Although many people who are unfamiliar with taekwondo believe it to be a blood-thirsty and violent sport, those who are involved in taekwondo know that it is more than a sport, but an art and a way of life which teaches non-violence and a strict code of moral conduct.
Whether people practice taekwondo for sport, recreation, art, or just for a hobby, there are five tenets that govern the practitioner’s life. Those five tenets are: Courtesy, Integrity, Perseverance, Self Control, and Indomitable Spirit. For thousands of years, regardless of what their purpose might be for practicing taekwondo, it cannot help but have a positive effect both physically and mentally on the individual.
All people are equipped with an instinct to defend themselves, and therefore they are in need of various means to fend off enemies. The human ancestry, however, didn’t yet have any means to protect itself from enemy attacks, and people had to rely on skills of their bare hands. The emergence of taekwondo is no different from this background. As humans began to use tools, weapons developed, but even then the survival instinct continued to exist and people devoted themselves to developing physical strength and skills.
During the Three Kingdoms period (1st century B.C. – A.D. 7th century) taekwondo became the basic sport for states and villages as a way to improve national defense and combat skills, and soon it was developed, with the emphasis as a sport, in religious rituals. Under the state sponsorship, Koguryo (37 B.C. -A.D. 668) had an organized martial artists called sonbae and Shilla (57 B.C. – A.D. 935) boasted hwarang warriors.
In civilian life, farmers and others decided on the pecking order in villages after a competition of subokta, an unarmed sport. Around this period, subakhu, a systemized division of skills, was the basis of all martial arts for the upper class and a useful defense skill for the public. Taekkyon, a basic martial art which is depicted in old tomb murals in Manchuria, also emerged and developed.
During this period, taekkyon, which first emerged during the Koguryo and Shilla periods, evolved into a more systemized martial art. It was already divided into basic moves and hand and foot techniques, and it was so valued that it was a requisite for
warriors to enter government positions. The skills and its force reached a considerable level, and went through a process of systematization with obyong subakhu, and developed into a group competition. From this record, it is clear that there existed certain standards or rules to judge victory or defeat in a sparring situation.
In the History of Koryo, taekwondo is recorded as subakhu, which was nationally promoted and widespread among even the public. With the development of gun- powder, this sport showed a diminished import as a martial art but was established as a sport or game. (Korea: Its History and Culture Kp54).
With the development of new weapons, bare-hand martial arts declined. In addition, Confucianism was adopted as the guiding philosophy and national events such as yondunghoe and palgwanhoe disappeared, resulting in a blow to national promotion and systematic support of martial arts. After the Hideyoshi Japanese Invasion (1592-1598), a systematic promotion took hold for the training of a few kinds of martial arts. Government examinations were offered for military men and many books on martial arts appeared in this period.
Taekkyon was revived in this context with the encouragement from the state, but towards the end of the dynasty in the period of enlightenment, taekwondo as a folk play or entertainment was emphasized, rather than as a serious martial art. During the Japanese colonial period (1910-1945), it was repressed for being a traditional sport but the masters kept it alive in secret. (p58).
After the liberation (1945) and the Korean War (1950-1953), situations stabilized and rebuilding of the country started in earnest. Gradually taekwondo spread among the Korean public. In particular, recognition of traditional Korean culture took hold and consequently many folk games have been revived and many taekwondo gyms (dojang) opened. Taekwondo developed in many parts of the country before its value was finally recognized by the government. The government promoted it as a policy; the number of people engaged in the sport has grown steadily and now it is widespread throughout the country.
In 1971, taekwondo was designated as a national sport in recognition of its technical superiority and its remarkable effects for disciplining body, mental state and moral purpose. In the present, Korea holds many international championship matches in an effort to increase the number of taekwondo practitioners. (p62).
Regardless of age and the locations of nations, martial arts have always placed more importance on the participant’s state of mind as a disciplinary means than the technique per se. Taekwondo originated to defend self from foreign enemy attacks, but with the development of weapons, the practical value of “protection from enemies” diminished. As a result, taekwondo has been considered a martial art that cultivates mind and heart.
As the mind refers to thoughts that are established through examination of values as well as thought processes, taekwondo mind signifies a systematic thought process derived from taekwondo training. If a person has developed effective cognitive abilities through a training process, it can be said that he has already acquired the taekwondo mind, the ideal state for taekwondo practitioners. Every practitioner needs to have courage and wisdom to aspire to it. When taekwondo’s technical, artistic, philosophical aspects have been formed through training and incorporated into the practitioner’s character, taekwondo mind is believed to have taken root.
By nature, taekwondo has two aspects–martial art techniques and moral purpose–and by combining these two, a strong mind emerges. The nature of this mind is correctness, or etiquette, which brings out fair, brave, restraining attitude. In short, taekwondo training is a process in which the philosophy that guides our everyday life is constantly developed. (Lee, Personal Interview).
What attitude can a person cultivate through taekwondo training? From long ago, the basic virtue of all educational process, including taekwondo, has been to discard evil and acquire true goodness. For this purpose, taekwondo holds dear such virtues as benevolence, etiquette, modesty and generosity. Many masters transmit taekwondo with this spirit in mind. If martial arts are performed without a correct mind, techniques do not become a means to cultivate character and defend self but they degenerate into a weapon to harm and attack others. (Lee).
In conclusion, the mind that is cultivated in taekwondo includes bravery that can meet anyone with dignity, endurance and self-restraint. When these virtues are pursued through this sport, the practitioner can be generous to a weaker person and remain calm in the face of difficulty.
When human body is divided into head, upper body and legs, the waist is the center of these three parts. Wearing a belt around your waist means that it helps you hold yourself upright, giving power to yourself. In training, the belts are important as part of the garment. The belt, shirt and pants can be explained in the Eastern concept of Trinity. The shirt symbolizes Heaven, the pants Earth, and the belt human beings. The philosophy of Trinity, which believes that human beings make a smaller version of the universe, is applied to taekwondo. Unlike Western concept of Trinity, the Eastern counterpart originates from a human-centered point of view that the universe is composed of Heaven, Earth and Human Beings. (Living the Martial Way p73).
Students advance from 1 kup to 9 kup, and in more advanced levels from 1dan to 9 dan. Novices wear white belts. The color white has an important meaning to Koreans; it is the basis of all colors and at the same time it indicates the beginning or birth. Hard training must be repeated to advance to the black belt. Through this training, self-realization is achieved. The belt not only implies the philosophical interpretation but also a way of life. Cultivating adequate etiquette in taekwondo training cannot be emphasized too much.
As taekwondo’s originating country, Korea has many organizations and associations for this sport. Among them, two organizations are of greater importance Kukkiwon, the headquarters of international taekwondo, and the International Taekwondo Federation.
It was founded in 1972 in order to research and develop traditional taekwondo spirit and techniques as well as to centralize organizations to make taekwondo a world-class sport. The International Taekwondo Federation, headquartered at Kukkiwon, was opened in May 1973 and plays an important role in developing international taekwondo.
Kukkiwon, as a mecca for taekwondo, has trained 15,000 masters through affiliated Taekwondo Academy in order to correctly propagate taekwondo. These masters devote themselves to spreading taekwondo all over the Earth Village.
Poom or Dan promotion tests and issuance of certificates, one of the main functions of this organization, are internationally recognized. The regulations of the International Taekwondo Federation specify that Dan certificates should be approved by Kukkiwon, and for international competitions, only athletes with these Dan certificates are qualified to participate. (Official WTF Taekwondo p163).
This federation was founded in May 1973 with the purpose of spreading taekwondo worldwide along with Korea’s unique taekwondo spirit. In 1975, it joined General Assembly of International Sports Federations (GAISF), and now it is a focal organization in the international taekwondo field by hosting many international games including the International Taekwondo Championships and World Cup Championships. In addition, taekwondo masters are regularly dispatched to popularize and improve taekwondo techniques, and through seminars and educational programs judges are trained and their qualifications maintained.
In the present, 144 countries are members, and there are 50 million taekwondo population throughout the world. It is headquartered at Kukkiwon, and since 1973 Kim Un-yong, a Vice President of the International Olympic Committee, has been president.
The words physical and mental are often used to describe taekwondo training, and most instructors would agree that it develops students physical prowess and mental abilities. But what about the other dimension of taekwondo: the philosophical? That relates to how one approaches training, teaching and the ultimate goal of self-perfection. The philosophical side of the art equips students with the spirit to develop themselves to their fullest potential using teachings from three great Eastern philosophies: Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. (Living the Martial Way p209).
Confucianism, a philosophical system based on the teachings of Confucius, has been practiced in China and other parts of Asia for nearly 2,500 years. Confucius is the Romanization of Kung Fu Tzu, the name of the sage who lived from approximately 551 BC to 479 BC. One of the most influential teachers in Chinese history, he saw his main function as transmitting the ancient cultural heritage of China to his many disciples. The nature of Confucianism is more practical and ethical than religious.
Confucius teachings focused on man s role in society. To maintain social order, he emphasized the importance of loyalty to the state, filial piety and ancestral worship. He believed that every creature and every object have an appointed place in nature and should behave accordingly. He taught that citizens should learn their roles and duties to promote societal harmony.
Confucianism has a strong presence in taekwondo. First, the loyalty and respect that taekwondo teaches students to hold for their instructors, parents and country are tenets of Confucianist origin. Students learn to obey and respect the head of their association, their master instructors and all other instructors and black belts. They are also encouraged to obey and respect their parents and behave accordingly within the confines of their school, workplace, home and community. This is often expressed through rules that prohibit students from practicing if they break the law or engage in inappropriate behavior inside or outside the dojang (training hall). When students test for first-degree black belt, they usually swear to certain principles, which may be stated in various forms in their school s black belt oath:
Second, the taekwondo rank system has been heavily influenced by Confucianism. Just as Confucianism stresses that everything has its appointed place, taekwondo teaches that everyone in the dojang has his appointed place. From the creator of the art down to the newest beginner, everyone submits to a codified ranking system in which each person knows his place and acts accordingly. This helps maintain order within the dojang so training and instruction can take place.
Taoism has long existed as a counter-philosophy to Confucianism. Developed by a man called Lao Tzu more than 2,000 years ago, Taoism is essentially naturalistic and antisocial. It advocates inaction and allowing natural order to take its course. The Taoist doctrine of wu wei is basically the theory of letting alone. As a Philosophy of life, it means that one should keep within the limits of one s nature and let life take care of itself. (The Elements of Taoism p79).
The word tao means way or path. When capitalized, Tao usually refers to the universal way of nature and noninterference. Therefore, by becoming one with the Tao, a student becomes one with nature. By letting nature run its course, acting spontaneously and trusting one s intuitive knowledge, the student of Taoism discovers his way to contentment.
The Korean word for tao is do. Taekwondo, or the way of kicking and punching with proper attitude and concentration, guides its students toward the Taoist concept of self-perfection. The instructor s goal is to make his students into better people when they leave his school than they were before they joined. Whether those students practice for three weeks or three years, the instructor needs to help them find their way. Not all students want to learn how to defend themselves. Some are looking for self-confidence. Some want physical fitness. Others just want to feel like they belong. It is the instructor s duty to lead them toward bettering themselves whatever way that may be. (T-USA: Professional Instruction p10).
The concept of wu wei, the way of non-action, has also influenced taekwondo. Wu wei does not necessarily mean that one should do nothing as a course of action. It simply states that the doing of things should be done for altruistic reasons. A course of action should be followed because it is ultimately the right way, not because of ulterior motives.
An instructor sometimes has to make significant and difficult decisions. He may have to reckon with uncooperative students who don t want to accept the dojang s rules. He may have to hold back students from being promoted because they are not prepared even though they have put in their time. He may have to relocate his school so it can continue to grow and reach its fullest potential. Some instances demand that decisions be made, while others can be allowed to happen naturally. (T-USA Kp45).
Since its beginnings in India more than 2,500 years ago, Buddhism has evolved from a philosophy into a religion. But the original form of Buddhism as taught by Siddhartha Gautama is a method of personal salvation that advocates the renunciation of worldly desires, which are supposedly the cause of all suffering. It also teaches the understanding of one s own nature and place in the universe. Through a system of discipline and mystical self-development, students of Buddhism seek nirvana, or salvation through the termination of desire. ( What is Buddhism? infoweb.magi.com K).
In some Asian countries, Buddhist monks were taught hand-to-hand combat. Their exercises were developed for self-defense and to strengthen their bodies so they could meditate for longer periods.
The first Buddhist influence on taekwondo is related to descipline and concentration. The type of focus needed for Buddhist meditation sessions is similar to the type needed for success in taekwondo class. In fact, many taekwondo students practice the art to learn mind and body control through self-defense techniques and concentration. In many ways, forms (kata) practice is comparable to active meditation. To perform a series of movements, students must develop their concentration and discipline themselves to make each technique precise. By pouring themselves into the form, they are absorbed by it; they are aware of everything the form has to teach and distracted by nothing.
Buddhism s second influence on taekwondo comes from the Zen sect. The Japanese samurai practiced Zen so they could rely on themselves, deny their desires for material possessions and remain single-minded in the pursuit of their goal.
One Zen contribution to taekwondo is the concept of mushin no shin, or mind of no mind. The samurai had to empty their mind so they could be free from distraction. Although many taekwondo instructors never mention the term, they do mention a related one: spirit. They frequently explain that spirit is one of the most important aspects of taekwondo. There will always be someone who can kick higher, punch harder or sidestep more quickly, but if students cultivate their spirit to the highest degree possible, they will always perform at their best in whatever they do, and that is all they can ask of themselves. (Comprehensive Asian Fighting Arts p94).
Instructors know that it is their spirit, not physical technique, that motivates the class and enables the students to learn taekwondo. Through the instructors enthusiasm and dedication, the students level can be improved. And that spirit is contagious. By sharing their spirit, they hope their students will be able to tap into it and eventually reach their own enlightenment.
Implementing the Philosophies
The practices and principles of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism that have influenced taekwondo can still be observed in today s dojang. While Confucianism maintains order in the school, Taoism and Buddhism seek to lead students and instructors on a path of self-discovery and self-perfection.
Although the dojang does not need to be turned into a temple, by following the tenets of these philosophies, instructors and students can become the best martial artists possible. As Confucius taught, every person must determine what he thinks he should do and then do his best. Even if he fails to achieve his goal, that is okay, for the important thing is to try. (Dynamic Taekwondo p113).
A Better World and Taekwondo
Although most would say that taekwondo is not be the answer to world peace, it is in fact an answer to re-instill the ideas of morals and values in today s society. When a society is governed by values and morals, the society functions more efficiently as a whole and therefore would in fact make the world a better place to live in.
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