Busted Back to White Belt

Posted on: Wed, 03/06/2013 - 18:59 By: Tom Swiss

For the past few weeks, I've been showing up to my sensei's class in white belt. No, it's not because I committed some great offense and was stripped of rank, nor because she's finally decided that I'm just hopeless on anything more advanced. It's because she's gone through with her hints from a few months ago and recommended me for promotion to godan, fifth degree black belt. And as part of the dan testing process in Seido Karate, students go back to white belt for a while.

The hope is that this will remind us of the importance of shoshin, "beginner's mind". Shoshin is an important idea in both Zen and in the martial arts. The idea was perhaps most famously summarized by the Soto Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki, who wrote "In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's there are few." (Suzuki Roshi is not related to D.T. Suzuki, the famous popularizer of Zen.)

So this is the fifth time I've done this, and I've had a different perspective on it each time. This time I've had people in the dojo calling me "Sensei Tom" for the past seven years, and "Senpai Tom" for some years before that; but now I'm just "Tom". At the end of class, instead of being at the front on the line and having people walk by me and bow, I'm walking down the line bowing to everyone. (My students still call me "Sensei", and I wear my spare black belt when I'm teaching; I'm white belt just when I'm training with my sensei. This adds some complexity to the situation.)

It's interesting to watch my ego react to this. I wish I could say that I'm such an egoless and enlightened example of equanimity that it has no effect at all. But if you believe that, you need to replace your BS detector. Sometimes there is definitely a resistance that flares up. "Why are you not recognizing my greatness?" the ego cries. And I suppose that hearing that inner voice, and learning to put it in context, is part of the purpose of the exercise.

On the other hand, sometimes another voice speaks up. To acknowledge kids who weren't even born when I got my black belt as seniors, to take that seriously on some level, requires that I see that which is respectable in them. I've heard the famous Hindu expression "namaste" explained as "the divine in me bows to the divine in you"; something similar is at work here.

Dogen, perhaps the greatest figure in Japanese Zen history, wrote in his Tenzo Kyokun (Instructions to the Cook) that the cook should "Handle even a single leaf of a green in such a way that it manifests the body of the Buddha. This in turn allows the Buddha to manifest through the leaf." What if we handled not just green leaves, but each other, this way? (I want to make a pun here about green leaves and green belts, but I'll let you fill that in yourself.) Perhaps that's the sort of possibility that one has to be a beginner to think about.

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