Making the Grade

As many of you may know, whether through my writing or through talking to me, the concept of Shu-Ha-Ri is very important in my approach to training… well, to everything. This concept is at it’s most tangible during the grading process. Shu is learning the system, Ha is internalising the system and Ri is going beyond the system. I have written about this before, but after a few recent conversations, I would like to add to my previous published thoughts.

By the time someone attains about 6th kyu, they virtually know everything they need to learn in order to attain shodan. Apart from a few kata, all basic stances, strikes, punches, blocks and kicks have been learnt. The rest of the kyu grade journey is about physical development to the point where what is being asked of shodan candidates can be executed in a natural, flowing manner. The first black belt examination is the fulfilment of their unique individual potential and through the rigorous process of kyu examinations, they must have achieved close to their personal potential in order to pass… This is Shu.

The journey from shodan to sandan is, in many ways, the ability to go beyond the typical standard potential. Whilst new kata and strategies of kumite are being internalised, karate-ka must go beyond what would be seen as the average potential of the average person, therefore become something more. The sandan examination is the last of the purely physical examinations within karate. It should be tough, pressured, challenging and successful candidates will be able to hold their heads high in the knowledge that they have become more that your average Joe Bloggs.

After sandan, Ha and beyond, the physicality of karate becomes less and less important. The self-imposed shackles and constraints that have been used to restrain one’s natural tendencies are cast aside, and we can finally become ourselves. This, I believe, is the ultimate aim of karate-do.

However, during a recent trip to the USA, I spoke to an instructor who ran his own group. He had inherited senior students, high grades, that didn’t represent what he believed was his standard – basically, he wouldn’t have given them the ranks that they had. What, he asked, would I do?
It is a difficult situation. The ability to develop one’s own style, as one achieves yondan and then goes beyond, is based upon the diligent and correct following of the previous two developmental stages. If karate-ka have never gone through these stages, it may be impossible to go further along the grading journey or even justify the grade that they have. Further to this, he added, the high-ranking students now represent him, and he felt uncomfortable with the situation.
It was a difficult question, so I gave it some thought.

Eventually, I concluded:

Firstly, no one should represent you other than yourself. I have a lot of students; some of them are great, some of them are awful. They represent themselves. I cannot take ownership for the good ones and, therefore, I don’t have to take ownership of the bad ones. I am merely here to help facilitate their development, it’s their choice what they do with that (that’s not to say I am dispassionate about their growth! I will always enthusiastically participate in my students’ journey.)
Secondly, karate is ultimately about the unique individual potential. Someone who is instructed badly, but yet achieves an okay standard has had a much greater karate journey than someone who has had all the benefits of a great instructor, dojo or organisation but achieves the same standard.

Whilst in Japan, I was in regular contact with Yamada Sensei 8th Dan and Nakamura Sensei 8th Dan. They were wonderful, kind and well-respected senior members of the JKS. They attended every national and international event we had and were the chief instructors of their regions… However, I never saw them train. Dogi-clad, they would wander around the dojo, sports hall or Budokan, correcting eager karate-ka, but would never train along-side the Hombu Dojo instructors and other senior JKS ranks… However, on one occasion I had the chance to see them both perform kata… In comparison to some of the other 8th Dans in the group, they weren’t what you would expect. Yet, they were the President and Vice-President of the JKS. On the other hand, whilst training with Teikyo University students, I was in awe of the talented students. About forty 18-22 year olds, pinging, leaping, exploding all over the dojo, anyone on the floor with them had to have their wits about them. Each and every one of them was world-standard… And after they graduated, the vast majority quit karate forever… It makes you think who of the two examples practised true karate.
I think, as instructors, we have to look beyond the superficial level of someone that is in front of us. We have to identify how much of our own ego is influencing the decision we are making, and we have to blank out the critiques who aren’t part of the decision-making process but are jibbing from the side-lines. In a very real sense, everyone, in one way or another, with enough dedication, resilience and fortitude, is capable of achieving the highest ranks karate has to offer.

Author: Editorial Team