Rank

Often it is heard that “Rank has its privileges.”

Whatever the phrase was supposed to mean, it generally refers to people taking advantage over some situation; or, someone attempting to acquire that which most would not be entitled to. In this instance I would like to speak of something else entirely.

To that end, this commentary is not focused on any one person. Rather, the collection of people who sometimes believe they are “entitled.”

I was asked recently by a Senior Grand Master of the martial arts, “What rank are you?” I answered, “Whatever rank you say I am.” This frustrated the man a little bit as his question was posed in serious fashion. Yet, I persisted. I explained that I am not governed by the belief that I should be an 8th Degree Black Belt. I would have been happy to have been whatever he wished to bestow upon me.

I explained that one Korean college had bestowed an 8th Dan upon me, and tendered the certificate for verification. I provided several certificates for verification. Yet, the fact is that I sought ranking in my own system commensurate with my “actual” skill level. That would mean more to me than whatever accolades another might bestow.

This may frustrate some. This will not even be understood by many, many more. But the facts remain that the true test of being “ranked” is not within the confines of the level received, it is within the knowledge that your seniors respect the achievements that can only be accomplished through humility.
Would I have been happy to remain a 7th Degree within my system of practice. For the time being, yes. For it meant that I had something which needed to worked upon, more focus and concentration. That the road to perfection was still a long way off.

This past month I have had 4 people tell me they should be a certain rank by “now.” Then two of those demanded ranking for a friend or spouse.  Sadly, the lack of respect demonstrated by some was more a telling that they misunderstood that rank is achieved by selfless immersion in one’s art form and that accolades and achievement in rank are dependent upon their example to others. An example that knows no frustration or ego.  Only personal introspection that permits others to “see” what one has achieved. Those who are able to present themselves without “telling” of their achievements and sacrifices.

You are known by your actions… and inaction. You are known by the things entrusted to your care. Whether developed, or abandoned. These are the stepping stones of a journey that permits advancement… or defeat.

So, what is rank?

Why do people rush to what is perceived as the pinnacle of their achievements only to be dissatisfied with their resulting award?

If I were to assign singular words to each rank, and a corresponding thought process, it might be perceived as something like this:

Rank Explained

AnticipationDecision making time. Am I done, or am I going to continue?
Satisfaction (Tentative)I have moved to an Instructor rank. What can I give back?
DecisionStill a hobby, or am I going to make this a continuing part of my life?
AchievementI have arrived. Uh-oh, I have a lot of responsibility. I have work to do!
Focus – Chief MasterI must train, and teach, and lead – by example. The system comes first.
EmpatheticI must never speak ill of others. I must put myself in their shoes. Help others!
ResponsibilityMy actions promote respect for teachers and the system, first.
HonoredHave I done all that I can for others, and myself, to exemplify my journey?


The first three deal with personal achievement. The latter ranks deal with giving back to others. Not finding fault, but building up. Teaching with a zeal that permits every student to achieve what is within them.

It matters not whether they are there for a day, a week, a year, or the rest of their lives. It matters that they are able to receive what they sought. It matters that they are able to take with them a lifetime of experiences that will help them overcome any adversity.

As many have looked at my life, they could judge me for many things. And have. Some have even distanced themselves from me. Deciding to become adversarial, rather than healers. Some have called into question my credentials. All is known to the grand masters. They talk to one another – even if they don’t talk to those who are of lesser ranking. They can choose to speak of their personal knowledge, or teach by questions designed to make us reassess ourselves. This is why we must learn “patience.”

As a young master, I spoke ill of a well-known martial artist who had come to be trained by my grand master. I was immediately rebuffed. I was told that the privacies of what had been told to me were for me alone. That I was to take into myself the meaning of being told that which I was not to repeat. For many years I did not know what that meant. And, since the man I spoke about was deceased, my rebuff was double – as I was told we never speak ill of the dead.

So, yes. We all make mistakes. We make choices. When we do so… there are consequences. But in empathy, we come to learn true responsibility. Taking responsibility for our own actions, and the actions of those of which we are responsible.

8th Degree Black Belt. Honored doesn’t begin to speak of how one feels. My responsibility mandates I look back, commencing correction of processes that will make the journey better for those behind me. Those whose skills will be better than I could ever have imagined.

You see, rank isn’t about what is owed to you. Rank is about what you owe to those who helped get you there… and those that you can help achieve their life’s goals of perfecting the union between mind, body, and spirit. Not in trite terms. In actual satisfaction.

So, I tell you this; I love each and every one of those I have been honored to teach. Like my own kids, they sometimes disappoint me. They sometimes do things I don’t like. But I never tire of sharing in the joys of their achievement. In their success of overcoming trials. Mine are really quite trivial in comparison to some.

At the end of the day, I do not need someone to tell me that I am whatever rank I am. As Grand Master Hee Il Cho once told me; “It doesn’t matter. Only who you are when you take the mat matters. So, you are provided an opportunity to grow – Embrace it. Thrive in it. Learn whatever is asked of you.” There is a reason for your journey that has nothing to do with the pathway taken by others. Allow yourself to be unique. And, as you approach your next test – say thank you for the opportunity.

In truth, you are what you are. The people that got you there made sure of that. And “that” has nothing to do with your “rank.”