Black Belt at Home Blog
The Meaning of Being a Black Belt: One Distance Training Student’s Journey to the Highest Honor
Introduction & Backstory
Enter Massimo Bernardele, born and raised in Italy, he served in the Italian Army, traveled the world a bit, and eventually landed in Massachusetts. He is now a family man, and a Surgical Technologist, with a passion for martial arts. He studied karate from his father, who is also a black belt, along with shaolin kung fu and meditation. He never had the opportunity to earn rank through an organized school, and finally saw the opportunity when he learned about the Complete Shotokan Karate course from Black Belt at Home.
With his previous experience, he already had a reasonably strong foundation, and trained at a brisk pace. Of course, at each rank exam, Sensei Jon gave him corrections and asked for updates and improvements when necessary. In a little under two years, he took his black belt exam, which was several hours long. His kumite and kata demonstrations were very crisp, clean, and fluid. It is always a wonder to see our home study students excel and perform at the same level as student whom train with us in person. One requirement for the black belt exam, is to write an essay. The following is the essay that Massimo submitted, we have published it with his permission. If you are just now starting on your journey to black belt, or have already attained that rank, this is worth absorbing.
The Meaning of Being a Black Belt
To wear a black belt, to BE a black belt, to me has many meanings. But the most important, is the responsibility it bears with it. Once you put the belt on you, you may be able to take it off physically, but morally you will always wear it, 24/7, for the rest of this life.
It is a great honor. It is a honor because when your Sensei decided you are ready to wear it, it doesn’t only mean that you know your techniques, your kata, and even maybe you are pretty good in the kumite. It also means that you are ready to step out yourself and become committed to serve those in need.
First of all, as a black belt, to me means I have to be a role model, to everyone, starting with my kids, my wife, and everyone I know, but not only; you need to be a role model to everyone. It is easy to see how can you be a role model for your kids, it is (or it should be) natural. It is with the unknown people that is harder. You never know the whole story of the person you are talking to, dealing with, or even fighting against. If you show the quality of a man of honor to everyone, sooner or later this will positively affect everyone else’s life. You never know, maybe your showing compassion to someone you don’t know, can change his life. Maybe he was sad, having bad thoughts, feeling unwanted from society. Your kind behavior may change his thinking and give him a boost to improve his life.
Once you are a black belt, your commitment is also to teach and guide who needs it. It can be your own kids if you have them, or anybody else. For example at work, when you are shadowing a new coworker, you have to do it at your best.
A real black belt actually is a teacher, but a student forever as well. Wearing a black belt indeed, also means an open mind condition where you always strive for learning and improving your knowledge.
A black belt unfortunately has no rest. There will always be something wrong, unfair in this world. It is our duty to always try to fix what is wrong; not for personal satisfaction, but for a superior wellness of every living entity. This actually is a very difficult point to discuss, because something that we consider wrong, for someone else instead makes perfect sense. We need to be wise and evaluate with humility every possible aspect.
A black belt indeed measures every word, every movement, every action. Wisdom doesn’t come overnight, but with humility, experience, attention to details, and generosity.
If you are not ready to bear this honor, you should be honest with yourself and refuse to wear it.
Personally, the black belt will also mean “peace”. In the original sense of course, like Sensei Funakoshi said “karate starts with kindness, and ends with kindness”. Also, we always have to remember that karate is a defensive weapon. We will never use karate to offend, but only to defend our self or somebody else. We are warriors looking for peace.
In a more personal view, I’ll find peace as it will be the end of a path that came as a gift and ended a very long period of practice without a guide, therefore almost meaningless. Before joining your virtual dojo, I consistently practiced karate even after I left my house and so my father (my original instructor). But it always has been more about the body. Now it is more about the mind. It has been an inside transformation much more meaningful than any exterior transformation. We need to train our body, of course. The more fit we are, the lower is the load and the stress for our mind. It is about being healthy. In the other hand, we shall remember that no matter how much we work out, sooner or later we will lose the power of the youth, our muscles will lose tone: we will be weaker. Technique, wisdom, and right mentality will be our weapons. So why not cultivate them already? Reaching the black belt, and walking this path, helped me dramatically to understand this concept.
Like I believe people should not be urged to join a specific religion, I also believe I will never urge anybody to do karate. The Karate attitude, like a religion, is something you have to feel inside yourself, it cannot be pushed in you. When I was younger I was forced to follow my parent’s religion, Catholicism. I never really felt it mine. I disagreed strongly with many behaviors of the people who represented it (in Italy the situation is very different than here), and also I never really believed their teaching. Maybe this was because I was forced into it. We will never know. Studying Karate then, and some Shaolin Kung fu, I began reading about Buddhism and really saw it as mine. Nobody pushed me into it. Nobody ever told me to try. It just happened.
Same thing for Karate; nowadays everybody knows what it is all about; there is no need to talk about it. If someone will feel it, and he or she wants to try it, it will have a much better result than someone who has been convinced in doing so.
My son didn’t want to do it when I asked him to do it with me. After a few months, he got curious by himself, he joined a local YMCA gym, and now he loves it!
We are all kayaking a powerful river. No one will ever be able to go back up, we are all going down to the big ocean. The secret is to stay in the middle, far from the edges, paying attention to the rocks. Follow the flow, learn to know it and be part of it. Don’t paddle too strong, or too slow, don’t push somebody out of his right way, rather help who needs a push, but don’t obligate him to paddle at your own pace.
Written By: Massimo Bernandele, 1st Dan Black Belt, Complete Shotokan Karate