The Philosophical Analogy of the Belt Exam Process