A few days ago at the United Ryukyu Kempo Alliance headquarters near Kansas City, Adam Frey tested and earned his third-degree black belt from the URKA. Black belt tests stretch over two grueling days of training and evaluation, including interviews to judge–among other things–how the principles of karate will be used and shared moving forward. He’s proud of the work and dedication it took to get there. His students will call him Frey Shihan (his new title). But he’s prouder of something else that happened at headquarters this weekend.

Four of his students became black belts.

Wasenshikan’s first black belt students with weapons they learned to use at camp

These are the first black belt students for Wasenshikan Dojo. They’ve been with him since close to the beginning, watching him become a better teacher as they became better students. Last Friday and Saturday, they pushed in ways they’d never been asked to in class. Running three miles after doing the same kata for hours. Hundreds and hundreds of jumping jacks, pushups, and sit ups. Learning a brand-new weapons kata and demonstrating to high-ranking karateka they’d never met. Explaining themselves and their karate practice to intense interviewers.

Though they were pushed to the limit, they persevered.

The students were soaked with sweat and sometimes pale and quiet, fighting exhaustion and nerves. Sometimes there were tears as some pushed harder than they ever had before. Sometimes fierce, determined grins. But no matter what, each summoned strength they’ve cultivated for years, and kept going.

Frey Shihan wasn’t proud because of their athletic ability though he notes the progress each has made. He was proud because that strength was mental. It was emotional. It was fortitude and perseverance. They wouldn’t give up.

In 1964, an Okinawan Karate master Nakamura Sensei formalized a code of conduct for his students called the Dojo Kun (training hall rules). The Dojo Kun and the Guiding Principles are our framework for character building in Ryokyu Kempo, and when Frey Sensei says karate is a lifestyle, he’s not kidding. These ideals are useful moral guidelines that apply in and out of the dojo, and following these rules help us become better people.

The Dojo Kun are:

  1. Strive for a good moral character
  2. Keep an honest and sincere way
  3. Cultivate perseverance and a will for striving
  4. Develop a respectful attitude
  5. Restrain my physical abilities through spiritual attainment.

All the Dojo Kun are important, but the one those kids embodied so strongly at belt testing was the third, “Cultivate perseverance and a will for striving.” And it wasn’t only them. When Frey taught his first karate class in 2015, no one showed up. But he came back, and came back, and came back, until two students eventually turned into a packed dojo. He persevered. He tells the students that failure is inevitable, it means you tried something new and difficult. It means you’re striving.

April 2, 2015, was Frey Shihan’s first karate class. Afterward, he posted this on Facebook:
“Well, first class turned out to be a bit of a bust. Practiced kata by myself for an hour. However, first class being the Thursday before good Friday probably wasn’t the best idea. The people at the rec say they have a couple people signed up, so we will see what Tuesday brings. 🙂
“Cultivate perseverance or a will for striving””

Perseverance gets us where we want to be.

Wasenshikan has four new black belts. And we will have so many more, like one student who feels frustrated by slow progress but when he learns something, he applies it with skill and doesn’t forget. Like a young white belt that will one day teach students of their own. Like adults who just started and will fold karate into every day of their lives.

Some students will let it go, and that’s ok. They can come back any time; maybe it’s just not a good fit. But the ones who want it just need to cultivate perseverance and a will for striving. Keep showing up. Keep trying. Keep failing. They’ll get there.

Because Frey Shihan believes the Dojo Kun can make life better even if punching and kicking isn’t your thing, he gathered other dedicated people and started Open Hand, a nonprofit that uses the principles and practices of martial arts to empower our community. It’s small now, just starting, but it’ll grow. We just have to persevere.