Occasionally my students find themselves in that embarrassing situation where they show up for class, all pumped and ready to train, only to put on their Gi and realize that they forgot their belt. In that case, I usually lend them a white belt to put on for the duration of training. Sometimes they ask, “Do you always carry around an extra white belt for people who forget?” And I reply, “No. It’s my white belt.” This answer usually causes people to look at me sideways.
In one of my previous posts, I already discussed the significance of ranks in martial arts, but I find it surprising that other people are confused by the fact that I am both a black belt and white belt. I would hazard a guess that the reason for this is that most people consider the ranking system as unilateral, where once you’ve moved up the ladder, there is no reason to go back down.
While it’s great to appreciate the hard work, sweat, and perseverance that an advanced belt represents (see this post from Jiu Jutsu Times), I believe that a white belt, whether literal or figurative, is the single most important tool for any martial artist.
The Japanese term “Shoshin” (初心) captures the essence of this philosophy. The first character, “sho”, means “first time”, and the second, “shin”, means “heart” or “mind”. This term is often used to describe the concept of maintaining an open mind and avoid being victimized by the ego’s tendency to think you are a master. Interestingly, adding a third term, “Sha” (者), which means “person”, creates the word which means “beginner”.
I’ve always found it somewhat contradictory that a culture which is highly based on hierarchy and unquestioning respect for authority also holds the concept of Shoshin in such high regard. It is very clear within the culture of the average traditional Dojo that the Sensei is not to be questioned under any circumstances. The student is expected to suspend disbelief when the Sensei is teaching, taking every word as absolute truth, yet simultaneously maintain an open-minded approach.
Perhaps this contradiction is resolved in the terms “Honne” (本音) and “Tatemae” (建前). “Honne” represents the hidden or unspoken truth, whereas “Tatemae” describes the outside or surface representation. It might simply be that, despite whatever doubts may be occurring within a student’s mind (Honne), they are expected to swallow those questions because it might cause their instructor to lose face in front of a group. That silence is the Tatemae part of the equation.
Whether overtly acknowledged or not, we all have doubts as to the effectiveness of a single martial art, style, or technique once in a while. To me, maintaining a beginner’s mind means not becoming indoctrinated into believing a single method or instructor is the exclusive answer. The best way to avoid this kind of cult mentality is to think like a white belt. Imagine if this were the first time you were encountering this strategy or technique. Test the legitimacy of what you’re being taught. Come to your own conclusions rather than simply accepting that “the way it is” is always the right way.
This is of vital importance for instructors as well. I frequently borrow my students during class to try out new ideas and pressure test techniques—with varying results. They understand that what I teach and practice is a work-in-progress, not a finished masterpiece. Admitting that is, I would argue, the epitome of possessing a beginner’s mind.
One of the most enjoyable aspects about being a white belt is that it is okay to make mistakes. If you do anything right, people are pleased—even if it’s just tying your belt correctly.
It is refreshing to walk into the Dojo without needing to have all the answers. In fact, you have permission to ask as many questions as you can.
Ideally, your previous experience will show when you get down to business, but I am a firm believer in under-selling and over-delivering. It’s best to mention that you’ve done “some” of a certain martial art or style, but fundamentally, you should just let your ability speak for itself. The fact that there are no expectations on your performance as a white belt also allows you to take more risks and try things that perhaps you normally wouldn’t do.
When a White Belt is not a Metaphor
I am not a believer in the idea of collecting ranks in various martial arts. A lot of people practice long enough to get to black belt, then think “I’ve finished that martial art” and quit to start the next one. If you are practicing it correctly, no martial art or style is truly finished.
With that said, I also believe that starting again at white belt puts a lot of perspective on what you have already learned and what remains. Cross training is valuable because all styles or systems have a particular area where they might excel, even if the majority of their practices are bullshit.
Likewise, if you limit your practices to only what you already have trained, then you are going to get a false sense of confidence. It has become a cliché, but it remains true: it’s only by stepping outside your comfort zone that you can see where you need to improve. If you are only practicing skills that you have already become highly competent in, and only doing it with people who are less experienced and proficient than you are, then you are not going to learn. You are merely going to continue.
It is humbling, and at times embarrassing, to put on a white belt and try to be compete with others in their area of expertise. That is why it is necessary.
How I Got To White Belt #3
On a personal note, I received my first Karate black belt in 2005, after about a decade of practicing a hybrid of Chito Ryu and Shotokan. In the next few years, I took over the club from my Sensei, and became the primary instructor. During this time, I attempted to be creative and explore new ideas and principles, but, being at the top of the ladder, what progress I made was very gradual and sometimes misguided.
In 2008, a student of mine introduced me to Koryu Uchinadi Kenpo Jutsu, a methodology designed by my instructor, Hanshi Patrick McCarthy, to solve a lot of the problems that modern Karate had developed. I discovered that my efforts to create practical applications for traditional Kata was largely an effort to reinvent the wheel—a much more experienced and skilled martial artist had already answered many of the questions I was struggling to articulate. I went back to being a white belt and unlearning many of the bad habits traditional Karate had taught me.
Although I wasn’t personally there to witness it, rumour has it that at the very first North American Koryu Uchinadi Gasshuku, Hanshi McCarthy came into the Dojo wearing a white belt–leaving the participants scrambling to replace their black belts with something less advanced. This gesture stressing the importance of humility really stuck with me.
I was fortunate enough after a few years of study to reach a certain level of competence in Koryu Uchinadi, and was recognized with a black belt ranking. Despite that accomplishment, I felt—and still feel—as if the vast amount of curriculum and wide array of skills contained within practicing KU was overwhelming. I was a small fish who had been taken from a pond and dropped into the ocean.
One of the areas KU had exposed my lack of proficiency in was the ground. I rolled with my students and practiced different ground techniques and strategies, but seeing as how I was mostly practicing with people who were less advanced, they only challenged me in terms of size or strength, not skill. Luckily, my wife started training BJJ and convinced me to join her. So I started at white belt for the third time and started the process over again. I quickly realized just how little I knew in that very specialized universe. The learning process has been equally frustrating and rewarding, which I think is a good summary of the white belt experience.
Throughout this journey, I’ve always been fortunate to have had the opportunity to become a white belt again. Sometimes that means getting the crap kicked out of me by people who have trained only a tiny percentage of the amount I have. It can be embarrassing, but the truth often is. At the end of the day, I have to look in the mirror and appreciate how much I still have to learn. Humility is one of the values that martial arts is supposed to teach us, but we have to put ourselves into situations where being humbled is a risk in order to fully appreciate what that value means.
Some people, especially once they have black belts, avoid putting themselves into situations where their weaknesses might be exposed. Because of this, they would never put on a white belt and go somewhere new. One of the reasons for this is fear. Naturally, we all fear our own limitations. However, letting that fear limit your training is nonsensical. Being a black belt and refusing to put yourself into situations where you might lose is about ego, not about learning. You have to confront your weaknesses in order to improve.
My students and peers sometimes throw me. They sometimes submit me. They sometimes hit me. And yet they still seem to respect me. Perhaps they even respect me more because of it.
The day you put on a black belt, if you forget what it means to have doubt, forget what it means to struggle, forget what it means to not be good enough, then as a martial artist, you are dead. The journey is over.
I’ve been lucky enough to say that, twenty-five years into my career, the journey is just beginning. There are new challenges and obstacles ahead. I walk out of class shaking my head at my own lack of knowledge and skill. I still have the same doubts and fears as the first day I stepped on the mat.
I am a black belt, but luckily that hasn’t prevented me from being a white belt.
 Clayton, Bruce. Shotokan’s Secret. Ohara Publications, 2004. Pg. 32.
McCarthy, Patrick. Personal Instruction.