from the archives: my black belt promotion essays


Today, Shihan gave me the official application for my promotion to sandan (third-degree black belt). From now until the promotion — which starts on the 18th and ends on the 23rd — I will be a white belt again.

Part of the promotion is to write an essay, and I’ve also done this for my first- and second-degree promotions. I posted them on the old blog, and here they are on the new one, the first from October 2009, the second from March 2013:


Black Belt Promotion Essay
by Keith R.A. DeCandido

In 2004, I turned 35, and it seemed as if the warranty had run out on my body. I was 25 pounds overweight, I had developed a hiatal hernia, and my knees and feet hurt so much that my doctor had to prescribe medication to manage the pain.

I also had done essentially no exercising in my entire life. Certainly not since grade school, when I played on the soccer team. After that, and through to adulthood, my life was the textbook definition of sedentary. By profession, I’m a writer and editor, both of which are jobs that require one to spend a considerable amount of time sitting at a computer. My hobbies include watching baseball, watching television, watching movies—generally from a nice comfortable seat. Physical activity simply never played a role in my life.

That changed five years ago, when my doctor told me in no uncertain terms that the best way to deal with my assorted health issues was to exercise regularly.

The next step was to choose what form this exercise would take. Simply joining a gym was never going to work. In order for me to motivate myself, I would need to be engaged mentally as well as physically. Walking on an elliptical or lifting weights would not provide that.

However, I’d always had an interest in the martial arts, and that would have a practical component beyond simply losing weight. I’ve always enjoyed watching martial artists at work, always been fascinated by the controlled movements and the elegance, and always thought it would be fun to learn.

My reasons for choosing this dojo were rather prosaic: it is walking distance from where I live. I don’t own a car, and proximity to my own shower was an important criterion for choosing a place of exercise.

Studying karate under Shihan Paul has exceeded my expectations. Initially, that is because those expectations were not terrifically high. I mainly wanted somewhere that would aid me in improving my health. And I accomplished that. While my weight is actually the same as it was five years ago, it’s mostly muscle, and my body fat ratio is quite low. My blood pressure is better than it’s ever been, my knees and feet no longer hurt, and the hiatal hernia’s barely a factor anymore.

However, I have gotten so much more out of my experiences as a karateka.

The first day I came to the dojo on 20 September 2004, I wasn’t even capable of doing more than one push-up. Every moment I did was a tremendous struggle. In the five years since, I’ve gone through nine promotions, several Kagami Birakis, and countless kumite classes, but none of those resulted in the sheer bone-weary, sweat-drenched exhaustion of that first class.

But I came back the following week. One of the reasons was Shihan Paul (he was Kyoshi Paul, then). From the start, I noticed that his teaching style was very much geared toward allowing you to work within yourself. He didn’t force me to do anything I was unable to do, though he did encourage me (not push—an important distinction) to do the most that I was capable of. I have had many teachers in my life, whether in schools and universities or in my professional life, and Shihan Paul is one of the very finest. His compassion and understanding, his skills at demonstrating and communicating, are superb. He is also a truly fine storyteller, whether giving a Zen lecture after a Thursday class or a toast at a dojo celebration. Stories have always been the greatest teaching tools humanity has, and Shihan Paul uses them to excellent effect.

I freely admit that my own stubborness played a part in keeping me coming back as a white belt. I do not like to fail when I set out to accomplish something. My response to that first class was less, “I can’t do this, this will kill me,” and more, “I can do better than this.”

A third factor that continued to inspire me to return to the dojo week after week is the other students. Initially, the others in the white-belt class provided encouragement. I started the same day as three other students, and in those early days we all pushed each other. Three more students joined the class in December, and again, we pushed each other, helping each other out. Two other fellow white belts from those days remain students at the dojo, both now brown belts, and over the past five years the three of us have continued to inspire each other, and become better karateka together than we would have individually.

Our black belts have also provided daily inspiration. In particular I must single out Senpai Cliff—who still assists Shihan Paul during the adult white-belt classes, and whose guidance was invaluable then and remains so now—and Senpai Gustavo—whose Wednesday classes I have happily attended since they began in 2005.

The black belts also remind me that this promotion is not the destination, but another step on the journey. I look forward to continuing that journey for many years to come.



Nidan Promotion Essay
by Keith R.A. DeCandido

One of my favorite parts of a book to write and to read is the acknowledgments section. I’m always curious who it was that helped the author on his or her writing journey. The acknowledgments can be very revealing about the process of the book’s creation.

Some authors refer to that as the “acknowledgments page,” but I really can’t do that, for rare is it that my acknowledgments can be confined to a single page (unless the typeface is really small…). One of my colleagues once joked that he was going to nominate the acknowledgments in one of my Star Trek novels for Best Short Story, because that one went on for several pages.

But publicly thanking and praising and crediting those who assisted me in whatever way—even if it’s something minor, like helping me name a character—is important. Nobody ever works in a vacuum, and that’s particularly true for writers, for all that we spend most of our working time sitting alone in a room with only a keyboard for company.

It’s also a bit of a thrill to be so acknowledged. Every time I find my name in the acknowledgments of a colleague’s book, I’ve been very proud to know that I was able to help a fellow author out and ease or assist in the creation of the book.

As with writing, so too with karate. In the three-and-a-half years that I’ve spent as a shodan, I’ve tried to learn as much as I can about who and what came before. The karate that I learn from Shihan Paul and the other black belts was taught to them by Shuseki Shihan William Oliver, who learned from Kaicho Tadashi Nakamura, who learned from Masusatsu Oyama, who learned from Gigo Funakoshi, the son of Gichin Funakoshi, the father of modern karate. I’ve read the autobiographies of both Funakoshi (Karate-Do: My Way of Life) and Nakamura (The Human Face of Karate: My Life, My Karate-Do), and watched the documentaries Fighting Black Kings (which heavily featured Shuseki Shihan Oliver) and True to the Way: A Portrait of Shuseki Shihan William Oliver on DVD, as well as various YouTube videos of Shuseki Shihan teaching, fighting, performing kata, and being interviewed.

Shihan Paul no more works in a vacuum as a karate teacher than I do as a writer: all those sources above show a lineage of karate instruction and of karate philosophy that I see every time I enter the dojo, from Funakoshi’s humility and stressing the importance of never using your karate if you do not have to, to Nakamura’s emphasis of the community of karateka and the importance of students helping each other.

Since attaining my black belt, the biggest change for me is that Shihan Paul has asked me to assist him in teaching children’s and white-belt classes. I have also taught classes on my own whenever Shihan Paul or one of the other black belts assigned to teach a particular class has been away.

Teaching karate has been one of the most thrilling and enjoyable experience of my life. I have tried to take the lessons I’ve learned from Shihan Paul to heart—as well as those of other black belts. I have, at times, found myself emulating something that Senpai Gustavo has done in his class, or Sensei Clai or Senpai Joel or Senpai Cliff or another black belt.

Primarily, though, I take my cues from Shihan Paul, and not just because he runs our dojo, but because he is one of the finest teachers I have ever known. It’s a particular joy to assist him when he’s teaching the children’s classes, as he has an excellent rapport with them. He never discourages kids, always showing them how to do it right rather than telling them they’ve done it wrong. But he also never stops pushing them, encouraging them to do more than they think they can, and never letting them get away with doing less.

Just as my acknowledgments tell people who aided me in my fictional journey, but the book is still mine, I try to make my teaching style be my own, filtered though it is through the lessons of Shihan Paul and my other teachers.

At our dojo’s spring camp in 2011, Shihan Paul performed Kanku kata for us. On YouTube, there is a magnificent video of Shuseki Shihan Oliver doing the same kata, and you can see the influence of the latter on the former—but also that Shihan Paul has made the kata his, even though he pays tribute to his teacher in many of the ways he demonstrates the kata. This is the same approach I try to take as a teacher.

While I no more seek out acknowledgment from the students I work with than I do fellow authors, the thrill is there when it happens in either case. Several of the children who study at the dojo—and many of their caretakers—have expressed gratitude to me for the work I’ve done with them. And seeing the kids succeed has become important to me because I’ve helped to guide them, even if only in some small ways.

The best example of this was recent, and is truly the answer to the question posed by Shihan Paul in his assignment of this essay topic, to wit how has being a karateka changed me? There is a young man in our dojo who suffers from a muscular disorder. His flexibility is poor and he sometimes has trouble with simple physical tasks that most of us take for granted. He began studying karate as a way of helping overcome the difficulties that this disorder has placed in his path.

But he has taken to it with an infectious enthusiasm. Even though his body doesn’t want him to do a lot of these things, he pushes himself to keep doing them. Few people kiai as loudly in class as he does, and he always raises his hand whenever Shihan or I ask a terminology question—and he often gets them right. I’ve taught some private lessons to him, and he also regularly takes the Friday night kids sparring class, which I have taught a number of times the past couple of years.

Earlier this month, there was a make-up promotion that included this young man, who was going for his green belt. Even though the promotion was at eight in the morning on a Sunday, even though I’d been out late the night before, I made sure to assist Shihan Paul with that promotion, because I wanted to be there to help him achieve his green belt. I took tremendous pride in his accomplishment and gratitude that I was able to help him in whatever way I could.

I look forward to continuing to train, continuing to teach, and continuing to honor those who came before me by encouraging and assisting with those who will come after.


4 thoughts on “from the archives: my black belt promotion essays

  1. Pingback: day 2 of promotion | KRAD's Inaccurate Guide to Life

  2. Pingback: my black belt promotion essay | KRAD's Inaccurate Guide to Life

  3. Pingback: on my black-belt promotions | KRAD's Inaccurate Guide to Life

  4. Pingback: promotion essays | KRAD's Inaccurate Guide to Life

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