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“How accurate are dan gradings as a sign of progress?”

Caveat: This is my post and my views and my perceptions, not Clarke Sensei’s. The quote above as a question on his site under a photo inspired my post today, nothing more and nothing less. Don’t read into this post as anything Clarke Sensei says or writes or does not say or doesn’t not write or believes or does not believe - it is my perspective and perception and any inferences are mine and mind alone.

First, as a sign of progress is more or less dependent on the individual, the dojo, the Sensei, the Senpai and so on for those unique individuals. It is a personal matter that often gets projected to larger groups with differing perceptions and perspectives and there lies the rub and the fuel that ignites flame wars. 

Second, their accuracy is a misnomer and driven by a social dynamic and actually this distracts from the accuracy and signatory toward progression because, once again, it is a personal journey and thus a personal individual unique thing for that person as to his association toward his seniors in the dojo. Specifically it is a personal relationship with him or herself with the sensei of the dojo. No one else and no one else should be involved or concerned. This is why the wearing of the belt may need to remain a dojo thing rather than a symbol to be recognized by anyone outside that dojo. Only the individual as they grow in depth and breadth in their “personal” practice and training can see within themselves their level of progress toward mastery of the system or style or “Way (doah as in “Do”).” 

Granted the second statement requires clarification because when a novice is learning they are still ignorant to the system and its ways until they reach a certain level of academia and physiokinetic proficiency, understanding and knowledge. It is only when they begin to deviate from the path they follow according to the teachings of the dojo and its sensei that they begin to realize and recognize their self-discovery, self-realization and self-analysis that allows them to determine the accuracy of the level or grade as appropriate to the progress they are achieving. This is the tricky part simply because external influences in the dojo and in the martial communities will influence their thought processes on this especially as it pertains to the human instinctual need of a group dynamic as discussed in human survival instinctual teachings that are group and societal dynamics. 

Third, the practitioner must then have achieved a level of maturity that will allow them to join others outside their dojo while allowing for a return to the bottom to gain acceptance in dojo and communities or groups or tribes that have “different” needs, beliefs and requirements due to different perspectives and perceptions. It is important that the practitioner have as their understanding and belief that such differences and changes have nothing to do with their progress to date along with the level they personally feel and achieve in relation to the new dojo, tribe of social group. 

When you try to create a grading system to recognize and symbolize progression in a martial system you open that system to the incongruities of human nature and differences. It then pits one person against another as well as one group against another creating a divide between like-minded folks in an overall community under the heading of martial arts, martial systems, or martial styles. 

One persons treasure may be another persons junk and that goes for gradings and levels as that disparity under differeing community dynamics tends to create. This is why any attempt to achieve a larger governing community or association tends to fail or at least fall way short of this most personal aspect to the martial arts. 

The uniqueness of human qualities, perceptions and beliefs leads us to recognize this and yet humans still try to assign “things” that will allow them to be managed or governed or controlled where control, government or management is not appropriate. This is why I personally believe that ranking, grading or levels of progress must be a dojo and only a dojo thing. That is why I believe, even at the dojo level, that requirements that are both … and … are best served if derived from the principles that underly all martial systems rather than the specifics created by each individual system or style. The only reason there are systems and styles is the human need to gather into groups or tribes for a perceived survival need but principles transcend all this human intervention through ego and pride based requirements. 

So, in closing, the accuracy of dan levels or grades as to any sign of progression must be kept personal between the individual and the sensei. Even in the dojo it must be an ideal that is fostered at every part of training, practice and instruction even if that means only a white belt is worn no matter the grade or level of any individual so that any hierarchal perception and perspective is achieved through experiences found in practice and training, i.e. the proverbial philosophical symbolic saying of “shown on the dojo floor!”

- Photo caption Shinseidokan Dojo blog by Michael Clark

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