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On Being with Krista Tippett is a public radio project delving into the human side of news stories + issues. Curated + edited by senior editor Trent Gilliss.

We publish guest contributions. We edit long; we scrapbook. We do big ideas + deep meaning. We answer questions.

We've even won a couple of Webbys + a Peabody Award.

Out of the Dojo
Shiraz Janjua, Associate Producer

Some months ago, one of our listeners pointed me to The Ultimate Black Belt Test, a surprising, rigorous training regimen for martial arts teachers that combines intense physical training with transformative ethical practice. Members of the UBBT program have to fulfill such varied requirements as walking for 1,000 miles and undertaking an environmental clean-up project.

I was so intrigued by the idea, what with my own practice of martial arts during my teens, that I decided to speak to the founder of the UBBT, Tom Callos. He’s written and spoken about his reverence for Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hahn and architect Samuel Mockbee, two model people who have brought social engagement into their respective practices.

In this narrated video, featuring an interview with Tom Callos playing over the beautiful photographs of Bill Whitworth, we explore this rigorous program and see some of its own engagement in the world.


Martial Arts Meets Ethical Living

Shiraz Janjua, Associate Producer 

I’ve been really drawn to this idea, brought to our attention by a listener, of the Ultimate Black Belt Test. It’s a very intense 13-month martial-arts training course. This course involves many things, some more traditionally “martial” than others: 1,000 rounds of sparring, 10,000 push-ups, and other grueling physical exercises.

Having taken karate for four years during high school, I still remember doing push-ups on my knuckles until they turned blue and purple. And I don’t mean “really red.” I mean like, “I need medical attention.” For days, I would look at my knuckles in horror at what they had become. I remember getting kicked in the stomach on several occasions, being completely drenched in sweat after rounds and rounds of drills, and wondering during the rest of the week whether I had the stamina or the will to go beyond myself to get that black belt.

As a moody 17-year-old, I decided that I’d had enough. I got to the second level of brown belt, but the black belt (the next belt) would have required another 3-5 years of serious dedication, and I simply didn’t care badly enough.

I was studying a form of martial arts that had been removed from its cultural context, and focused on the techniques of punching, kicking, standing, and other outward physical forms. I suppose I gave up because I didn’t have a core motivation inside me to push me through the training I would need to get to black. I didn’t know why I should care. I was never a very confrontational person, and sparring terrified me.

(Photo by tanueshka) 

What fascinates me about the UBBT is how it fills out that inner dimension I never found in karate, which I had taken up purely as exercise. In UBBT, aside from the pain, you have to do things like practice 1,000 acts of kindness, live for a day as a blind person, clean up the environment, and profile your ten living heroes. Some of the UBBT trainees this year are heading to Greensboro, Alabama, to participate in Rural Studio home-building projects. (We had done a show on the Rural Studio a few months ago.) And, yes, that area is known as the Black Belt.

When we think of martial arts, or even military training, we rarely associate it with ethical living. Sun Tzu’s The Art of War regularly finds its place in business training. We’re so conditioned to be aggressive, to fend for ourselves, to fight to get ahead. Maybe that’s the dark side of individualism.

In any case, many martial arts traditions have immense philosophical depth to them that have accrued over centuries. It’s fascinating to me to see a program that encourages the development of the inner self and treats it as seriously as the physical regimen. I don’t plan on delving back into martial arts, but I’m drawn to the story of the UBBT, and it’s something I hope we can explore in some form on Speaking of Faith. We’ve talked in the past about having web features, and this might be a topic for such a feature.