Gavin Hazel: Black Belt Essay

Hunter Valley Martial Arts grading requirement
Black Belt Essay
Part A and B
Gavin Hazel 11-30-2020

Part A – What are the qualities you expect to find in a Black Belt?

“A man cannot understand the art he is studying if he only looks for the end result without taking the time to delve deeply into the reasoning of the study.” (Miyamoto Musashi – The Book of Five Rings).

When I first encountered karate instruction, as a parent watching my children’s lessons, I was fascinated by the question of how the art would be taught. Obviously there were a lot of technical and procedural skills that would need to be communicated. Drill and repetition was going to be a core component – but what about the deeper aspects of the “why”? Were there going to theory lessons? Or would key concepts emerge through the application of techniques in particular and etiquette of the dojo more generally? Was there some form of continuum where those of more advanced standing, more senior belts, demonstrated a deeper appreciation of the way that could be seen in a particular type of deportment and attitude? How was it all supposed to work? 

I was familiar with the prescriptions made by Anko Itosu, Gichin Funakoshi, Kenwa Mabuni, and Kano Jigoro, amongst others, about the practice of martial arts. Each of these men had tried to capture something about the processes and aspirations of the martial way. Some of the concepts discussed in their codes of practice pre dated the very idea of a “black belt”. Nonetheless they spoke to the idea of what being a martial artist meant. In some instances the emphasis was on self-defence and combat, others spoke to a more aesthetic ambition, others looked to the modernisation and systemisation of traditional forms and practices. 

In my own exploration of Japanese martial arts (some factual and some cinematic) I had seen that these tenants were often displayed in a dojo as a reminder to their students. This idea is so apocryphal it made its appearance in the second Karate Kid movie when Daniel sees two banners in the Miyagi family dojo and asks Mr. Miyagi what they mean. Miyagi says they are the rules of karate: “Rule #1: Karate for defense only. Rule #2: First learn rule number one.” In looking about the dojo space there didn’t seem to be a lot to go on but I had no idea what I was really trying to look for. So I decided to keep watching and listening closely to see if I could discern the scope and sequence of the curriculum more clearly. 

The pieces fell into place when I first heard the “Showa”. Encompassed in a few brief lines were a set of guiding principles, qualities, and expectations. Even in translation, as a pedagogic device the Showa was like a tight burst transmission across time from Tsuyoshu Chitose. I was fascinated by the Showa as a primary source – its content was the result of an intentional and conscious choice by its author. It felt like it was meant for a specific instructional or communicative purpose that was more than ritualistic. Without wanting to overcook its importance, it seem to me that the Showa articulated a vision for the style as a whole. It spoke to attitudes, intent and effort. At the time I thought “ok so this is what it is all about”. 

Cultivation of attitude a black belt attitude – being prepared but for what?

It is arguably one of the most counter intuitive aspects of martial arts how central attitude and mind are practice. In training there is a tension between the physical and mental domains and it can be easy for one or the other to become obscured or overshadowed. Technique without spirt can feel inert, and spirit without form can be directionless. In trying to visualise this tension or dualism, the ying and yang symbol of Chinese philosophy comes easily to mind. In its swirling pattern we can see both interaction and interdependence. 

It is an interesting exercise to consider what comes to mind for the majority of people when they hear the term martial artist. Popular culture has given us many different portrayals of martial artists. There is the raw physicality found in the lithe grace and striking power of Bruce Lee or the acrobatic and frenetic movements of Jackie Chan. There is the mysterious and inscrutable martial arts teacher like Master Kan from Kung Fu or Star War’s Master Yoda. While there are clearly core stereotypes of the martial artist, it seems the more we dig, the more variations and types we find. And with this variety comes different motivations, intents, and inspirations for what people want their martial arts journey to be. It is a deep question to ask what type of martial artist do you want to be? 

I recall reading Chris Hadfield’s memoir about becoming the first Canadian astronaut. He was inspired by the Apollo 11 moon landing he decided that he was going to become an astronaut. To call this a long shot would be generous – Canada didn’t have a space program at the time. But once this decision was made he started to look at his choices and behaviours and asked himself the simple question – what would an astronaut do? Would an astronaut need to be fit? What an astronaut need to do well in school? And my personal favourite, would an astronaut eat their vegetables? He made a conscious and intentional choice to cultivate the attitudes, skills and dispositions that were congruent with his goals. 

In my limited experience, there are many different motivations and goals for training in martial arts, but one in particular has stood out to me. There are some students who seek to determine the authenticity and value of martial arts training by the heaviness of the contact and what they see as real world application. They want a fighting art. In some extreme cases anything outside of striking is seen as redundant by the student. 

These students are not alone in advocating that a clear purpose or intent to a martial arts is important. There are amongst both the founders, and current senior practitioners, of Japanese martial arts those who have pushed back strongly against what they perceived to be the misappropriation of karate as a sport or those who fell that Karate was being taken away from its functional and practical basis. Mikio Yahara stated this most directly when he say “Karate has no philosophy. Some people think that the tradition of Karate came from Buddhism and Karate has a connection with the absolute, space and universe, but I don’t believe in that. My philosophy is to knock my opponent out, due to the use of only one technique. One finishing blow!” Nonetheless even in the most visceral “fight club” like experience that some see as part of the authenticity of traditional martial arts, there are still principles at play. 

Karate is anything but mindless. In fact it is replete with a sophisticated vocabulary to describe the differing mindsets and attitudes that require cultivation to be effective – Zanshin, Mushin, Shoshin, and Fudoshin. Let’s consider each of these briefly in turn to get a sense of this richness. Zanshin (the remaining mind) is about raising your total awareness and remaining focused and prepared in the moment. Mushin (the empty mind) is directed towards acting and reacting without emotion – allowing your training, skills and abilities to be fully and efficiently applied. Shoshin (the beginners mind) requires an opening to experience and a readiness to learn without judgement or assumption. Fudoshin (the immovable mid) emphasises confidence and composure. Each of these mindsets are embodied – they are about being in, and responding, to the world. The acquisition and refinement of these capabilities is to be found through persistent and reflective practice. Our intent should be to both understand and apply these principles. We should seek to cultivate them separately and together because they are interdependent. 

It is here that key words from the Showa make themselves felt. In the opening line of the Showa the term Shugyo appears. This term can be translated simply into the notion of study but the meaning is deeper here. In my view Shuygo is used to point to the transformative purpose of learning. The use of this particular verb to describe the act of studying karate, to me is ab indicator of, and preference for, a deep rather than surface approach to learning. The attitude with which this deeper study is to be conducted is linked with Wa to nin – Harmony (or peace) and perseverance. So our study needs to be deep, integrated, purposeful, and deliberate. It proposed that by adopting these attitudes that our goals can become achievable. But what are the goals? That bit seems to be missing?

For me, it is in the individual and collective practice of karate that these goals emerge. I see them as a product of a particular place and time, as well as tradition, value, and need. The cultivation of self-efficacy and competence is an iterative process and one that is dynamic and adaptable. As such the qualities of a black belt are best articulated as a process. 

Squaring the circle 

In my work I have tended to be a visual thinker. I understand things through trying to represent and model what I think is going on. Unfortunately this hasn’t translated into me being a good kinaesthetic learner of body movements but it is all swings and roundabouts I guess. What I would like to discuss here is a very rough sketch – a first impression.

The point is when I think about the qualities of a black belt I bring to mind a pattern similar to the notion of the embusen of a kata. But like an embusen this pattern only has meaning when it is brought alive through application. So when I think about these qualities what do I see (I have drawn this out and added this as an appendix) – I see a cyclical process with each element reinforcing and connecting with others. But this is not just a circle – it is more a wheel – with spokes linking to a central hub. So what is the core quality of a black belt, around which the other elements turn? For me it is a capacity for play – for exploration, experimentation, and change.

Piaget captured the fundamental connection between play and learning for children. Play is a process that can both catalyse change and consolidate progress. Rich play both follows heuristics and is dynamic and open. It allows us to ask simple but powerful questions – I wonder what would happen if I did this? Can these two things go together? Why do I do things this way? At the time we are making our first rough draft of how the world works – play is one of the most powerful tools available to us. 

Unfortunately play is too readily and pejoratively characterised as childish and frivolous – but this makes two errors: firstly it diminishes the richness of a child’s perspective and casts it as somehow less valuable; and; secondly it mistakes seriousness for a lack of fun and spontaneity. Play encompasses all our usual social requirements – there can be respect, collaboration, cooperation, contestation, conflict, competition, and independent play. Play is about permission giving as well, and this why I see it as being sympathetic with the idea of Shoshin

Play can be such a rich resource for learning that I often despair how quickly we set it aside. Of course play for adults in the context of martial arts has a particular expression but it retains these elements. To me a core quality that a black belt should strive to possess, both for their growth and the longevity of their practice, is a capacity for play, experimentation and curiosity. Perhaps there is a small echo of this idea in Shuhari. 

Turning about the central hub are a set of domains of action that I see as reinforcing and enhancing our practice. These are: Purpose, Partnerships, Perseverance, Possibility, Practice and Productivity. To me we should enact these components to help create and maintain a black belt attitude. Firstly, we need to be able to form and express our intent, purpose, and raison d’être– what are we aiming for? Secondly, we need to be able to understand and participate in relationships (to self and others). Third, we need resilience and tenacity and the capacity to support it in others. Fourth, we should be open to possibility and look to create and adapt. Fifth, our practice should be orientated on mastery. Sixth, we should seek to be productive in our training, to find what works for us and to grow our understanding and refine our techniques in ways that are useful to us and our fellow student. It is in what we do and why we do it that we forge our individual and collective black belt attitude. 

This has perhaps been a very long winded way to say what Miyamoto Musashi summed up in two key pieces of advice:

Think lightly of yourself and deeply of the world

The true science of martial arts means practicing them in such a way that they will be useful at any time, and to teach them in such a way that they will be useful in all things.”

Part B – How has your journey towards Black belt changed your life? 

The essence of Karate-do lies in the development of individuals… …Karate-do transcends social class, age and fortune, and it can be mastered by everybody. And as a path should and can be mastered by all…it can provide nourishment for the mind and body for anyone whom desires it” (Tsuyoshu Chitose, Kempo Karate-Do, pg 91) 

The short answer to this question is that my journey towards black belt has brought about the transformation and consolidation of many aspects of my life. Through the domains of Connection, Community, Collaboration, and Contribution karate has shifted my day to day world in ways I would not have predicted. I have acquired friendships, new skills and goals, a renewed engagement with the world, and a deeper and richer sense of family. I know when I miss training it feels like I forgotten to do something important. 

Perhaps the most fundamental lesson I have learnt from karate is that it is the journey that matters. It is in the process that the value can be found. Karate for me is about growth, becoming, and meaning rather than a specific outcome or goal. 

This journey is obviously taken in the company of others. You are guided by those who have travelled ahead of you, but in the end where you go, how fast you travel, and the reasons for your journey are very much of your own making. My journey towards black belt has been the journey of a lifetime, and one that I believe will also be a lifetime journey.

So in a nutshell “how has this journey changed my life?” … For the better. 

The longer answer …. Well, no pun intended, but that is a lengthier story.

There and back again – the winding path to the dojo door and the mat beyond

In thinking about how to answer this question, I first paused to consider “when did my journey towards a black belt actually start?” Did it begin when I first put on a white belt? When I first watched my family training at the dojo and thought this is something that I want to be doing too? Was it when my wife and I first discussed our kids starting karate? Was it growing up watching the films of Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, Sonny Chiba, and Chuck Norris? When did my journey actually begin?

For me the journey really started when as an adolescent, growing up in a small country town, I first read Go Rin no Sho (The Book of Five Rings) by Miyamoto Musashi. There was something about the words of a 17th century Japanese swordsman and writer, whose life was about as far removed from my day to day world as it could possibly be imagined, that spoke to me. Musashi opened a door to the idea that martial arts was something more than the theatrical display of speed, power, and skill that I had seen in the movies. 

At the time I only had a superficial understanding of Musashi’s writing; but nonetheless I felt there was something of real value at the core of his work. He spoke of a set of compelling ideas about the value of perseverance, the application of principles to real world situations, and self-mastery as a way of living. I wanted to know more. 

I searched the local and school libraries for information about kung fu, kendo, judo, and karate. I read Blitz and Black Belt, and watched movies and documentaries – all in an attempt to understand more about martial arts. In practical terms the nearest martial arts schools were many hours away in the larger towns, and there was no one in our community that I knew of, or knew, that trained in martial arts – we didn’t even have a boxing gym. So despite my initial interest there didn’t seem a way forward and my journey, at least in terms of starting training, had come to a standstill. 

In my early twenties, having relocated to attend university and work, a range of opportunities to train in any number of martial arts – taekwondo, karate, aikido, and judo – became finally available to me. My meandering journey had brought me, figuratively, to the doorstep of the dojo. But somewhere along the way I had lost my momentum, confidence, and the hunger of my younger self. I had replaced these with an unfortunate mix of doubt and anxiousness when it came to the realities of training in a martial art. I still valued the “idea” of what martial arts training could offer but it was beginning to feel like something that other people did. 

The disruption to my determination and composure that I recall experiencing at this time, I think is captured in the Japanese martial arts concept of Shikai. As I understand it, Shikai refers to the 4 sicknesses of the mind that are known as Kyo (surprise), Ku (fear), Gi (doubt), and Waku (confusion). In practical terms Shikai are limitations that we impose upon ourselves. While surprise, fear, doubt and confusion are common parts of our lives – it is when they become corrosive of our capacity to act and respond that they become of concern. In their more extreme form these feelings not only disrupt our practice in the moment, but they also limit our growth in martial arts as well as our effectiveness in our day to day lives. 

In the immediacy of combat, the notion of shikai takes on a visceral and tangible meaning. Yet it is not only in combat where the shikai reveal themselves. In my experience, we face shikai in all parts of our life. To respond to the shikai we need to adopt a different mindset or perspective. Within martial arts this is described as Heijoshin – where we strive to see the thing, the encounter, the situation, or the opponent that we face simply as it is and nothing more. The aim is not to be unbalanced or disturbed by what happens (or what we think might happen). So we acknowledge a sense of doubt as a reasonable response to uncertainty but do not become dominated by it. This is easier said than done, but the firsts step to changing a behaviour is being able to recognise it. So the first step in overcoming Shikai is being able to recognisewhen we are experiencing these four self-limiting behaviours. For me this remains and will remain a work in progress but I am ok with that. 

It would be several decades before I came to understand that starting and following a life in the martial arts was as hard, and as simple, as stepping onto the mat. All the practical and head game stuff that I was getting caught up in, while potentially relevant, was not as important as it seemed at the time. The simplicity of taking this step is perhaps one of the most powerful and enduring insights that my journey towards a black belt has given me. Po in Kung Fu Panda explains this best when he says of the secret to becoming the dragon warrior – “there is no secret ingredient. It’s just you”. Making other plans

As John Lennon reminds us “life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans”. Without understanding exactly how it occurred, after finishing my degree my focus became the scrabble of casual and contract work. I told myself that when I was less busy I would look into joining a dojo. I slipped off the path and onto the treadmill of the daily grind of work. A series of knee injuries and periods of long rehab slowed down my sporting activities. These also provided me further physical and psychological “justification” for putting martial arts onto the back burner. 

Nonetheless, I would continue to encounter and re-encounter martial arts as my professional career took me down many diverging paths. For example, as a teacher educator and researcher I came across the Rock and Water Program and was immediately excited by the application of what seemed to be martial arts theory and practice to working with high school students. It just made sense. I was sad that I did not have an opportunity to dive into this approach more deeply, but I kept it on my radar for when it could be of use. While working as a defence research scientist In Canberra and Williamtown several of my colleagues were lifelong martial artists and conversations with them about techniques and drills re-awoke my appetite for the martial arts in general and weapons training in particular. Cinema from 1990s onwards had become increasingly nuanced and diverse in it storytelling and representation of martial arts. The advanced fight chorography was really cool as well. I was a staunch advocate within the Newcastle Film Society for expanding what should be considered as “classic cinema” to include more Asian cinema. While I won the day with the works of Akira Kurosawa being added to the program one year; Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan were a bridge too far. The emergence of the internet also provided a pipeline to a vast array of information, communities and resources. All these different experiences served to keep the embers of my interest in martial arts going. 

Then two things happened that put me back on the path to and through, the dojo door. 

The first was the onset, in my late 30s, of a chronic pain condition, fibromyalgia. This condition is one of widespread pain, muscle stiffness and reduction in mobility, fatigue, disrupted balance, difficulties with concentration and memory, and increased sensitivity to pain. Overnight my relationship to my body was changed as I struggled with basic tasks. The management of this condition has made me acutely aware of the connection between mind, body, and emotion. Physical activity has become one of the main ways in which I can manage some of these symptoms. So as part of my recovery I committed to finding ways to be active. It was a basic case of “use it or lose it”. 

The second was my family starting to train in Karate. Given my long term interest in martial arts I wanted my kids to have the opportunity to give it a go. With a dojo opening up in our suburb and my eldest son’s stated desire to learn karate, it seemed to be too good an opportunity not to take. Unexpectedly, but in short order my four kids and wife were training several days a week and loving it. 

So it was my family after all this time that finally gave me permission to come through the dojo door. While sitting and watch classes, many of my previous concerns quickly fell away. But one question remained front and centre – would I physically be able to do the training? Mobility, was something which I had always had to work very hard on, and now it was even more of an issue. Was I kidding myself thinking that this was something I could do? Beneath this question was the more challenging issues of self-doubt and fear – the unresolved Shikai from twenty years before. 

Bruce Lee’s provocation of “are you going to let the obstacles in your life be stumbling blocks or stepping stones?” captured the essence of the decision I felt needed to make in this moment. In the end I decided that karate training “would be what it would be” – I would give it my best effort and would see where it would take me. While not a resounding affirmation of self-belief – it was the beginning. The changes that would result from this decision were as unexpected as they were profound.  To give as sense of these I want to speak to four domains – connection, community, collaboration and contribution   which I feel capture something of how karate has changed my life.


For me training in karate has helped to me to re-write the jumbled connections between mind, body and emotion that I experience as the result of chronic pain. Disconnection is a common coping response to pain of all types (physical, mental or emotional). But this response blunts us to the beneficial sides of connection. I think we can lose more than we gain when we rigidly compartmentalise our physical self from our mental self. 

The connection between task, intent, mind, body, and emotion is something that I have caught glimpses of during my karate practice – either in my own training or in observing others. This experience of flow is one of grounding and being present while also having a higher consciousness about the activity you are doing. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes the idea of flow as “the holistic sensation that people feel when they act with total involvement.” 

This sense of connection I have had in karate resembles most closely the kind of feeling and awareness I have when kayaking – when it is just you and the water. For me when you are on the water you need to bring all your senses, thoughts and feeling into focus. It is in these moments that we come alive to the world, possibility, and ourselves.

When you are in immersed dynamic environments, sometimes literally like the ocean, you need to be connected to your body because your body is your link to the world. You need to be connected to your mind to help make sense of what is happening. You need to feel and respond without becoming overwhelmed by your excitement, fear, or nervousness. In this state of concentration and focus – you can become free of the white noise of your daily life. I have found that wind and waves are not concerned with your worries – they demand your attention and in doing so can help you find your balance. Much the same is true of punches and kicks – when you are sparing you need to be present. 

In these moments of connection I believe we have access to different types of knowledge – sometimes about skills, sometimes about the world, and sometimes about who we are. Karate has given me another way to be in flow and to feel the push and pull of being in the world.


We often hear the advice that we should look for our tribe. That we should seek out those who are passionate about the things that we are passionate about. Through the practice of training together and supporting the activities of the dojo and the club – I found a tribe without even really knowing I was looking for one. 

To me the idea of a tribe is not just about common interests – it is about authentic connection and it is about shared values and qualities. The sense of belonging and purpose within the dojo is hard to articulate but I feel it almost every time I train. To belong and to participate in a community is a powerful thing. It is something I have experienced rarely but each time it has happened I have felt that I was where I needed to be. 

I have found amongst my fellow students a rag tag bunch of extraordinary people who not only share a similar commitment to karate but also share values, a sense of humour, compassion, and authenticity. We take our martial arts journey seriously and train hard but we do not take ourselves too seriously. The community of the dojo as a whole keeps us grounded and ambitious at the same time. 


Partnerships and relationships have been fundamental to my black belt journey. We train in groups, we work with Sensei and Sempai, and we partner for Bunkai and Kumite. It is in this collective space of partner work that we sharing ideas and help each other. Do not misunderstand me, I really need the solitude of my own training where I can drill and explore what I am learning; but far more of my breakthroughs and insights in Karate have either come from working with others, or by being supported by someone else to improve a skill or concept. 

I have explored, for over 30 years in my professional work, how people learn, know, and make meaning. This experience has given me strong beliefs about the value of scaffolding, mentoring, co-construction and collaboration as powerful tools for accelerating individual and group performance. Using these strategies can complement and extend those who prefer more self-directed approaches; while also providing a way forward for those who are unsure to begin to build their confidence, competence and self-efficacy. As a club and dojo the spirit of collaboration is tangible and intentional.

This collaborative aspect of karate has changed my life by gifting me with the exceptionally rare opportunity to be a learner and mentor alongside my children, partner, and friends. We are all sharing this journey from novice to beginner and onwards. In this we are all struggling with similar but different challenges. Karate has become a common topic of conversation in our home. We debate points of technique, share what we have learnt when someone has missed training and we practice together. 


One of the questions I was commonly asked by my friends while at university was “why would you want to be a teacher?” My answer usually involved something about holidays and jobs security. I will not deny there was a hefty dose of pragmatism in my reasons for choosing teaching – I needed to get a job out of my university degree. Nonetheless there is a set of values that directed me towards teaching in the first place. I wanted to do something that offered the opportunity to make a contribution. I wanted to participate in giving something back – to repay what schooling had allowed me to do. 

Karate has given me an opportunity, like teaching, to be an active contributor to something that has made a significant difference in my life. There are many opportunities for formal and informal involvement in the dojo and the club as a whole. As the years have passed I have increasingly looked to how I might contribute. It is important to me to find ways to pay it forward as an acknowledgement of the valuable help I have received long the way. I believe that we have an obligation to be of assistance to those coming along behind. 

Daring to be on the mat

My journey to black belt has been as transformative as it has been affirmative. Coming to training as an adult has felt uncomfortable and complicated. You could say that I am “a long time learner, first time practitioner” when it comes to martial arts. 

We are all beginners at some point in our lives. The point is embrace beginnings and to dare to explore something new and difficult and to keep going if it sparks a passion in you. As Miyamoto Musashi observed “step by step [we] walk the thousand-mile road”. 

My experiences as a martial art student have connected with my beliefs that much of what we achieve in life is about showing and doing your best, embracing the idea that imperfections are a contributor to growth, and seeing vulnerability as a catalyst for change. It is the striving and struggle, not just our success or failures that our life can be changed.

I recently came across a poem by Theodore Roosevelt and there was something in it that resonated with how I was thinking about the black belt journey. My attention was particularly draw to his representation of striving and putting yourself in the arena of our lives.

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Appendix 1 – A preliminary process model of a black belt attitude.


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Web Links

A Path of Martial Training by Peter Zehr

A Study if fusion by Brain Hayes

Chitose Tsuyoshi: A Bridge Through Time by Michael Colling

Chito Ryu Karate Concepts by Andre G. Buret

Facing up to koryu kata by Brain Hayes

Hard to be Soft by Peter Giffen

History of Chito Ryu Katas by Andre G. Buret

History of Okinawa Karate

In Search of the Origins of Te by Ken Sakamoto

On Instruction by Ken Sakamoto

Origin & Development of Chito-Ryu

Ryusei karate-do: a personal perspective by Peter Giffen

The 10 Lessons of Grandmaster Itosu: Revisiting Karate’s Most Valuable Historical Essay

By Jesse Enkamp