July 17, 2022, Israel
Of all the issues that plague the martial arts, ranks and titles are among the worst. And there is a good reason for this.
It is not simply a matter of jealousy, it is not simply a matter of - why did this guy get a higher rank than me, or why was this guy chose as grandmaster of the year when clearly he does not deserve it, it is more than that. There is a legitimate reason to be upset.
Let us try to frame this in its proper perspective. The team that won the baseball world series is clearly the champion. All teams play by the same rules, all the umpires judge all the teams. All teams must play each other during the season. The standards are universal and very strict. There is a baseball commission that oversees everything. Unlike the USA presidential elections, no one disputes the baseball world champions. When the Brooklyn Dodgers finally beat the New York Yankees to become the baseball world champions, no one complained, no one felt it was illegitimate.
Likewise, when the MVP is chosen, the most valuable player, and the Cy Young awarded is awarded to the best pitcher, some may disagree but no one doubts that these awards are fully deserved and legitimate. But this is not the case with martial arts.
And why is that so?
Each organization, in fact each school, will have their own standards. With no disrespect intended no will will compare a Taekwondo black belt rank to an BJJ, Brazilian Jujitsu rank. Everyone knows that the standards are different. It is like comparing the Yen to the Pound Sterling. They use different measurements and values. One Yen or Yuan is not equal to one Pound. This does not imply that Japan or China have lesser economies, only that they use a different measure of currency.
I recall being at Karate College and a little girl, no more than 12, asks me, "Mister, what rank are you?" and I answered, "I hold the rank of 3rd dan black belt". And she replied with a big smile, "Me too! So we are the same rank, like twins!"
No, my dear, we are certainly not the same rank.
So how do we handle this? How do we handle picking up a flyer for a karate tournament in the USA with categories such as "Black Belt division, 6-8 year old's"? and yes, these do exist.
And how do we handle the daily awards we see on social media where all sorts of highfalutin sounding awards are given out but we know the truth, we have seen these martial artist in action. We know these awards are not standardized legitimate awards, we know there is no governing body like the Baseball Commission that oversees all these events. These are not the USA dollar which has a value that is undisputed and recognized internationally, rather these awards are like moonshine made in your grandma's back yard.
So how are we do handle this? How are we to feel?
Let us add to this the issue of - someone being promoted in another school, perhaps of the same association even, to a rank we feel they do not deserve, a rank that we should have been awarded before them. What should we do, how should we react?
I will answer you with an analogy.
There is only one rabbi title. You might be 22 years old, you passed your exam at the Rabbinical College, and now you are officially an ordained rabbi. There is no Second Dan rabbi, there is no 10th dan rabbi or grandmaster rabbi. The 103 year old rabbi in Jerusalem who knows the Talmud by heart, who studies 18 hours per day, who knows every legal rabbinic decision made over the past two thousand years, has the same title as the new young graduate. Yes, they are both called "rabbi", no difference.
So what is the difference?
The difference is your name. The difference is who you are.
In the Jewish world if you mention that you were ordained by say, Moishe Feinstein, all heads will turn. Now notice I referred to him by his name and not by title, because that is how he was often referred to, or simply as Reb Moishe. He himself did not refer to himself as anything else. The point being that the NAME Moshe Feinstein is greater than the title "rabbi".
"Widely acclaimed in the Orthodox world for his gentleness and compassion, Feinstein is commonly referred to simply as "Reb Moshe""(Rabbi Moshe David Tendler, 1996)
Rabbi Feinstein was certainly not jealous that some young graduate also had the title "rabbi", exactly the same as he did. His greatness exceeded these sorts of feelings. This is where I draw my lessons from, not the petty world of martial arts.
I was privileged to have many great teachers, I was privileged to observe them in their daily life. Jealousy was not a factor.
Now it is not jealousy when we feel frustrated by the false titles and awards that so many seem to be achieving these days. It does cast a negative light on the martial arts and on ourselves, but there is truly nothing we can do about it. All we can do is train ourselves not to let this cause us too much frustration. We have to remind ourselves that titles mean very little, that ranks are only as meaningful as the person who awarded them. Are you the recognized world series baseball champion team or was the title awarded to you by the local gas station?
As time goes on no one will pay attention to your rank, only to your name. Ranks can be gained in many ways, not all of them honorable. But your name is truly your own. Your reputation is truly your own, and no one else can have this name. So do not waste time worrying about someone else's rank, even if it is the same or higher than yours it is no reflection on you. Do not be overly impressed or upset by high sounding awards given out, including grandmaster titles. There is often little correlation between titles and true ability.
It is said by the rabbis that each person has three names; one that his parents give him, one that others give him, and one that is a result of his own actions. and this last one, is the most important.