27 Feb

On February 23rd, it was my honor to attend a senior black belt promotion ceremony at Shihan Wayne Norlander’s USA Goshin-Ryu Karate Dojo in Bogota, New Jersey. Two of my dear friends. Sensei Pablo Paneque and Sensei Scott Zamora were elevated to the rank of Roku-dan (6th degree black belt) and Yon-dan (4th degree black belt) respectively.

Sensei Paneque, Shihan Norlander, Sensei Zamora

I gave a short speech concerning rank to pay homage to the ceremony, distinguished masters, that included not only Shihan Norlander, but also, my Sensei, Shihan Thomas DeFelice and another dear friend, Sensei Tm Van Tassel, and honor the two friends being promoted.

The Dais: Sensei Tom Van Tassel, Shihan Norlander, Shihan DeFelice & Myself

While the speech itself is a very personal statement between my friends and myself, I thought I would share with you the gist of the speech. The substance of the speech concerned the increased burden associated with elevations in Karate-Do rank.To be sure, one desires an elevation in rank as a symbol of recognition of one’s increasing proficiency in any endeavor, including Karate-Do. This is particularly true in the years in which one is learning the fundamental technique, concepts and ideology of Karate. In essence, these years are represented by the ten Kyu, or grades, prior to the first black belt grade.

One’s desire for increased rank does, to some extent, extend beyond one’s earning a black belt rank. The desire; however, dissipates upon one’s recognition that each successive promotion carries more of a burden than a recognition. What then is the burden associated with each advanced black belt rank?

The Yudansha (Black Belts) in attendance.

To answer this question, the changing status of the black belt in relation to his Sensei in particular and Karate-Do in general must be understood. I offer the following two caveats before submitting my observations and conclusions to you. First, the following is merely my observation and commentary. As such, the within is not steeped in martial tradition and thus differs from stylistic dogma, oral tradition and martial mythology. Second, the following is not a technical exploration of the senior black belt grades. For instance, specific titles, such as “Renshi”, “Hanshi”, “Kyoshi”, “Shihan”, are ascribed to the various ranks. Such titles and other technicalities of the rank are not explored herein. With those two caveats in mind, I offer the following on the burdens of rank.

The first three back belt ranks are the Sho-dan, Ni-dan and San-dan, First to third degree black belt respectively. These ranks are the lesser grades of black belt. (See Endnote # 1). All three may be described as representing the status of a “Disciple”. By definition, a disciple is one who follows another; a disciple may be referred to by the lesser included term of student; however, the devotion of the disciple is greater than that of student. In Karate-Do, the Disciple follows the teachings of the Sensei. Thus, the burden of these lesser ranks is to faithfully, absorb, understand and emulate the teachings of one’s Sensei.

The Yon-dan (Fourth degree black belt), the rank to which my friend Sensei Zamora was promoted to, is the highest level of rank in the class of disciple.

Sensei Zamora receiving his Yon-dan obi from Shihan Norlander

Thus the Yon-dan is the greatest, most faithful, devoted & tenacious disciple of not only his Sensei but also his Sensei’s style of Karate-Do. As such, the burden bestowed and imposed upon the Yon-dan encompasses a never wavering or faltering faith or devotion to Sensei and his teachings. As the archetype disciple, the Yon-dan must be tenacious & ferocious in defending his Sensei and that which his Sensei teaches. The Yon-dan’s tenacity and ferocity is symbolized by a new obi, or belt. For the first time, the color red is a prominent component of the obi. Throughout history red, when worn on any uniform of distinction, represents the bearer’s acknowledgement of the burden imposed upon him and the acceptance that he may be called upon to spill either the blood of another or his own as a disciple of his cause. (See Endnote # 2). This tenacity and devotion is symbolized through the Yon-dan’s continued progression in Karate-Do for each and every successive obi will incorporate the color red as a reminder of this implied blood covenant.

The rank of Go-dan, Fifth degree black belt, is the half-way point in the progression of senior black belt ranks. It marks a transition phase in of black belt wherein he or she moves from the stauts of a pure disciple to the new status symbolized by the Roku-Dan. (See Endnote # 3).

The Roku-Dan, to which my friend, Sensei Paneque was elevated to, is the first pure status that begins an ominous and ponderous new phase of relationship with one’s Sensei.

Sensei Paneque receiving his Roku-dan obi from Shihan Norlander

The Roku-dan is the result of surviving the transitional phase, represented by the Go-Dan rank, where one evolves from the status of a disciple. This new relationship with one’s Sensei, and subsequently with Karate-Do is best described as becoming an “Apostle”. The word apostle is derived from the early Greek word “Apostolos” meaning “one who is a messenger”.  Thus, one is no longer a disciple or follower of Sensei. Rather, one is now a messenger of Sensei and Karate-Do. Many men are disciples, but few are called to be Apostles. What, then, is the task or burden of the apostoloc Roku-dan?

By definition, an Apostle must “go-forth”. This does not necessarily mean physical departure, rather, one must go forth from the “presence” of one’s Sensei. The Roku-dan must stand alone and spread his meassage. He or she is now wretched and alone. The Apostle, as messenger,  is no longer comforted by the warm, comforting envelope of the protective sphere of Sensei. As such, the apostolic Roku-Dan must be of sufficient character and strength so as to remain steadfast to those who ignore or challenge his message of Karate-Do. The Roku-dan must be ever vigilant, strong and pure of heart so as to withstand the rebuke of those that seek to spurn, chastise and even condemn him on account of his message. Notwithstanding that the Roku-dan is figuratively cast off alone into the external Karate-Do world, he remains always accountable to the one whose message he carries, namely, that of his Sensei. There are no worldly rewards for the apostle. His sole solace lies in his fulfillment derived from his message itself. Karate-Do is the comforting blanket that he will wrap himself in until such a time as the Apostle is again called home.

The Sichi-dan, or Nana-dan in some styles of Karate-Do (7th degree black belt) is the archetype apostle. This black belt has spread his message alone in the world for a period of time. During this time, he has transformed into a state wherein he no longer preaches the message; he himself has become the message.  The burden of the Sichi-dan is to be more than human; to evolve to the embodiment of his message. To illustrate this transformation, I offer the following non-martial arts based, story concerning Mohandas Gandhi.

A woman once walked many miles, in fact walked all day, with her daughter to see Gandhi. The daughter was always eating candy and the woman sought Gandhi’s help. In Gandhi’s presence she asked, “Bapu, please tell my daughter not to eat candy as it is bad for her.” Gandhi smiled and replied, “Please come back in one month.” The woman and her daughter left and walked another entire day to return home. After a month passed, the woman and her daughter repeated their difficult journey. Gandhi was glad to see them and instructed the daughter to not eat candy anymore. The daughter agreed and left with her mother to again walk a days journey to return home. Gandhi’s followers were beside themselves. “Bapu,  you could have spared the woman and her child another difficult journey!” “Why did you not simply tell her last month to stop eating candy?” Gandhi smiled and simply said, “Because last month, I did not know if I could stop eating candy myself and had to try.”

This is simple story relates the burden of the Sichi-dan. (See endnote # 4).

The Hachi-dan, Eighth degree black belt, is another rank of transition. It represents an apostle that has served his time in the conceptual world outside of his Sensei and is called from the solitary nature of such world back to the “home” of the Sensei. The burden of this evolving apostle is that having journeyed out into the world, he must retrace his steps and the attendant adversity along the way in order to return home.

With Shihan Norlander, Ku-dan, Menkyo Kaiden, USA Goshin-Ryu Karate-Do.

The Ku-dan, Ninth degree black belt, symbolizes one who has returned home, or back to the comfort and safe confines of a particular style of Karate-Do. This status does not convey a sense of well-being. Rather, it bears the burden of vigilance so as to safeguard the home in which the Ku-dan again resides. The integrity of not only the particular Karate-Do style’s physical technique, and protocols, must be safeguarded, but also philosophical, moral, ethical and ideological concepts are of prime importance to the Ku-dan. Thus, notwithstanding that he is again home, the Ku-dan bears the burden of being an ever vigilant caretaker of Karate-Do; he must continuously nurture Karate-Do as if it is a helpless infant.

With Shihan Thomas DeFelice, Ku-dan, Menkyo Kaiden, Goshin-Do Karate-Do.

The Ju-dan, Tenth degree black belt, is the final status of one who has resided in the house of a style of Karate-Do for life. As with the foreknowledge that his physical life must end, the Ju-dan is aware that his life as participant, disciple, apostle and caretaker of a style of Karate-Do technique, protocol, philosophy and ideology will also end with his physical life. The burden of the Ju-dan is two-fold. First, the Ju-dan must appoint a successor or caretaker for his house. If he fails to do so, the house crumbles amongst the whims of time and memory. Second, as his spirit, or “soul” dwells in the after-world, it must bear witness to the style of Karate-Do left behind. The Ju-dan’s spirit will bear witness, but be unable to influence such events. Such is the eternal burden of a pure Karate-Ka, one who practiced Karate-Do.

Once again, the within does not reflect a view of any one style of Karate-Do, or of a regional, martial tradition. It is simply an observation and commentary by one that walks a path. I hope I have captured the path I walk in sufficient terms so that one can understand rank, not solely as something to be attained, desired or even “glorified”. It is a humbling burden that can only be born by the most deserving, the most strong, ardent and caring of humans.

Until the next article, I remain – – – walking.



Sensei John Szmitkowski, Soke, Jiriki Kata-Do

Shihan DeFelice’s Goshin-Do Karate-Do Yudansha in attendance

Left To Right:  Sensei Bob Weiczorek (Yon-dan), Sensei Gil Breit (Yon-dan), Myself (Roku-dan), Sensei Dave Crum (Go-dan), Shihan Thomas DeFelice (Ku-dan), Sensei Rich Shields (Ni-dan)


  1. Of the three lesser black belts ranks, the Sho-dan is perhaps the most coveted; however, the most significant is the Ni-dan. The significance of the Ni-dan is steeped in martial arts ethics which state that a black belt may promote a student to one rank below his or her own. Thus, a Sho-dan may promote a student only to the highest brown belt level. In order for a student of a Sho-dan to receive his black belt, such elevation must be confirmed by a higher ranking black belt. Such is not the case with a rank of Ni-dan. Ethically, a Ni-dan has the right to promote a student to a rank of Sho-dan. Such elevation may, but need not be, confirmed by black belts of more senior rank. Over time, this ethic has been infringed upon by such restrictions as “examining boards”, “testing committees” and the like. But, the ethic remains.
  2. For one non-martial example of the symbology of the color red in a ceremonial uniform, we may look to the Roman Catholic Church. Upon being elevated to the status of Cardinal, one wears a red uniform. Historically this symboloized the Cardinal’s willingness to die, or otheriwse spill blood for his religious faith.
  3. In so far as it relates to the transitional status, I will breifly mention the obi I use to symbolize the Yon-dan and Go-dan. As you can see from the photographs of Sensei Zamora, though, not “standard” (various Sensei utilize differing obi), the Yon-dan belt is often two horizontal stripes, one white (worn on top) and one red (worn on the bottom) against a solid black back. The symbology of white reminds the Yon-dan that, although he is the acrhetype disciple, he is again but a beginner, a white belt. For the Go-dan rank, I use an obi that is the same as the Yon-dan; except that the horizontal stripes are red (worn on top) and black (worn on the bottom). Similar to the white belt that turns to black, the black remids the wearer that he is beginning to enter a new phase in Karate-Do.
  4. The symbology of the junior and senior grade status of Yon-dan and Go-dan can, in the discretion of the style of Karate-Do, again be reflected in the obi of the Roku-dan and Sichi-dan. The Roku-dan obi of red and white panels (ending in white tips) and a solid black background becomes black and red panels (ending in red tips) on a solid black background at Sichi-dan grade. The white becoming black symbolizes the same idea as above, but also now symbolizes to the Sichi-dan that caution must be excercised so as not to beome stained, or ideologically polluted, by the world in which he preaches his message.

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