Rank vs Skill

In the martial arts we all strive for a purpose. Some of us may have multiple purposes, but in general most of us strive for physical and mental development through shugyo. Some individuals might want to develop a certain skill level; others are more concerned with rank – especially the untrained newcomer. In a recent situation that I’m sure many will recognize, an individual walked into our dojo after contacting me previously on numerous occasions. Almost immediately on arriving, he asked me, “how long would it take me to get a black belt?”. I chuckled and replied, “Oh… around 2-3 days for an average one and about 7-10 days for a really nice one from Japan”. After he looked at me quizzically for a few moments, I explained the joke to him. Fortunately he chuckled and the ice was broken. Of late though, I have given the underlying essence of this subject some significant thought. Not long ago, I read a particularly interesting article authored by Stanley Pranin regarding rank. Mr. Pranin made a number of pertinent observations on this subject, which hit home with me.

These days, it seems that increasing numbers of people are becoming overly-concerned with their rank, and from whom it is received or awarded. In the past, it was almost always a given that a certain level of skill in the art was required in order to achieve a recognized level of rank. Rank then, was an outward sign of progress in the acquisition of such skills. One therefore has to question the point of awarding higher levels of rank, in the absence of a significant set of skills in the art. Just as perplexing, is the all-too-common issue of individuals with outstanding skills not having an appropriate level of rank, due to unfortunate politics.

Surely in the martial arts, we should all be working on our own path to progress, and not get caught up in the specific successes or failures of others? Surely part of our training is to help those who may need us in a mutually beneficial environment – an environment that gives us the courage to ask for help when we ourselves need it. The outcome of such an environment is integrity. It is this integrity that diminishes thoughts of acquiring or possessing rank for its own sake, devoid of a connection to a particular and recognizable skill level. What good is your training, or your rank, if it has no practical value for you or your family? Perhaps we should ask ourselves the question: if we were really in danger, would we want one of our dojo mates to be present, based on how they train in the dojo?

There was a time when someone had rank, and it was understood clearly what it meant – where that individual’s mind and body was at. With all of the inconsistencies in rank today, how can we give merit to something that everyone has? What separates us from the superficial? I put it to you that the difference is in our attitude to our training – in how we train and in how we use our training off the mat and outside the dojo. The difference is in how we behave as individuals in society – in our work ethic, in how we practice what we preach. It is found in our communicating Aikido to others through the skills we have worked hard to acquire, through blood, sweat and tears, and not simply by talking about rank or the color of one’s belt, or the level of one’s dan.

For the sake of preservation, perhaps we should reflect often on those warriors who have gone before us, on those who have passed these skills on to us. Being able to receive these skills is a privilege, and so for us, our very training is a privilege. Perhaps striving to work hard in our training, striving to improve our skills, first and foremost without giving thought to rank, might make us better people.

When, in time, the rank follows, perhaps then we might then feel better about receiving such rank, because then it truly represents that for which we have worked so hard. This, for me, is paramount.