originally published in Totally Taekwondo Magazine Issue #35 January, 2012
A particularly valid exercise when weighing the true value of martial arts training in modern times is an exploration of the balance between practicality and effort - or put another way, what is it that can ultimately be gained from the vast amount of time and sweat we invest in our daily practice? Most tae kwon doists will undoubtedly have little difficulty answering this question with responses ranging from defensive proficiency and physical fitness to personal entertainment and social interaction. But, for the most part these legitimate replies only scratch at the surface of what truly lies beyond the obvious benefits of traditional tae kwon do training.
Bearing this in mind, if an intangible ingredient, exclusive of weight-loss, muscle mass or devastating kicks could be quantified, what would it be? Following years of observation, practice and associations with highly respected colleagues, I have discovered that at the center of every great martial artist exists the uncommon virtue of nobility, sorely earned and sincerely cultivated through a process of enlightenment involving courage, confidence and humility. By nobility, I do not refer to a group of individuals distinguished by class, privilege or heritage, but rather to the elite few, exalted in character by an indomitable will tempered by unquestionable modesty. Few institutions today successfully imbue this attribute. Yet by following the path or Way of tae kwon do, tang soo do, karate-do, or any martial art that earnestly supports an underlying philosophy nurturing virtue over commercialism, nobility can be attained.
Sculptors talented in their art often view a solid block of marble as a substance already containing the object of their efforts; all they seemingly need to do is chip away at the excess material in order to reveal the finished product. This analogy can be applied to the practice of traditional tae kwon do as well. Most individuals possess the potential for expressing pronounced nobility yet are rarely given the opportunity to articulate its distinctive nature. Thus, it is the job of the master instructor, as it is the sculptor, to draw this quality out of the student, to cobble away at the habits and preconceptions that shroud nobility’s manifestation eventually revealing the true heart of the martial artist. This is no easy task and requires active participation by both master and disciple.
If one were to chart a course with nobility as its final destination, several significant milestones on the journey would need to be realized. The first is courage - the ability to face adversity and its consequences with unflinching resolve. Oddly enough, Taegeuk Sa Jang, the fourth poomsae in the popular Kukkiwon series, is symbolized by the I Ching philosophical component of thunder, requiring the practitioner to face danger with valor. The brand of courage necessary to foster true nobility is not the type that rings hollow with false delight in oneself, but the kind that recognizes human frailty (our own) and adjusts a defensive response, whether physical or emotional, accordingly.
Once courage is painstakingly established, the next step is the development of confidence and since this attribute cannot exist in a vacuum without courage, the two must combine to create a powerful elixir that can, if left unchecked, potentially deteriorate into arrogance. Clearly, a seemingly over-confident instructor stoked by unbridled self-importance can be, charitably put, a hindrance to a student’s progress. Instead, given that the compounding of these two honorable characteristics should rightly result in a sense of reserved self-assuredness, those associating with an individual possessed of this quality will experience a sensation of comfort in their presence. I, personally, have become conscious of this aspect when speaking and training with my teacher, Grandmaster Richard Chun. This is a sure sign that the combination is authentic and devoid of any self-interest.
The final denominator in this equation needs to govern the two preceding factors. Once courage and confidence have been attained, they must be balanced by humility, the act of being justly unaffected by ones status or achievement without self-debasement. Alone, humility is a sought after attribute claimed by many but very often sadly incomplete. It suggests a settling and acceptance of character with little room for misplaced pride since its Latin root humilitas can be defined as “from the earth.” Humility should never be confused with being obsequious, especially in martial arts training. Paying proper respect to seniors, instructors, masters and the art of tae kwon do should not be construed as blind submissiveness but rather as a proper sign of deference to decorum and tradition. Nevertheless, for our purposes humility serves as a mold shaping courage and confidence into a single enduring, benevolent entity leading to nobility. How then can the cultivation of this virtuous amalgam be accomplished using the traditional tae kwon do curriculum as a primary tool?
One of the great gifts of traditional tae kwon do training is the practice of formal exercises known in Korean as poomsae, hyung or tul. These choreographed sequences of self-defense tactics aimed at defeating multiple attackers advancing from various directions, teaches us not only martial skill but unquestionably holds the potential to promote, if practiced with earnestness and purpose, nobility. It is no coincidence that poomsae mimicking, as karateka C. W. Nicol writes in his excellent book Moving Zen, a battle without bloodshed or vanquished, can nurture such profound virtue. Warriors of the past and present were and are constantly challenged by clear and present danger. They must routinely face life-threatening hazard with courage, confidence and humility if they are to survive. Likewise, executing poomsae with realism should conjure images of actual combat. If this is the case, then the tae kwon doist must clearly address the imaginary threat with supreme courage. Once the individual movements within the poomsae become instinctual through repetition, then the element of confidence it introduced; half the battle won! Yet, if we allow this confidence to override focus and judgment, we ultimately lose. Humility must trump arrogance colored by self-delusion if we are to remain clear minded. And, as we now know, once the moral triad of courage, confidence and humility is realized, nobility is not far behind.
Young or old, male or female of whatever color or creed, martial artists are universally enlightened people since only an elite few persevere over many years. We typically strive for excellence in our practice and thus, our lives. Through meditation we develop a tranquil mind; through disciplined physical practice we build a sound body. By embracing the tenets of tae kwon do we gain moral fortitude. Every aspect of our training offers a recipe for success. Yet, nobility resides at the core of our efforts and when examining the practicality of what we do in modern times, what better reward can we seek? So practice your required poomsae, hyung or tul with realism and purpose and cultivate a noble heart.
Master Doug Cook, a 6th dan black belt, is head instructor of the Chosun Taekwondo Academy located in Warwick, New York, a senior student of Grandmaster Richard Chun, and author of four best-selling books entitled: Taekwondo…Ancient Wisdom for the Modern Warrior, Traditional Taekwondo - Core Techniques, History and Philosophy, and Taekwondo–A Path to Excellence, focusing on the rewards and virtues of taekwondo, all published by YMAA Publications Center, Inc.. He is also a regular contributor to Totally TaeKwonDo and Taekwondo Times. Master Cook and Grandmaster Richard Chun recently completed a new book focusing on Original Koryo and Kukki Koryo. Master Cook can be reached for lectures, workshops or questions at www.chosuntkd.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.