Trial by Combat
On Saturday, November 14, Jason will be the first student in Fighting Chance Seattle’s four year history to test for brown belt. The brown belt exam, also referred to as “cho dan bo” in Tang Soo Do (roughly translated: black belt candidate) is the most physically demanding test in our dojo.
If Jason passes this test, he becomes a candidate for black belt. Over the following twelve months he must demonstrate a commitment to excellence, emotional maturity, leadership, and humble service to the dojo. Only then may he be invited to test for his black belt.
Where the black belt test is a measure of comprehension, technical perfection, and grace, the Fighting Chance cho dan bo test determines humility, courage, and fighting spirit; a trial by combat to test the student’s mettle.
The student is pushed harder than during any previous test. They must demonstrate all five of the pinan kata and all levels of kihon (fundamental techniques), endure a grueling conditioning challenge, and finally, they must face all present students and instructors, by order of rank, in single sparring matches. Then in pairs. Then three at a time. This gauntlet is a trademark of the Fighting Chance cho dan bo test.
The black belt candidate test is not a fitness challenge, nor is it an exam to determine whether or not a student has memorized some choreography. This test is a rite of passage. The goal is not to win, but to continue moving forward, no matter the challenge; to rise, when all you want is to give up.
The student who finishes the test is a different person than the student who began the test.
Through this trial, the student has an opportunity to challenge their ego and confront their fears. It is a holistic mind-body-spirit experience. It is our obligation as a dojo to present a challenge appropriate to the testing student. On Saturday, we will push Jason beyond his limits. At times, it will not be pretty. It will not be fun. It may seem excessive. But in this challenge is the opportunity to discover that his well of courage, resourcefulness, and character goes deeper than imagined.
Sport and ritual are a contrived method to prepare us for the conflicts that life brings outside of the dojo. This is why we climb mountains. This is why we run, ride, swim, and play. To become strong, we must train hard. Like Rocky says: “Nobody is going to hit as hard as life.”
Jason’s cho dan bo test began months ago, when he set his intention to this challenge. Since he first tied his white belt (albeit incorrectly) he’s dedicated himself to training. He is ready. We owe him the test he deserves. If it is not difficult, it is not worth doing. It is not the brown belt that matters, but the experience to earn it. The belt is a symbol of the achievement, a reminder of the experience, nothing more. The belt can be lost or taken, the achievement is permanent, an experience the student earns.
I passed my cho dan bo test in 1996. I was 15 years old. In our dojo red belts take the black belt candidate test and earn a brown belt, but under my instructors ranking system, brown belts took the test and the cho dan bo was represented by a black belt with a white stripe running through its length. This is why I’m wearing a brown belt in these photos.
My cho dan bo test was a nightmare. I tested with four other students, all grown men. Back then, that was the highest number of students testing for cho dan bo at one time. Master Galli had to call in reinforcements. More than a dozen black belts, my teacher’s peers and training partners, did us the honor of showing up to participate in our sparring gauntlet.
Rarely does ones fear of an event equal the reality of that event. My cho dan bo test was exactly as terrifying as I expected — and I’d spent a year imagining how awful it could be.
I first saw a cho dan bo test as a green belt. A guy named Tony was testing. He was overly aggressive when sparring with the lower ranks, maybe a bit cocky as well. He learned hard lessons in humility and physical control during his final round with Master Galli, a round that continued after the bell, continued for almost ten minutes, until Tony realized why he was being punished. It was brutal.
The terror motivated my preparation. I trained hard for my cho dan bo. The morning of the test I loaded up on carbs like it was my last meal, and I sat in quiet contemplation as if walking to the gallows. I was afraid, but at some point acceptance set in, and there was nothing to do but walk forward.
The first hour of the test wiped me out. My face flushed red, my gi made transparent with sweat. Lap after lap I had to push an instructor down the floor with side kicks. One-thousand jumping jacks. A few hundred squat-thrusts. The section finally came to an end with a set of fifty push-ups. As there were five of us, Master Galli had a little boy from the kids class sit on each of our backs for ten reps.
Ten minutes into sparring I could barely keep my hands up. I fought harder to get air into my lungs than to keep my opponents at bay. I took a round kick to the face, blood on my gi. I think I cried at one point, but a hollow pathetic cry, just panic and tears running with the sweat.
I could barely stand while fighting off a pair of opponents. I made the mistake of leaning onto Sensei Coyne, he pushed me off, right into a perfectly timed side kick from Master Galli. The force knocked me back, and up, onto the stage. The other guys did no better, adult men wheezing and doubled-over, fighting tears, the mayhem on the floor looking more like a gang initiation than a karate test.
And then it was over. It was done. I passed. All I cared about was that I would never have to do it again. I ghosted through our post-test party. I showered. And I slept. I slept hard. When I woke up everything hurt.
Only months later did I fully digest the accomplishment: I confronted my fear, was pushed beyond my limit, and I came out of it stronger. I became a warrior. I understood the relationship between will and survival. This realization became my armor and no physical challenge since has been as scary. And through this, the realization that my strength goes deeper even than my capacity to endure and achieve.
These are lessons that cannot be gleaned from books or YouTube videos. In my role as a teacher I see it as my responsibility to carry on this tradition and preserve this legacy for my students and for future generations. It is a debt owed to my teacher, my teacher’s teacher, and so on.
Of the five of us who tested, all passed. Three of us went on to earn our black belts. Almost two decades later, only myself and Sensei Brian back home in Pennsylvania are still training and teaching.
This Saturday will be our dojo’s first black belt candidate exam on the west coast. I ask for your support and participation in giving Jason the challenge he deserves. We owe it to Jason to push him beyond his limits, but to do it safely. We’re not here to injure him. We’re not here for ourselves. We are here to be the obstacle he needs to earn his experience.
As Master Galli says, “If it was easy, everyone would do it.”