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I and a few other Black Belts are the last generation of a martial arts system. The founder was a Grandmaster who created his system that took roughly 40 plus years to create. However, he passed away and his students have continued teaching the system. Last year when COVID hit, we had to close down the dojo. I hold the rank 3rd dan and want to bring the school back to life. I don't want go the route of self promotion because it is not honorable. However I would like the opportunity to be able to achieve a higher dan. What is a good method of making this happen?

note: I am currently the highest rank Black Belt that is still active in the system. All other Black Belts that hold a higher rank have left the system.

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  • There's also no shame in taking a second teacher if you feel you still require advancement in the arts in general. I know many excellent teachers who have had more than one close teachers!
    – DukeZhou
    May 27 at 1:30
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This actually happens quite a bit. I don't have statistics on how often it happens, but there are a ton of martial arts schools headed by people who essentially started their own school and declared themselves a 10th dan grandmaster. They may have something worthwhile to teach, or not. But because of the competitive nature of martial arts schools, few of these systems continue running long enough to train someone to head the system after the original founder retires or passes away. When that happens, the systems just sort of fade away. Students move on to other systems.

Another aspect of this is that systems like this are often headed by the kind of person who thinks he/she has some profound and special insight into martial arts, or they just want to feel important. It appeals to narcissists, in other words. They like having people looking up to them. And to keep it that way, they hand out rank at a snail's pace and change the goal posts over time. They want to ensure that they are the big boss forever, so they don't want any of their students to reach their level. They'll make up new stuff over time to make sure nobody can catch up to them.

I'm not saying that's what happened in your case. I'm just saying this is pretty typical in the martial arts world.

Regardless, what is needed in order to pass a martial art down to a new grandmaster is either: 1) The old grandmaster formally declaring it, in writing or verbally in front of all senior students. Or 2) If the old grandmaster didn't pass it down officially, then the senior students must vote to determine who becomes the next grandmaster.

In each case, there can be schisms. Some students reject the new grandmaster and start new schools with themselves as the grandmaster. This happens a lot. It's upsetting, but it's all part of life.

When a new grandmaster is declared, then that person typically becomes a 10th dan. Yup, he could be a 3rd dan today, and tomorrow he's a 10th dan after he becomes a grandmaster officially.

The thing is, though, chances are pretty good that the original grandmaster who started the style wasn't a 10th dan, either. Many of them just achieved low dan ranks (1st, 2nd, and 3rd dan) in one or more other martial arts before forming their own system and declaring themselves as 10th dans. It's the rule, not the exception.

There's really nothing stopping anyone from declaring themselves as grandmaster of their own system, by the way. You don't even have to wait for the previous grandmaster to hand it down to you. And you don't even need any martial arts training!

As for your particular case, first I would declare myself "acting head instructor" of the style if there was nobody higher ranked than you. And I would continue teaching the school that was left behind. Find all the former students and invite them back to train with you.

You mentioned there were previous students of your grandmaster who have since left the system but were higher in rank than you. If I were you, I would write to them all, tell them what happened, and ask if they would meet with you to teach you whatever was next in the system. Gain as much as you can from them.

If your grandmaster had a family, I would approach them and ask if you could have any of the notes, drawings, videos, etc. They would probably just throw them out and would love that you're willing to take the collection and continue his legacy. Absorb whatever you can.

Then, after some time has passed, maybe a year or two, ask all your grandmaster's previous senior students and immediate family to submit their nominations for the new grandmaster. After all nominations are in, hold a vote. Maybe have a run-off election between the two with the most votes. And then you have your new grandmaster.

That will probably be you if you're the acting head of the system now. But you never know.

The new grandmaster gets 10th dan. There should be a big ceremony and banquet with every student invited and especially the family of the previous grandmaster. That will be when the new grandmaster is officially declared. A local news reporter should be invited as well, to document it in the newspaper.

If you're the new grandmaster, it means you have some work to do to take the style further than what you learned. You should make it your life's work to go out and learn what else is out there, whatever can advance your understanding. An obvious direction to take is to study from your grandmaster's instructors.

Your grandmaster is no longer here. It's no longer his system. It belongs to the next grandmaster. And yes, that means it might go in a totally different direction. That's okay.

Hope that helps.

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  • Thank you for your input.
    – The Dojo
    May 24 at 13:10
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    @TheDojo To expand on Steve's cautions, ego is often a factor, which all martial artists experience as beginners, routinely overestimating their capabilities. (True masters, in my experience, tend to be reticent.) Many seek the label of "master" because it carries status. Typically, that determination is made by others about the practitioner, not the practitioner themselves, which is formalized in the belt systems in general. Martial arts is also a business, so there can be financial incentives in making claims, even claims that cannot be substantiated. Humility should always be the guide.
    – DukeZhou
    May 25 at 4:27
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Honestly, you can do whatever you want. Your system attaches meaning to a rank. Outside your system, this rank is meaningless. Systems commonly assign rank by dictator or committee. You could do it by drawing of lots, popular voting, or who can pass a standardized test.

The dan system is a simply a parallel to the common structure of education. Just as in grade school, you spend some time in 1st grade, and at some point you graduate to 2nd grade. Students in 2nd grade should know more than those in 1st grade. Although 10 is a popular number of grades to have in martial arts, you could equally well have 4, 11, 12, or 100.

You could also use an alternative to the grade ranking system. You could switch to a merit badge system where you award a badge based on your ability to demonstrate a particular skill like the Boy Scouts. You could award degrees with different majors like universities. You could flatten the ranks and just have students and instructors.

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  • Kodokan seems an interesting example, in that Judo has a significant, acknowledged extant institution. How do lineages work in Judo? Is it even considered important when the sport is so thriving and has such prestige? How does Kodokan award belts? The quality of contemporary Judo seems a good endorsement for that system!
    – DukeZhou
    May 25 at 4:28
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    @DukeZhou Lineage in the Chinese martial arts sense is not considered in judo. Dan rank is assigned by local committee for lower dan ranks and national committee for higher ranks. The Kodokan itself also assigns ranks, which may not agree with the rank assigned by other countries. Politics and bias exist at all levels.
    – mattm
    May 25 at 11:13
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I had a similar situation with 20, 30 and 40 years students of a significant master. When the master retired, no one was qualified in the entire scope of the art possessed by the teacher, who had done it full time from the age of 5, such that different advanced students had different specializations.

Those students sought out the "martial uncles and aunts" who were peers of the master, and had trained under the same main teacher, each having their own specializations. This is because these students' goal was increasing their knowledge in the specific system.

Some of the former students teach, some don't, some take the moniker of Sifu with the teacher's blessing, some who to teach prefer consider themselves eternal students and avoid the label of master, even where others apply that label to them.

Politics can get weird with martial arts, so diplomacy is always best. My sense is that you can probably claim the lineage in honor of your teacher, since more advanced practitioners have left the system. But your peers still in the system may resent this and undermine you, even unintentionally. You'll always have to contend with the opinions of higher degree blackbelts who have left the system, although you should view these practitioners as a resource, since they advanced farther than you. They will always be your elder martial siblings.

I think personally that reviving the school would be noble, a way of honoring your teacher, and that your teacher would be pleased, unless they specifically didn't want that particular school to continue after their time. If you're unclear on the masters wishes, start a new school and make sure people know your lineage, as a direct student of the founder.

(My understanding is informed by the Chinese perspective, which brings at the very least a long history of dealing with exactly these situations, which situations are often mythologized in modern action cinema, arising out of even earlier wuxia treatments of the subject.)

Ueshiba had many prominent students who founded their own sub-lineages, but all are in the lineage of Ushiba, the founder of Aikido.

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I meant to reply to this before. I think most of the details have been covered, but I just wanted to posit two possibilities for a "legit" method of promotion for you:

  1. Promotion after testing by your relative peers - While generally a higher rank is bestowed by someone of a higher rank than yourself, once you hit the upper dan levels of a martial art, you know the fundamentals, and often have your own areas of expertise. Those people at your level, and even a bit below, have likely trained with former high-ranking members of your system, and have an idea of what is entailed. Thus, them signing off on you being a 4th dan black belt provides a sense of legitimacy and contuity.
  2. Promotion after testing by peers in similar arts - While there may not be someone of a higher rank than yours in your current art, odds are that you can tap someone in a very similar art, possibly someone who used to train with your Founder, who will be able to provide the honest assessment of whether you have reached the proper level, and to sign off.

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