The symbolism of FFK grades

Below you can read an interesting article published in Karate Webzine No.39 (October 2010)

Francis Didier’s explanation

Beyond an artificial reward, or folklore, the grade embodies the particular dynamics of martial arts. It teaches us a lot about the meaning of our practice. We have asked the President of the Federation, Francis Didier, 7th dan, to tell us more about an issue that he has thoroughly explored.

OKM: Where do the grades come from?

FD: It was Jigoro Kano, creator of judo, but above all great spirit who wanted to bring together martial arts, and beyond all the arts, the “paths” of his country. He was a modern man who understood and accompanied the sense of the evolution of his time. He was the first president of the Olympic Committee of Japan and his country owes him the 1964 Games, years after his death. He himself was, much like us, straddleing sport and the traditional culture of which he understood the value. He never stopped opening and moving forward, but without giving up the essentials of the culture and knowledge of the past. We owe him our outfit and our ranks.

What did they symbolize in his mind?

The special meaning of martial practice, which he clarified all his life. It was he who used and popularized the word “do,” which expresses that a practice that becomes a “way” aims at a dual objective, inseparable and interacting with each other: technical development and that of the mind. What the Japanese also refer to as “Ki Kentai Ichi,” “the mind, the technique — in the sense of the weapon — and the body together.” With our Christian heritage, we see things in duality, the body on one side, the head on the other… We make boxes where orientals see unity. The Japanese ideogram is a clear image that we cannot read. It’s all in there. “Do” shows a way to go, a world to explore to arrive at the skill and mastery of the spirit that goes with it. Jigoro Kano wished that the grades symbolize the stages of this journey, always with a concern for clarity and sustainability. With our cultural differences, these indications are probably even more useful to us than to his Japanese contemporaries. We quickly tend to forget our specificity. The sport, the performance, the spectacular technique are easy to see. The mind is invisible.

What do our discipline grades say?

They manifest the predominance of the mind. This is the specificity of martial arts. There is probably about the same dynamic in the practice of boxing for example, the same benefits to be deearned, but this is not expressed in the culture of the sport. In our discipline, the goal is clear and it would be good if practitioners never lose sight of this aspect of things. Our daily practice is the vehicle of this dual objective, technical, but also mental. In all its aspects: Competition is a physical, technical, but also mental test – and that is why defeat is noble because it allows a questioning. A session without concentration is a wasted opportunity and a sign of weakness. The dojo is the symbolic space of this dual-effect work. We must strive to leave the slags of the outside world outside.

So the rank is first of all a strong symbol?

I think it is important for everyone to question the meaning of their rank. On its symbolic meaning. The degree is not a series of diplomas where one goes from the first to the tenth rung as in the Western mentality. It’s a circular progression, sort of. A sphere, a circle, like the one formed by the knotted belt, in which one begins white belt and ends up white belt, completed path.

What is the meaning of each grade?

Here is my interpretation of the various stages, dictated by my experience. I urge everyone to deepen their personal point of view. The first dan, that of the black belt, is the one where we put technique on the natural. In a way, we mess up instinct first, we kill him. You have reached a level, that of black, symbol of a technical value, but also of the loss of instinct that we find later. The second dan introduces duality. It is the learning of the double and the doubt. The other within ourselves gives us a mirror that allows us to know each other better and to face ourselves better. It’s the fight for body control. The third dan is an important rank because it is the one that symbolizes the union of the three principles: the body, the technique and the spirit above, which dominates. At this stage, the mind masters the body and the technique, which the Japanese formulate with the phrase “Shin-Gi-Tai” “The Spirit, the Technique and the Body Together.” The fourth dan symbolizes the mastery of matter. This is a level where the practitioner must have gained control of his “visceral” emotions. Fear strikes in the stomach and poisons the mind. For example, if you are thrown a stone, chances are you will take it, because fear will paralyze your reaction. If it’s a softball, you’ll be able to dodge it easily. These emotions, expressed through tensions, the “knotted belly”, must be mastered. at this level, these emotions must no longer disturb your mind, which controls the gestures. The fifth dan indicates the perfect mastery of his art. It is the time of openness and exchanges to confront and compare. It is at this level that we recommend in karate to go to the other schools. The sixth dan is an essential step because it is the completion of the voluntary journey. Everything that could be done was done in terms of technical work. We enter into the true work of the mind. In the seventh dan, we switch to something else. The master’s work has been done. The mind, slower to mature, continues to grow. The accomplished practitioner does not turn to his glorious past, but contemplates what is still before him. The eighth dan is a border, the one that separates the two worlds, that of the visible and the invisible which, for the Japanese, are intimately linked. at this rank, the master stands on the intertwined line of the two worlds. In the ninth dan, the circle of the visible begins to fade. The mind of the practitioner is oriented towards the world of the invisible and leaves behind the limits of the material. In the tenth dan, only the spirit remains. It is a circle, a perfect point, like the one the samurai drew before the battle to indicate that they were free of their lives and contingencies. A count, a complete detachment, which is no longer troubled by anything. It is the return to the origin, to the starting point, to the purity, to the modesty of white, symbol of rebirth, of renewal. The loop is closed, the journey is over.

It’s a high ideal…

We talk about ideal notions that are difficult to express in words. There is a story that I like, which illustrates this ideal of mastery. That of a monk surrounded by bandits who try to cut him off with their swords without succeeding, and end up insulting him by telling him to finally stop moving all the time! To which the monk replies: “I am perfectly still.” What we must understand is that it is his mind that is immobile, that is to say detached and serene, in the agitation that surrounds him, which allows him to make the gesture always right. The work of the body in practice develops the mind, then the influence of the mind dictates progress. The stronger the mind, the less constrained the gesture, the more relevant the action will be, even when the body has begun to decline. The lower speed of execution is compensated by the sharpness of the mind and its power over the body. The eyesight is declining, but mental perceptions continue to narrow. You can see what is invisible to others.

These are symbolic steps in practice. Should I be embarrassed by an exam?

What would an architect do not present his projects? Life is made up of evaluations, auditions and other level tests. Presenting the result of a work that has taken a life creates open-mindedness. It is a dialogue that takes place, a beneficial exchange, even to the examiners. The rank pass is part of the practice itself, because it forces you to work and because it gives you the look of others, which we need because they are the ones who tell us, “You have reached this level”.

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