One-On-One with Sifu Lee: Belt Rankings

The aim of all arts, including the Martial Arts is meant for creative self-expression. In art there is no better or worse, there simply is the unique expression of ones soul. All judgments of better or worse are subjective in nature. Movies and books are works of art. One can never say that there is an all time greatest movie for all people. All people have their own subjective judgments on what they think is good or bad, same as in books. Same as in painting, same as in drawing, same as in Martial Arts.

These judging individuals argue on what is the greatest Martial Art style; the truth is that there is no greatest Martial Art style. There is only the unique expression of an individual’s way of fighting.

If we are to speak of what are the most effective hand to hand unarmed combat techniques, then we must approach it scientifically and discover which techniques would be most effective for each individual. One technique may work well for one person but not for another. It is up to the individual to discover what is effective for himself.

There cannot be an adequate belt system to represent the level of expertise of a Martial Artist. Every belt system will always be flawed. The true essence of Martial Art is the integration of the physical, mental, and spiritual. In order to reach elite status as a Martial Artist, one must come close to perfection on all three aspects. One who becomes extremely proficient on the physical, such as fitness development and self-defense techniques may be extremely lacking in the mental and spiritual aspects of development. This individual would not be considered an elite Martial Artist no matter how great his physical technique may be because he would be lacking in the moral and character development in which to properly use the techniques for the betterment of society.

There are only 3 categories of development of a Martial Artist. That is the beginner, the intermediate, and the advanced. Colored belt rankings serve absolutely no purpose other than the enhancement of one’s ego. If a Martial Artist is advanced on the physical, he simply needs to display his Martial Art technique and physical fitness physique and an onlooker would be able to decipher whether or not this Martial Artist is advanced in his Martial Art ability. An advanced Martial Artist displaying his black belt around his waist shows nothing to the onlooker about what this Martial Artist is proficient in.

The legendary Bruce Lee used to say that if you wished to see how good a boxer is, you watch him box. Likewise if you wish to see how good a basketball player is, you watch him play basketball. If you wish to see how good a swimmer is, you watch him swim. If you wish to see how fast a man can run, you watch him run. As you see in most sports, it is based on performance, not based on the color of a uniform; the color of a person’s uniform has no bearing on the ability of the person underneath the uniform. In Martial Art this is the truth, a black belt can never adequately represent the level of expertise of a practitioner.

Imagine a Karate practitioner who has reached black belt status by physical fitness development and technique efficiency by the year 2000. His instructor gladly certifies this practitioner with a black belt for his hard efforts in development. Now imagine if this student completely stopped all physical activity and gave up Karate for 9 years. In 2009 he can still wear the old uniform with the old black belt, but that does not mean that he is currently an advanced practitioner. He may have been an advanced practitioner in the past but the past is over and it is no longer in existence, there is only the current moment and in the current moment he is far from advanced but has become a beginner all over again.

And that is the inadequacy of all belt rankings. You may be advanced today but what about one month from now, what about 1 year from now, what about 5 years from now? Belt systems of rank can never adequately track ones level of performance. Mike Tyson used to be a great boxer, but he is no longer the greatest. Michael Jordan used to be a great basketball player, but also he is no longer the greatest. If there was to be any system of rank in any Martial Art, there should be a yearly re-certification, that way it would be much more adequate in the representation of a practitioner’s level of skill but in most Martial Art systems this is not the case. You have many practitioners who use to be great. Who use to be able to jump high, who use to be able to do 120 pushups in 1 minute, who use to be able to run a mile in under 5 minutes, who use to be able to defend themselves from any opponent no matter the size. But the past is not what is important, what is important is the Now, the current moment.

If a Martial Artist cannot show you his advanced ability in the current moment, then he has simply ceased to be an advanced practitioner of the Martial Arts, no matter how many years he has claimed he has practiced or how many black belts he has to display.

If someone is strong in the chest and can bench-press a lot of weight, in order for him to prove this fact to you, he simply has to do it and have you observe. Then you will see that he is strong, him having a certificate stating that he is strong means nothing. If a teacher is a good teacher, watch him teach and you will then be able to decide if he is a good teacher based on your expectations. If a person claims to be a good and peaceful individual, observe his actions and way of living, then you can determine if his claims are correct, him simply stating that he is a part of a certain religion means nothing.

Beethoven and Mozart did not have certificates stating that they were great musical artists. People simply listened to their music and were astonished and knew that they were something great. Einstein did not have a certificate stating that he was one of the greatest scientists to ever live, he simply displayed his unique creative insights and proved his theories to be truth, once the truth was discovered, people knew he was someone great. Pablo Picasso did not need a certificate stating that he was a great painter, he simply expressed his creative abilities and onlookers knew that he was someone great.

If you have innate talent, then you have innate talent. If a woman can sing well, then she simply needs to sing in order for others to be aware of her talent. A certificate stating that she is a great singer will not make her singing any better. If a person is a great dancer, he simply needs to dance and you will see his talent. A person can be knowledgeable and wise without a college degree. A person can be ignorant and stupid with a college degree. Certifications serve no practical purpose in the world of art. The world of art transcends the purpose of certifications. In the business world, certifications may serve their purposes in properly organizing a civilized society but one must not confuse the world of business with the world of art.

Therefore you can encounter an elite practitioner of Martial Art with no belt rankings to display and you can also encounter a novice practitioner of Martial Art who possesses the highest-ranking belt. In the world of business and commerce, money speaks, and certain Instructors of Martial Arts may give into the temptations of receiving higher pay by giving a high ranking belt to a novice practitioner who has an open wallet. Some practitioners are so concentrated on obtaining the highest-ranking belt that they forget the true purpose of the Martial Art. Some advanced practitioners even obtain the highest ranking belts and then come to the mistaken assumption that there is no longer any room for improvement, and from that point they start to regress.

A person can obtain knowledge and wisdom through self-motivated concentrated research without the need of attending a public University. A person can run a marathon on his own individual will without the need of joining a community operated marathon that charges an unnecessary fee. A person can be a world class sprinter without entering into competitions to display his ability.

A true Martial Artist is an Artist who does not need any certificates or belts to display his level of expertise, his simple expression and practice of art will automatically display something great, that is if he is great.

Sifu Freddie Lee

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