Sunday, November 8, 2015

Mastery and Black Belts: What's a Journeyman Budoka?

Over at The Stick Chick blog, written by Arnis teacher Jackie Bradbury, she wrote a neat essay titled I’m Really A Black Belt that got me thinking about levels of proficiency and mastery.

Somewhere along the line, black belt became synonymous with mastery. That’s not what it means in Japan, where the first level of black belt is called shodan 初段 and means “beginning step.” Many traditional arts in Japan don’t use dan ranks or belts at all. Outside Japan though, black belt implies a degree of mastery, and that’s what I’m really interested in. What is mastery in a martial art, and how do we know we’ve achieved it. I’m not talking about external recognition in the form of belts and certificates, but the mastery itself.

"Shodan"  Literally "beginning step"

I’ve been doing this budo thing for nearly 30 years. One of my teachers has been doing it for 85 years (that’s not a typo). The longer I do this, the less any of the awarded ranks mean anything.  But what Ms. Bradbury is talking about I do understand. At what point have you mastered the art? When do you stop being an apprentice who needs direction and start being a journeyman who can direct their own work and train others? When do have this level of mastery?

What is that level of mastery for a martial artist? Jackie Bradbury recognizes the critical step of being able to see the links between techniques and actions and how she can choose different paths and where they will lead.

Mastery is a very relative concept. If I compare myself with someone who has just started training with a sword, I look like I know an awful lot. My grip is good. I use my hips pretty well. I know how to breathe and how to move. Like Ms. Bradbury, I can see what is happening and what will happen in many instances, and how a partner can be locked into an unstable path.  Compared to the beginner, I’m pretty good. 

But I rarely consider comparing myself with a beginner. My personal baseline for comparison is my teacher. Since Kiyama Sensei has been doing budo for 85 years, I always feel like a beginner with him. What I do well with effort, he does beautifully without trying. His grip is wonderful while his movement is elegant, efficient and powerful. That is the skill level I judge myself against.

When I’m honest with myself, I’ll admit that I’m certainly at the journeyman stage. What is it that really qualifies someone as journeyman? I think there are several attributes.  A journeyman budoka has to be able to breathe and walk properly (I’m serious!). She has to be able to do the kihon correctly without thinking about what she is doing. She has be able to do techniques without focusing on them. She has to be able to self-diagnose faults and figure out how to correct them.  When you have all of these in place, you’re a journeyman.

I’ve already written a whole blog about breathing and walking, so I won’t repeat it here. I’ll just say that journeymen breathe from their abdomen so they get the maximum efficiency from their lungs. They walk upright, without slouching or tipping themselves, and the power their movement from their koshi.

A journeyman has mastered the kihon, the fundamentals, of an art to the point that she can demonstrate them correctly without thinking, even when being distracted. They just happen correctly.  Whether these are the strikes and thrusts of a jo or bo, the cuts and blocks of a sword, the sweeps of naginata, the strikes of karate or the throws of judo. The kihon just happen. The journeyman budoka has reached the stage where doing the fundamentals correctly is unconscious. They have to really think about what they are doing to demonstrate a mistake.

When doing full on techniques, and not just kihon, a journeyman can do the techniques while processing other information. As Ms. Bradbury described, a journeyman can be doing the techniques and processing what effect they will have and what to connect to the technique. In judo we do a lot of practice of renzoku waza, or techniques that are linked together in a continuous chain without breaks in the attack. Even as a technique is happening and your partner responds to it, a journeyman will move to another technique that takes advantage of their partner’s response to the first technique. Journeymen see these kind of linkages naturally, and find themselves explaining to students why a particular technique or attack is a bad idea. The journeyman can see the chain of consequences that follow from the technique.  The student can’t.

A journeyman has acquired enough understanding and skill to direct someone else’s training, or her own. She can generally see what needs to be corrected, whether it is in a student’s technique or in something she is doing.  She can feel when she does something the wrong way. She can see when a student does something wrong, and can see when the root of the problem with their cutting has to do using their right index finger instead of a their left little finger or when the problem with their shoulders is originating in their hips and feet.

A journeyman can do the same analysis on herself and fix problems in her own technique, which is a considerably more difficult skill. It doesn’t take long for beginners to be able to see weaknesses in their own and other’s technique. Being able to recognize a problem is not the same as being able to fix it though. When a journeyman discovers a problem with her technique, she has the depth of skill and understanding to work out what is causing the problem, and come up with a means of fixing it. Journeymen don’t just see the problems, they can see the solutions too.

There is more to being a journeyman than just mastering the techniques. Journeymen understand the principles and fundamentals behind the techniques and can apply that understanding to work out the solution to weaknesses in their students, and their own, technique. A journeyman can see that bobble in a sword cut and trace it back to a weak left hand or an overpowering right hand, and then come up with an exercise or three to start correcting it.

That’s the mastery that makes someone a journeyman. Whether you have a black belt or not doesn’t really mean much. The journeyman has internalized the fundamentals and the techniques to the point that they are expressed without conscious thought, leaving her mind available to analyze the chain of effects that doing a technique will produce. In addition, the journeyman can not only see the weakness in someone’s technique, but they understand the application of the fundamentals of their art well enough to understand what causes a particular weakness so it can be corrected.


James Bullard said...

Well said, and good luck on your continued Journey!

Draven Olary said...

Good read. The Mastery, for me, comes when there are no more techniques and you don't talk about your moves naming them 'techniques'.

As Bruce Lee was saying long time ago:

"Before I studied the art, a punch to me was just like a punch, a kick just like a kick. After I learned the art, a punch was no longer a punch, a kick no longer a kick. Now that I've understood the art, a punch is just like a punch, a kick just like a kick. The height of cultivation is really nothing special. It is merely simplicity; the ability to express the utmost with the minimum.",