Tuesday, September 13, 2011

ONE DIVORCE TOO MANY...The loss of a black belt without closure can be a heart-wrenching experience

One spring day in 1997, just before beginning a vigorous training session at the Richard Chun Taekwondo Center in New York City, I sat with Grandmaster Chun in his office discussing several issues relating to school ownership. Being the benevolent and forthcoming man that he is, Grandmaster Chun was never one to hold back valuable information from his disciples.
The conversation on that warm afternoon centered on my question as to why he chose not to display photographs of his many black belt students on the walls of his Upper Eastside dojang. The root of my query evolved from observations I had made while visiting various schools here and in Korea, the homeland of tae kwon do. At one dojang locally, I had noticed a cluster of color photos depicting what appeared to be the location’s entire population of black belts; there wasn’t many, but they all seemed to be represented, including the master instructor. Likewise, while training at the Korean National University for Physical Education or KNUPE, in Seoul, South Korea, as well as other noteworthy training facilities in the “land of the morning calm”, I was impressed with row upon row of proud, young black belts frozen in black and white images that stared down at me from frames firmly secured above the mirrors that ran the entire length of the dojang. Tributes of this sort seemed to add an air of heritage and permanence to not only the institution itself, but also the sacred training floor upon which we were about to stand. And so, almost two decades ago, shrouded in my naiveté’, I was confounded as to why my kwanjangnim did not share in this practice.
Without ever meeting Grandmaster Chun, one could not be familiar with his humble, gracious demeanor. He is unyieldingly courteous and disarmingly kind in his approach; except, of course, when he is standing in class before a large group of students. It is then that his ferocity and passion for tae kwon do quickly becomes apparent. Nevertheless, sitting at his desk across from me that day, he paused seemingly in deep reflection before answering. I trust that I am not breaking a confidence when I share his reply. Kwanjangnim looked up and said “If I were to mount photos of every black belt that I have graduated across the years at this school alone, not only would they fill every available wall, but a real danger exists that I would weep for those who have left.” With that statement, I truly began to understand the deep and singular relationship that exists between a worthy master and his loyal students.
Since then, I too have created many black belts; clearly not as many as Grandmaster Chun, but the quantity reaches well into the hundreds. Some, based on limited tenure are difficult to remember. The vast majority, however, will never leave my mind. Many are still with me and have gone on to become highly competent master instructors. Others, having enrolled as youngsters, eventually entered college, had families of their own and relocated. A very few, sadly, have been forced to discontinue their training due to unrelated injuries or physical disabilities. But as with most martial arts schools many black belts tend to depart largely based on time constraints, family responsibilities or simple boredom stemming from a limited curriculum. This last malady frequently results in a trickling away of enthusiasm for the art in general. Fortunately, our school offers a traditional curriculum extending through 6th dan that constantly challenges the black belt, invariably igniting continuing interest. Still, to surrender for any reason is a tragedy of considerable proportions.
Regardless, the rapport that exists between the master instructor and the black belt student is exceptional in nature. If taken seriously and allowed to mature, the relationship is infused with a quantifiable consistency that mirrors other vivid liaisons in life. For example, at the culmination of the black belt examination, the master instructor symbolically bestows the student with wisdom by first wrapping the black belt around his waist before tying it around the student’s. Consequently, even though the practitioner may in the future train with other instructors, this is a statement that clearly says: “I am your first master and we are tied together for now and forever.” This ritual is vaguely reminiscent of another, equally heavy with meaning: that found in the bond of marriage signified by the gold wedding band. Once a serious commitment is made to the study of traditional tae kwon do, one cannot simply ignore its profound implications.
It is said that genuinely competent martial arts instructors give a little piece of themselves away to each student they seek to inspire until, eventually, there is nothing left. The only way the teacher can replenish their skill is through constant, personal training and then facing new students yet again. And so, the cycle continues. I absolutely believe this to be true. Yet I ultimately hold that it is with each defection or departure of a black belt that an intangible, spiritual fragment of the master is torn away, never again to be replaced. The silent torment, unique to those at the top, cannot rightfully be shared and is overwhelmingly exacerbated by an informal exit. Tae kwon do training is built on a platform of courage, courtesy and dignity. Accordingly, if the day should arrive when the black belt chooses to depart, it is with the above virtues in mind that their intentions should be announced in the presence of their master and not through an email, phone call or written correspondence. Without dignified closure, the matter will continue to float between the two like a dark cloud that refuses to dissipate. One can only compare the divisive nature of this separation to a painful divorce from a beloved partner and if the parties involved, or at least one, are resistant to the measure, the wound seldom heals. To the uninitiated it may appear that I am overstating my case. Yet I’d wager that having experienced the loss of several valued, once-eager black belts, most masters would tell you that each exodus feels like one divorce too many.
Tae Kwon do does not speak to everyone equally and even for those dedicated few, priorities change and difficult life decisions must be made. So, if you find yourself in the untenable position of having to sever ties with your school and master, for whatever reason, do it face-to-face with a courteous, courageous and dignified state of mind.

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