Over the 35 plus years I have been studying and training in the martial arts, one of the most interesting philosophies I have seen repeated in many styles and disciplines is the concept of what a Black Belt is or means. I must admit that over these years I have seen the perception from both sides, having reached that rank in four arts myself as well as being Knighted in a western medieval organization, and I have often asked my teachers and founders when I could, what the rank really meant. The research into the older Asian styles gives us the best idea of it's original intent since the rank in the history of martial arts is not that old dating to the early 1900's.
The original intent in practical terms is to denote a student who has achieved a "Basic level of Competence."
(I know what you are thinking. "Wait a minute there mister! A black belt is a master! Like in all the movies I have ever seen! Able to break things and take on like 20 bad guys, one at a time of course, and... you know.. break things!")
A black belt rank was in it's original intent to signify nothing more that the students competence in the basics. Both in action and general understanding. One of the best ways I have ever heard it described was by my Master when, after a four hour test granting the rank, he came to me and placed his hand on my shoulder and with pride he said, "This just means you are skilled and interesting enough to speak to." Then he smiled and told me that what I had achieved had simply given me the ability to begin and understand what he was teaching.
I feel that when a martial artist achieves the rank of black belt (or Don or Knight in the SCA or Provost) that the rest of the community some how believes they have the ability to lead, create or even teach. But this is not the case at all. It simply means that this individual has the ability to understand the content he has been given. There are many people of high rank in many disciplines that cannot and should not teach simply because although they may have the technical prowess, they lack the communication skills and personality to effectively bring across the concepts. This goes both ways of course, meaning there are many highly charismatic people that teach who have little or no real grasp of the martial intent.
To be completely honest, I am somewhat of a purist. I was fortunate enough to begin my martial journey when many of the schools tried to stay on the traditional intent. Classes were in Korean in my first Tae Kwon Do school and a student of even the highest ability was not allowed to hold the rank of black belt under the age of eighteen. I admit I still cringe a bit when I see a young child jumping out of the mini van on his or her way to class sporting a poorly tied black belt. And if you really want to see the hate mail come in, do I feel that an under belt or a squire or a lower ranking practitioner should teach even basic movement and concepts? No I do not. One of many reasons is because I believe that if they themselves understood the actions then they would be of a rank and position to teach. You immediately weaken the understanding by students trying to learn from them because their understanding is incomplete.
But I also feel that students of that rank (Black Belt ect.) should take it for what it is.
A step... A step towards their journey to understand the movements they have been committing to the nature of reaction. Along with that to truly see if they are skilled and talented enough to teach the concepts accurately. And then endeavor to continue to learn as well.
The rank of these disciplines has changed much in the last 20 years and often people substitute rank with actual knowledge or the ability to teach. To those out there following the path of martial arts and are looking to these people for answers, ideals, or philosophy I would give this bit of advice.
Give them time and don't expect too much too soon. After all, they are just getting interesting enough to speak to... Syr Gemini