The Purpose of Essay Writing for Black Belt Exams

When the Fight Goes to the Ground: Jiu-jitsu Strategies & Tactics for Self-DefenseIn many martial arts styles, essays are part of the requirements for Dan (black belt level) examinations. At my dojo, I require Shodan (1st Degree Black Belt) candidates to write a 500-word or more essay answering the question “What’s the most valuable thing you’ve gained from training in Can-ryu Jiu-jitsu?”. For Nidan, they must write an essay of 1000 words or more, explaining one or more ways teaching Can-ryu Jiu-jitsu has changed their perspective. At the higher levels, these essays become more like a thesis on a topic that is specifically assigned to the candidate.

The purpose of writing these essays is not to test students’ writing skills. I personally don’t expect people to have the eloquence and grammar of someone who writes regularly. The idea is to give students an opportunity to reflect on what their martial arts training/teaching experiences has meant to them at the first Dan levels. That’s why the questions are quite open to different interpretations and can be looked at from a wide variety of angles. Chris Olson Sensei from our dojo wrote “How I Learned to Be a Student” for his Shodan essay, which gave insight to his perspective of coming to train in a different style of Jiu-jitsu after already having trained to brown belt in his original style (Shorinji Kan). It was actually quite a humbling essay in his journey to open his mind to accept and integrate teachings from a new style. I look forward to reading his Nidan essay (which is coming up pretty soon, I might add). By reflecting in this way, it helps students understand the human experience of martial arts training as a whole, albeit from their own perspective, which can help them better connect with other students as they take on more and more of a leadership role in the dojo.

At the higher levels, the purpose is to encourage them to explore a particular topic in detail that draws both on their experiences, as well as pushing them to look beyond what they have already learned for further insight. For my Yondan (4th Degree Black Belt), I wrote a thesis on A) the history of knives, types of knives and knife striking methods, and B) how I would prepare to teach defense against knife attacks. I called it On the Knife’s Edge: Exploring the History of Knives as Weapons and Defense Strategies against Them (click the link if you’re interested in reading it). I spent several months working on this paper, talking to instructors with far more experience than me in this particular topic, ordering books, doing research on the Internet, etc. I immersed myself in the topic, reading grizzly books like Contemporary Knife Targeting as my bedtime reading, which showed a variety of images of actual edged weapon wounds. I even play-tested one of the ideas I had about the psychology of knife defense on my blog, gaining insight on different perspectives on a very subjective topic. I wasn’t told how long my essay should be, just that it should be long enough to cover the topic I was given. It ended up being over 20,000 words, but I was happy with how it turned out. As for my Godan (5th Degree), I didn’t end up having to write a thesis this time. I think the essay requirement was likely waived, considering that I wrote an entire book/DVD, When the Fight Goes to the Ground: Jiu-Jitsu Strategies & Tactics for Self-Defense (coming out in February 2013), which was far more work than just a standard thesis would have been with all the photography and accompanying video.

Ultimately, the purpose of writing essays, theses, etc, as a part of Dan examinations is not the writing itself, but the thought that goes behind them. When one writes these papers, they can be an intimate exercise in self-examination or an extensive outreach that pushes the boundaries of what you think you know about the martial arts. Although I have a distinct advantage in that I enjoy writing, I think everyone can benefit from the thought exercise that goes into writing, whether the person is a writer or not.

Are essays a requirement for black belt gradings in your style? If so, what types of essay do people write? If not, what do you think of the concept? Please share your thoughts in the comments. 🙂

Comments (3)

3 thoughts on “The Purpose of Essay Writing for Black Belt Exams

  1. First of all: happy new year, best wishes for 2013. I hope you’ll permit me to take an opposite view: it’s not that I’m fully convinced yet one way or the other (you should never be too convinced of anything since it’s always possible to err, the human mind is inherently flawed after all, and knowledge ever expanding) but lets try to get a dialectic going here, shall we?

    I doubt I’d be asked to submit a paper for my BB-test and to be honest I’m not sure what an intellectual exercise (which I don’t mind at all btw) such as writing an essay has to do with a physical (technique, skill) and mental (concentration, keeping cool under stress) endavour such as martial arts or how it would make a person a better martial artist. For someone who wants to become a teacher it might be helpful in learning how to communicate about certain aspects of their art (although writing about something is still very different from explaining it in person) or research certain areas they’re not too familiar with but for the rest (the majority probably) I doubt they’d learn much or even enjoy doing it. To me martial arts, like Zen meditation, is about cultivating the unconscious mind (mushin no shin) and the lessening of the ego (annata), not rational thinking or booksmarts which are more useful in other endavours. Again I don’t really see what is to be gained by forcing people to focus on their subjective experiences while the goal of the martial arts consists of the opposite: becoming free from conscious thought, ego, fear and emotion. It’s like the famous Zen-master Takuan wrote:

    “The mind must always be in the state of ‘flowing,’ for when it stops anywhere that means the flow is interrupted and it is this interruption that is injurious to the well-being of the mind. In the case of the swordsman, it means death. When the swordsman stands against his opponent, he is not to think of the opponent, nor of himself, nor of his enemy’s sword movements. He just stands there with his sword which, forgetful of all technique, is ready only to follow the dictates of the subconscious. The man has effaced himself as the wielder of the sword. When he strikes, it is not the man but the sword in the hand of the man’s subconscious that strikes.”

    On top of that it’d likely be a chore for people without a formal education, even if you take their lack of formal training in reading, writing and thinking into account and don’t stress the academic quality of the work. You as a teacher might enjoy reading it (feedback on your work so to speak) while for them it might not be what they signed up for and they might even resent you for it. For people who are already busying themselves with reading and/or writing (professionally or as a hobby) it’d be nothing new, for those who aren’t it’d be like taking them to the library and forcing them to read or keep a journal. I’ve found that reading about fighting and the arts and thinking about these things to be interesting but it didn’t make me better at the actual activity itself (at least I don’t think so, lol) which requires constant practice. Having a keen mind won’t prevent you from being punched in the face (proven by countless generations of brainiacs 😉 but keen reflexes, a steadfast mind and good technique probably will. Reading the Book of 5 Rings will not make you proficient at swordmanship (even if you know it by heart and can produce the most intelligent sounding commentaries): only picking up a bokken and practicing endlessly untill you get good. It’s a point stressed by Musashi himself over and over again: ‘it cannot be explained fully, you must practice dilligently’.

    PS: I think the link to your knife-essay is broken.

    1. Hi Zara. Happy New Year to you too! 🙂 Thanks for pointing out the broken link. It’s fixed now. As for the essays, I think there is merit either way. In Japan, there is a saying, “There are many paths to the top of Mount Fuji.” I think this is particularly relevant here. In our style, as you advance, part of your training is to help other people in their training, whether this is by leading warm-ups, helping people make minor corrections, or teaching classes formally. Once you become a black belt, you will run classes, whether it’s only occasionally or on a schedule.

      When you have taken the time to consider what you have personally gained from your training/teaching, it helps you connect better with other people by reflecting on all the different things people get from the experience. Does it make you closer to Mushin? No, though reflecting on what you may have gained from your training from a mental perspective may at least give you a sense of appreciation for it. It can, however, help you be a better teacher by helping you to connect with the human experience that is martial arts training. Many martial arts masters consider the act of teaching and giving back to the community to be one of the most important goals in the martial arts world, not just being able to fight or defend one’s self. That being said, this is a more modern perspective in a time when the necessity for it’s application is rare unless you live in a rough place or you work in law enforcement.

      These essays are fairly common in traditional martial arts. The book “Spirit of the Sensei” by Andrew Bowerbank goes into detail about these types of essays and what they are for, and this is the perspective taken in our style. It is what it is. There are certainly other ways to achieve the desired effect that comes with writing these essays, but it is a valid way to accomplish the above goals. I don’t expect academic quality work from people who don’t have that sort of background. Just a demonstration that the thought has gone into it.

      Thanks for commenting!

      1. It’s still my view that we in the west are too focused on rationality and conscious thought most of the time (I know I am) and martial arts training is a nice counterbalance to this. Thinking, studying and writing to me belong in another category than martial arts (which isn’t to say it can’t be the focus of said activities) but that being said writing an essay obviously isn’t the main way to test a potential black belt and for a (potential) teacher it may very well offer benefits aswell as for students reading it as a preview to their later development.

        I know writing an essay as a prerequisite for higher belts is a custom in many schools but I doubt it was the case in Japan centuries ago. Of course martial arts must evolve with the times and in a culture that was built on rationality (generally a good thing of course) it’s to be expected that elements of it will carry over in practical, sportslike endaveours. Of course it’s your prerogative as a teacher to decide on teh requirements for passing tests, no-one will dispute that, but I don’t think I’ll ever instate it as a prerequisite for a BB-test. That’s if I ever get to the point of actually becoming a headteacher of course. Patience, young grasshopper…

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