Saturday, November 29, 2008

The UBBT School, a Movement of Engaged Martial Arts

In art history there have been a number of movements or schools that defined a particular kind of art. The Hudson River school was a mid-19th century art movement comprised of landscape painters that embraced romanticism. My favorite artist of that movement is Albert Bierstadt, known for his beautiful paintings of the western United States.

The Ashcan School was a progressive group of American painters and illustrators who portrayed the realities of New York City life in a raw spontaneous unpolished style. Le Corbusier started the movement known as Purism in protest of Cubism. The German Bauhaus School was made up of architects, artists, and philosophers who had a significant influence on art and architecture before (and after) World War II.

Frank Lloyd Wright, Samuel Mockbee, and Frank Gehry, three very different kinds of architects, have each represented new schools of thought in their field.

Writers, artists, architects, scientists, fashion designers, poets, thinkers, and action-takers in almost every field can pioneer movements that end up generating new methods, ideas, and schools-of-thought.

I believe that the Ultimate Black Belt Test (UBBT) project represents a movement and a school of thought that is markedly different from what was the status quo prior to its inception. The UBBT was/is a protest of sorts; a movement to bring a new kind of innovation, authenticity, and intentional complexity to an “industry” that was/is suffering from a dumbing down and homogeneous commercialism of its methods, ideas, and character.

Many of the students and participants in the UBBT are practicing and implementing a new kind of methodology in their schools –much of which is a radical departure from commonly promoted methods.

The changes in curriculum content and design, promotional practices, philosophy, teaching methods, testing, and general motivation and intent pioneered and promoted by UBBT members represents what I would call an organic approach to teaching and living the martial arts.

The Buddhist monk and renowned peace activist Thich Nhat Hahn has coined his approach to spirituality as Engaged Buddhism; he advocates a kind of involvement with the world that brings the practitioner out of the meditation hall and into daily life. Being heavily influenced by Thich Nhat Hahn, I am coining the kind of martial arts being explored and practiced by UBBT members as Engaged Martial Arts.

There are two phrases embraced by students of Engaged Martial Arts that illustrate the UBBT School of thought:

Out of the dojo and into the world,” and;

My life is my dojo.”

The first was borrowed from Yogi Seanne Corn’s description of yoga practitioners needing to take their practice, “Off the mat and into the world.” The second is attributed to Master Gaku Homma, the last live-in student of Aikido Master Morihei Ueshiba.

Martial artists influenced by the UBBT School (school of thought) are experimenting with what I call martial arts activism –where they take what they practice on the mat and see it manifest in their communities.

This idea changes a martial arts school’s approach to curriculum, to philosophy, to promotional practices, and testing procedures. The UBBT Schools influence has spawned a variety of creative programs and practices including The National Leadership Team Project, the Diabetes Education Project, The Environmental Self-Defense Project, and the Anger Management Teacher Education Program.

Participants and members of the UBBT include influential instructors such as Dave Kovar, Fariborz Azhakh, Bill Kipp, Chris Natzke, Charles Chi, Chan Lee, Dan Rominski, Dave McNeill, Gary Engels, and Tommy Lee. For more information on the Ultimate Black Belt Test and programs its members are involved in, visit

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