When practiced seriously, Taekwon-do develops fitness and self-defense skills. But that’s not all. Great Grandmaster Kim, Hong Sik describes the ultimate philosophy of Taekwon-do as striving for progress, peace, and love. Lofty goals – what do they mean to us as Taekwon-do instructors and students?
The Zen of Taekwon-do
According to the thesaurus, philosophy denotes values, ideas, thinking, attitudes, or a way of life. Intensive Taekwon-do practice can shape a person physically as well as mentally and spiritually. As GGM Kim describes, the zen of Taekwon-do is a crucial part of Taekwon-do philosophy that applies to life in general.
It starts with the bow when we enter the dojang. At first, bowing seemed strange to me. It was only over time that I began to grasp the message of bowing. The bow denotes respect and reminds us to start Taekwon-do practice by shedding all thoughts of the past and the future and concentrating fully on the present moment. This wasn’t always easy. It still isn’t. But when we succeed in being more in the moment, it can tremendously enrich our lives. It can also result in some simple pleasures like winning a breaking competition.
When my husband and I left for our 2013 tournament in Boise, I didn’t pack any wooden boards for breaking because I hadn’t practiced any particular break and wasn’t sure whether I would even enter the breaking competition. As we were leaving for Boise, however, I grabbed some boards from our garage that I had just bought. Since I didn’t aspire to win a trophy, I decided to have fun with a continuous break of hand-held boards using a side-kick, a front-kick, a round-house-kick, and a knife-hand break.
Thinking of self-defense, I wanted to simulate being surrounded by four attackers and reacting with simple kicks and strikes. In the past, I had won breaking competitions with jump spinning kicks, done blind-folded. This sequence didn’t include any fancy jumping or spinning kicks. Another instructor told me this probably wouldn’t be a good break to get a high score. It didn’t matter; I didn’t aspire to a trophy.
I enjoyed watching other women break without wondering how their performance compared to mine. When my turn came, I didn’t care about what the judges or the other Black- belts thought or whether I had a chance of winning a trophy; instead I concentrated fully on each break. I ended up winning first place. Not that the trophy mattered (though winning it did make me happy), but the zen of the experience taught me a valuable lesson.
In The Naked Presenter, after emphasizing the importance of thorough preparation, Garr Reynolds says,
“Presence is about recognizing the importance of now. It’s a frame of mind that says, in effect, there is no past and there is no future. There is only this moment and this presentation and this audience. …When you dwell on techniques for winning over someone, worry about what others may think, or fret over whether or not you said the right thing, your mind is not in the present. You are not free. You’re in the future or in the past, but you are not there with your audience. Sometimes, you just have to take a risk and be your natural self. Amazing connections happen when you take a chance and throw yourself into your presentation without concern for failure or success.”
Reynolds, Garr, The Naked Presenter, pp. 76-77
Being in the moment involves awareness of our emotions, minds, and bodies, and connecting fully with our environment and the people around us. It is crucial for our happiness as well as for our professional success. It is also essential for our personal safety, and, when risk management has failed, for effective self-defense. If Taekwon-do instilled nothing else in its students but the ability to be more fully present, it would already have served the more lofty goals of progress, peace, and love.
The five Tenets of Taekown-do
A more specifically articulated philosophy regarding values is contained in the five tenets of Taekwon-do:
4. Perseverance, and
5. Indomitable spirit.
All are crucial for progress in Taekwon-do practice. All are also essential for a fulfilling life.
Courtesy includes humility. Embarking on my Taekwon-do journey at the age of 39 taught me that humility and perseverance were indispensable for progress. Practicing Taekwon-do required me to adopt a true “beginner’s mind.” Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. I needed to start my training as an elementary school student, a total beginner, with an “empty cup,” as the old Zen koan recommends.
What Taekwon-do strives for is humility based on strength. Sometimes a little humiliation on the way to building skill and strength precedes humility. I vividly remember trying to learn Chon-Ji hyung. I was used to learning things quickly and in a relatively effortless manner. Not so with Chon-Ji. It looked so easy, but my mind couldn’t wrap itself around this simple sequence of movements and changes in direction. Relying on my intellect more than on my body, I Googled “Chon-ji” for help. A black belt told me, “Don’t think. Just let your body do it.” His advice embodied the zen lesson of Taekwon-do, to be fully in the moment and to trust my body.
Taekwon-do reminded me to practice perseverance and indomitable spirit in fighting for civil liberties as a board member of the national American Civil Liberties Union, waging the same fights over and over again. As Thomas Jefferson said, “The fight for civil liberties never stays won.” Perseverance and indomitable spirit are also valuable guides for my board service for the Montana Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence and in my work as a volunteer for a crisis line that provides emergency support for victims of violence and stalking.
GGM Kim prescribes “daily practice.” Continuous practice becomes even more important as your body ages. Perseverance is crucial, especially for the older practitioner.
Perseverance, however, doesn’t necessarily mean that you do the same thing over and over again. Rather, the idea is to persist in pursuing the same goals and to train with perseverance and diligent effort. The goal is progress, and sometimes this goal may require flexibility, adaptation, and change.
When I tried to establish my Taekwon-do School in a small town in Montana where basketball rules and other physical activities are left in the shadows, I also occasionally had to remind myself of humility, perseverance, and indomitable spirit.
Integrity doesn’t need elaboration. You either have it or you don’t. Running a Taekwon-do school, I also face certain challenges. Occasionally, a student or a student’s parent will try to pressure me to promote a student even though the student hasn’t attended class regularly or simply isn’t ready for a promotion. In most cases, it is the student’s parent, not the student who requests the promotion. Taekwon-do integrity requires adherence to our standards as set by GGM Kim and passed down to us by GM Knife and Master Werner. The answer to these parents is, therefore, that I would be saddened to lose the student, but promotion decisions are not commodities to be bargained for.
GGM Kim reminds us to strive for peace, progress, and love. Some people see a dichotomy between a violent martial art and these values. When Taekwon-do practitioners honor the five tenets of integrity, courage, perseverance, self-control, and indomitable spirit, their lifestyles can be harmonious, based on strength and skill and oriented towards peace, progress, and love.
The physical essence of Taekwon-do is the ability to inflict incapacitating injury. Accomplished Taekwon-do students should be able to break a bone, rupture an organ, or damage a physiological system so that a potential attacker can no longer injure them. These destructive powers should be honed to function effectively for self-defense. Law and moral integrity require that these powers should be used only when and to the extent reasonably necessary to avoid imminent injury to oneself or another.
3 Rivers Defense
Why do we need violence when we strive for peace? Because we also believe in realism. The name of my over-arching business is Three Rivers Defense. Our logo is an imperfect circle with a Roman III inside. My designer suggested this logo, and I embraced it because it exemplifies what Three Rivers Defense and Kim’s Taekwon-do School stand for. We strive for perfection, but we realize that the world is not perfect, and that we will never reach perfection. And for our quest to be fulfilling and successful, we need to engage the triad of our mind, body, and spirit. Taekwon-do has many benefits, such as aerobic fitness, balance, coordination, and so on. But its essence as a martial art is self-defense.
We live in idyllic places – Montana, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington, Idaho. I grew up in a small town at the foot of the Bavarian Alps in Germany. When I was a high school student, the parents of one of my best friends were shot in their home. My friend’s mother was killed. His father’s leg almost had to be amputated due to the gunshot wound. In a real attack there are no winners, only survivors.
Personal safety and peace start with getting rid of denial. No community is immune to violence. Hardening ourselves as potential targets of violent crime is our best self-protection. When we practice with seriousness and realism, combined with a survivor mindset and prudent risk management, Taekwon-do can increase our personal safety and our peace of mind and, thus, our ability to live harmoniously. Mental and physical strengths can manifest themselves in body language and demeanor. They can reduce our chances of being selected as potential victims of violence, closing the circle between capacity for inflicting incapacitating violence and peace. Striving for peace, progress, and love in our world remains the goal, but achieving this goal should be based on strength and the ability to defend our lives if necessary.