The Dreaded Black Sash
Twice in the last month this topic has arisen again; the black sash. I know this is hard for some folks to fathom but having a black sash does not mean anything in Southern Praying Mantis Kung Fu and, in fact, most styles of kung fu. I know there are teachers out there proclaiming that they were the first to receive this in their style or the youngest or whatever but it has never been an indicator of rank in this and most styles. That first day decades ago that I joined the kung fu school I bought my uniform which included a black sash. It’s the equivalent of a belt, just a belt. Black meant ignorance and nothing more; you were a beginner. If you finally made it through the style and completed the training you were allowed to wear a purple sash. Quite honestly I do not remember the significance of purple but if you were instructing you were allowed to wear it. In the karate system my Shotokan Sensei explained a black belt was supposed to symbolize the white belt turning black after years of training. He explained that in Japan a black belt was generally achieved in just a few years and that obtaining one meant that you were just beginning on your path not ending it. He lamented that Americans get it and stop training feeling they’ve accomplished something.
So please understand when you tell me you have a black sash I don’t know what the means or who created this. I know that many kung fu schools have adopted this from the Japanese systems but it is not a traditional part of kung fu. Even in the old kung fu movies you don’t see different colored sashes. It’s also a money maker as you can charge for testing. Besides what other physical forms require this contrivance? Is Pacquiao a black belt? Is Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretsky or Babe Ruth a black sash?
You might be a wonderful martial artist or not, the sash doesn’t matter friends.
We get stuck in the ways we learn and the ways we teach. We do not realize that we limit ourselves by our expectations rather than seeing what is right there in front of us. I remember standing in the back of a hall after a lecture with a great Zen master. One of the attendees there was talking to us and he said, “It must be wonderful to study with one of the great masters, I hope to meet one some day”. I asked, “How would you know it when you met one?” He replied, “Oh, I would know”. He fulfilled the expression, “ Standing in the water crying of thirst”. The master was not Asian and was not the paradigm of what he expected. His expectations kept him from seeing the real thing, one of the great masters of the last few centuries.
I often have folks come to me to study SPM. They tell me about their past, their belts and the forms they’ve learned. There is a way they have learned it and a protocol in their minds to what they think is right and how is should be taught. When I don’t fit that paragdigm they are perplexed. Since it is outside of their experience they don’t know what to do so they walk away thinking , ‘this is not the real thing because the real thing is taught in this manner’. I had a fellow come to me who had studied a short fist system for a long time. He had a falling out with his Sifu and wanted to continue somewhere else. He was truly distressed at the failed relationship with the previous Sifu. He came to me and showed me what he learned regarding chi sao (sticky hands). I thought his understanding of it to be undeveloped but kept my mouth shut. He kept pushing me to do it with him and I finally acquiesced. I barely had to move to shut him down and I am not great at this. He could not hit me and I did not try to hit him. This greatly frustrated him because he was used to a give and take in his practice. I saw his technique as weak and didn’t need to do anything other than null him. He finally proclaimed, “You don’t know how to do this right”. After that he left and never returned. It had nothing to do with the efficacy of my technique but with the paradigm that he was used to; he could not see beyond his expectation so he could not learn from it.
I had a similar situation many years ago in my professional life as a recording engineer in a music studio. I was very proper and careful in my approach to recording music, getting guitar and drum sounds, etc. One day a client came in and he wanted to engineer his own work. I was immediately put off by the fellow. He was the epitome of the ‘sex and drugs and rock and roll’ mentality. He was my polar opposite, very undisciplined. High on coke, obnoxious, loud, no social boundaries, inappropriate sexual comments, etc; this guy ran the gamut. I did not like him knew there was nothing I could learn from this knucklehead. As soon as he started setting up the band it went against all of my paradigms. He ran levels too high and pushed the equipment too far. Like watching a father see his son coached hard by someone else I was upset. I kept telling him what he was doing was wrong and couldn’t possible be productive. He had years of experience over me. Finally he told me to shut up and listen to the sounds. “Are they good?? Does this kick ass? Is it better than what you do?” I was so caught up in this guy’s personality and breaking all of the ‘rules’ that I did not listen to the final product. It was light years beyond my capability. It was excellent. Part of me did not want to learn from a person like him yet he did have something great to teach me. I gave in and he told me that I must understand and employ the equipment I had and not approach it timidly. I must master it and not let it master me. Quite honestly he changed my life. I took his advice to heart and I have become a skilled and nationally known engineer and have made a good living from it for many years. It was this fellow pushing me out of my comfort zone and over the edge that made a difference. From the least place I would have expected it I got the best advice.
We need to learn to see what we can glean from any experience. We cannot let our expectations of something get in the way of our learning. We must attain the eye to see beyond our myopic self position, our expectations and our desires. Sometimes we just see the rocks but not the mountain while is looms overhead.
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