Martial Arts “Masters” – FACT or FANTASY? – Part 3

This post is also available in: Italian

A new section to this article: “Martial Arts ‘Masters’- FACT or FANTASY?” will be posted every Thursday.  Please leave a comment giving your feedback and/or opinions. I look forward to the discussions.

Shihan Pascetta - Okinawa 1987


Significance of Black Belt Levels

Standards for the higher degrees/levels of Black Belt have taken much longer to develop.  Most established systems view the first three levels of Black Belt as levels where the student focuses on perfecting the physical technique and begins to better understand the relationship between the various aspects of the system. The student begins to better understand the principles governing those aspects along with pertinent tactics and strategies for application. It is significant to note that he must also gain greater experience in passing such knowledge and information along to students with less experience.

1st, 2nd, and 3rd Dan – Black Belt

The 1st Degree Black Belt may accurately be viewed as a “Junior Expert” (proven proficiency with the basics). The 2nd Degree Black Belt may accurately be viewed as a “Journeyman Expert” (an experienced expert). And, the 3rd Degree Black Belt may accurately be viewed as a “Senior Expert” (a well seasoned expert). The overall long range goal of both the student and his/her “Master teacher” is for the Black Belt student to achieve a high level of “mastery” of the techniques, principles, training methods, as well as to increase personal growth intellectually and emotionally. Literally and ultimately this should also be represented by some level of “self mastery”.

It is commonly accepted that in order to advance through these levels that part of the training experience is to help in sharing with other students who are less experienced the very concepts and skills that the “Black Belt” student possesses. The overall underlying and long term goal of both the student and the “Master” is for the student to move toward mastery of the specific aspects of the system of study.

Henceforth, in most established and credible martial arts organizations, true teaching grades do not begin until at least 4th Degree Black Belt. Black Belts teaching at the first three levels are most legitimately seen as “instructors” or “assistants” to the actual “Master” teacher and under his/her supervision. Although they have great potential influence over junior students, their level of responsibility is secondary to the actual “Master” teacher who carries greater responsibility toward junior students and even for the Black Belt “instructor’s” actions.

4th and 5th Dan – Black Belt

The 4th Degree Black Belt could accurately be referred to as a “Junior Master”. The requirements for advancement should include a full understanding of the basic technical aspects of the particular system (style) of martial art, an understanding of concepts, principles and application of those aspects, and the ability to pass the basic information on effectively to less experienced practitioners.

One famous martial arts master once stated: “If you want to learn a martial art correctly you should study with a true ‘master’, if you want to master that system, you must learn to teach it.”

The subsequent higher levels of Black Belt begin to reflect more experience, greater depth of knowledge, more research, and greater levels of contribution to both the of the practitioners in that system and potentially to martial arts in general. It is generally accepted that a 5th Degree Black Belt is seen as a “Senior Master” teacher and therefore is well established as a teacher.

The credibility of such ranking is validated by viewing the years of work and investment such a “master” has put into the students under his/her charge. Time in grade is certainly a significant factor, but not the only one. If he/she has not been capable of developing quality level “Black Belts” one would be hard pressed to give credibility to any such ranking status.

There is no better measure of credibility of a “Master’s” rank than that demonstrated by the quality or lack of quality of the students he has produced. Also, be aware that even a terrible teacher can have a student of two who appears “excellent” simply because certain students will thrive even in spite of poor leadership or instruction.  The real test of a legitimate “master teacher” is that he/she is able to produce a high level of student consistently, even with individuals of average talent. Also be aware, when observing and measuring the quality of the Black Belt students of a particular “Master”, whether a specific student has been trained from the beginning  by that Master or was “adopted” (received his/her foundation from another teacher).

6th, 7th, and 8th Dan – Black Belt

The 6th Degree Black Belt is typically considered a “Teacher of teachers” or a “Master of Masters” not unlike a professor in other forms of education. To continue that parallel, this level could be compared to an “Associate Professor”. At this level the well experienced “master” is also expected to take on more administrative and organizational duties. Part of the requirements for his/her advancement would be the evidence of his ability to produce quality “instructors” under his guidance. This can be demonstrated within his/her own school but better yet, by guiding and directing his/her juniors who have their own club, gym, or school.

He/she should clearly be an inspiration to those Black Belt students who are junior to him in that organization. By this point leadership qualities should clearly be evident. Be aware that it is sometimes easy to impress the novice student who comes into martial arts wide eyed and unaware of the intricacies. However, the seasoned Black Belts students have seen much more and should have experienced enough to make a much more accurate assessment of those “master instructors” ahead of them in their chosen system.

The 7th Degree and 8th Degree Black Belts levels represent those practitioners who are clearly established “master teachers” who now assume the serious administrative duties within an organization and serve to empower the less experiences members as well as challenge them to achieve a higher level of excellence. These are the well seasoned “Masters” who have practiced long enough and made enough mistakes to begin to develop better and more advanced curriculum and to advance the information within their field of study. These are akin to the full “Professors”.

It makes sense to realize that unless there is the opportunity within an organization for such work, research, and development that there is no necessity nor credibility for advancement to such levels. These levels are not advancements that come automatically with time in grade. The work that is consistent with these levels must be accomplished and documented accurately over time. An analogy would be if there are no privates, sergeants, lieutenants, captains, and colonels, what would be the significance of being “the general”?

Consider the comparison with other professions. For example if a person passed the exam for graduation in a legitimate university for Pre-Med  studies and then stayed at home for another 15-20 years perhaps even reading and studying would you expect him to qualify as a Medical Doctor because he has started his independent study years prior? Of course not, the answer is rhetorical. Then how do so many martial arts practitioners/”teachers” expect to have credibility when they receive or display diplomas after a similar lack of formal study, practice, leadership activity and the appropriate accomplishments consistent with these activities?

9th and 10th Dan – Black Belt

The highest levels of Black Belt are the 9th and 10th Degree. These ranking are called “Grand Master” and were originally awarded posthumously to many of the founders of established MA systems long after they had achieved such credibility for their life’s work. Today, those living Masters who hold such ranking with any credibility are well established “Masters of Masters”, advanced in years, who have devoted close to a life time to their respective disciplines. Many times they have either inherited a patriarchal position after the death or retiring of the original Patriarch or have truly established a unique variation of a previously established system.

The credibility of such levels is based on actual accomplishment in every aspect of martial arts development particular to that specialty. Many times 9th Degree Black Belt is used as an indication that a “Grand Master” has chosen that individual to succeed him at some future time. However, it could also indicate that the issuing “Grand Master” recognizes that students achievement and ability to create something unique to himself/herself.

The 9th Degree Black Belt has also been used historically as a substitution for the 10th Degree for a period after the death or retiring of a particular Patriarch as a sign of respect for that Patriarch. This practice may be compared similarly with an “Acting President” who assumes the responsibilities  of his predecessor upon the predecessor’s incapacity or demise and after a time is formally confirmed in that role. After a reasonable period it is expected for that 9th Degree to ultimately assume the 10th Degree ranking.

The 10th Degree is ultimately the Patriarch/leader of a particular system. It is important to remember that claiming or receiving such “status” is merely the symbol of achievement. Without the history and work involved to achieve such results there is no credibility. If that were not the case, then technically, any person could hypothetically put a list of techniques together, claim to be the “Founder” of a “new system”, and thereby be considered the “Grand Master” and/or 10th Degree.

Quite obviously, anyone with common sense would recognize that the above described scenario, at worst, is a con or a fraud, and at best, is a person who has delusions. Be aware further, that there is no justification or credibility for any MA practitioner to “skip” levels of Black Belt. The requirements for the higher levels of Black Belt are based on the experience and accomplishments established at each and every one of the previous levels. Just like in the game of baseball, you must touch 1st, 2nd, or 3rd base before touching home plate or it is not a “home run” and you are counted “out”!

In some cases an established “Master” may create or “found” his/her own unique system of MA while he/she is at a level lower than 9th Dan (i.e., 6th, 7th, 8th, or 9th Dan), however, for the sake of credibility that Master will not assume the ranking of “Grandmaster” (10th Dan) until much time has passed and work completed. This is done in order to allow himself/herself the time to establish the proof of the uniqueness and functionality of his/her system along with the work necessary for the organization of a network of other Masters, instructors, assistant instructors, and students under  his/her leadership.

This last example would clearly demonstrate a Master who has both integrity and is willing to do the work necessary to establish solid credibility.


Copyright © 2010  R.V. PASCETTA, All rights reserved

(Go to PART 4)

(Go back to PART 2 of this series)

Go to Questions/Comments Page