Reflections on Dan Ranking in Aikido

‘What is your ranking system and how long does it take to get a black belt?’

Over the years I have heard newcomers to aikido ask this question many times. Perhaps my favorite tongue in cheek answer is this: it takes as long as a car ride to the local martial arts store where you can purchase one.

Mary Heiny Sensei says that when Mitsugi Saotome Sensei was asked to offer his reflections on the meaning of the dan ranks: shodan, nidan, and sandan, at a seminar years ago, he drew a little stick figure and traced a circle around it.

“This is shodan,” he said. “That’s the degree of your radiance at shodan.”

Then he drew a circle around that circle, indicating that was nidan, “One more circle and you have sandan radiance.”

His point was that even though the word dan in Japanese means step, the condition of dan is a condition of radiance. What shines is our degree of technical achievement, a sense of aiki principles, and our level of spiritual understanding.  This idea of radiance dates back to O Sensei himself. Over and over again, O Sensei said, “You should do aikido for the sake of others.” He never said you should do aikido to kick ass.

Mary Heiny Sensei explains how prior to World War II aikido was an exclusive art: a student had to have five letters of recommendation, be of a certain social class, and have a black belt in another art in order to participate. But O Sensei discovered there was little benefit to others by restricting aikido in this way. So after the war, he opened it up to the masses. His goal was for people to use their aikido training to change who they were. To do the inner work so that they could become radiant, able to stand on a street corner and affect the people around them just by being themselves. And what do we mean by radiant? Those who are radiant strive for peace, to be kind to one another, value and learn from nature, and behave in such a way to make their personal and communal environments more beautiful. This is the message Mary was taught very directly in Shingu. 

            One of Mary ‘s famous training stories goes like this. She trained daily at Hombu dojo, but when she had time off from teaching English in Tokyo, she would take the train down to Shingu for a morning class in aikido. Having attained shodan, she wanted to train with only the best people, but now and then she’d have to train with someone just awful and was disgusted to have to waste her time. This went on for quite a while. During one visit to Shingu, she noticed a man—whom she found particularly lacking in skill—had a black belt.

 “How could this guy have a black belt? He’s just a complete klutz—he can’t do anything,” Mary told Hikitsuchi Sensei.

Hikutsuchi looked at her sternly and said, “Mary, he has spirit. Kokoro, kokoro. He has the heart-mind, the spirit of shodan. His technique will catch up.”

            At the time, Mary wasn’t open to that idea. She just thought, Hmm, technique will catch up, hahaha. Then a couple years later, she was training in the morning class, and she had this great exchange with an unknown partner. Afterward she went up to Hikitsuchi Sensei and said, “Who’s that guy? He’s really great.”

“Mary, don’t you know who he is?”

“No, I’ve never ever seen him before.”

“That’s so-and-so,” Hikitsuchi Sensei said.

She looked at the student again and was astounded that everything about him, even his face, looked different.

“I’ve given him nidan now,” Hikitsuchi Sensei said. “His technique has come along.”

            Hikitsuchi Sensei told Mary that O Sensei said you should never give rank for technical ability alone. That’s not aikido. Rank comes when your spirit radiates the heart of that rank.

So what is the heart of each rank?

While Shodan is a challenging, remarkable achievement, it’s just the beginning. I like to think of shodan as a doorway, a threshold, an invitation to greater cosmic understanding. When we receive the first rank of black belt, it means that we have dedicated a consistent, set period of time to becoming familiar with a wide variety of standard aiki techniques and cultivating a skillful sense of ukemi (attacking, following movement, and taking falls). It also means that we have spent time vigorously training with other black belts and attending seminars with prominent senior instructors to increase our depth of knowledge. As our perception deepens, our practice changes. Every day we learn something new. Aikido is a do, a life practice. I believe it’s Nick Lowry Sensei who said, “the kanji for dan literally means “carve steps up the cliff.” Sho in shodan means "first" (also “control the first movement” as in shodo o seizu). So put two and two together and you have for shodan: "The first step up a cliff."

At shodan, we demonstrate that we have achieved a basic step. We are a probationary student. Mary reminds us that when she trained in Japan, this first dan rank was not taken seriously. “They don’t have big parties and clapping,” Mary says. “Rather teachers and students come up and tell you, ‘Now you can start training.’”

It’s like learning the scales on the piano. Once you know the basic notes, you can learn to play a song. One of those “notes” is accepting the responsibility of commitment to our training, and to the other members of the dojo. At shodan, we begin to be a resource for newer students and accept responsibility for different tasks around the dojo that we might be asked to do. Shodan paves the way for the next level of radiance: Nidan. 

Mary describes Nidan as an odd rank. “Sandan really shows a quantum leap, but nidan doesn’t show a quantum leap so much as it reveals that you have the ability to refine your knowledge, to sincerely deepen your practice. When you receive the rank of nidan, you have a little larger radius, a little more presence. You have a higher level of responsibility.”

            When I took my nidan test, Mary emphasized that I should view it as a demonstration, not a test. The mock tests that preceded the examination day were purposely grueling to iron out the kinks. It was as if there were two opportunities to give it my all. What I was required to show was that I had an understanding of the basics: philosophically, energetically, and physically. I was advised to access and demonstrate both my strengths and weaknesses. My techniques needed to reveal that I had refined my understanding and my precision. 

I offer Mary’s same instructions for achieving nidan: “Our techniques need to be more relaxed, more upright. We establish a dynamic vertical alignment and a confidence; we are not confused so we are better able to have good posture and open our hearts. This shows that we have done our inner work—we can take our basic clay, throw it on a wheel, and shape and refine it into a pot.”

At sandan there’s not just refinement, there’s an electricity, a kind of a quantum leap in understanding. Our radiance is obvious, on and off the mat. We’ve achieved a natural ability to be at the right place at the right time. Our influence has increased, but so too has our humility. Because we do inner work as well as outer work, it means that as we progress along in rank we become more and more a person who is of benefit to the family of aikido. We develop an understanding of aiki principle and also begin to break out of technique.

            At yondan we can begin to picture how to be our own guide. We see the philosophy of aiki principle and how it relates to technique. The technical forms are by now deeply refined and we step into the position of developing ourselves so that we may train others. Personal training is not enough. We need to embrace social responsibility. As our training progresses, we naturally make aiki principle a direct part of our lives. Our leadership comes alive. As does our awesome spirit. Our expression is a complete spontaneity of technique, no longer only technique, but an expression of the principle which underlies technique.

No matter what rank you are, Mary Sensei has always emphasized the importance of congruity: the need for parallel development of technique and mind. Sometimes technique lags a little bit, and that’s okay. If the mind, one’s attitude, is lagging, a student cannot be promoted, even if the technique is quite good. Parallel development is key. The true purpose of the dan examination is to challenge students, not just to get better at shihonage , but to get better at knowing who they are and how to contribute to the well-being of the world. And that’s part of the quality of people who have come out of this particular lineage.

However no matter how highly developed one’s attitude and technique become, a common pitfall after having rigorously prepared for and taken a test is to think, “ Whew! It’s done!” But it’s important not to slip into that mindset, to assume the achievement means its time to take a break, slack off, or disappear. The time that follows the exam is the harvest of all one’s hard work and dedication.

When I was training at the Seattle School of Aikido, there was a joke about the “disappearing shodans.” Every day for six months you’d see them training, then after their black belt tests, boom, you wouldn’t see them again for six months. One of the benefits about training for a rank is that it’s a period of intense training, more intense than what you go through on a daily basis. It’s important to examine that intensity and look for a way that you can keep the focus, the clarity, the wakefulness of that training even when you aren’t working toward a specific rank. Let that lens become part of your daily regimen. Take a look at how you train so that you’re able to continue, so that you keep upping your level of clarity, commitment, and self-reflection, your ability to be consistent in your training. It’s not only the path to achieving a higher rank but widening your circle of radiance.