Friday, April 13, 2012

Revelations by Master Doug Cook

Not long ago, I was reviewing poomsae with a group of senior black belts, 3rd dan and up. One in particular had been performing an advanced, traditional form for many months. During the class, I interrupted her to suggest a modification in stance. After politely allowing me to finish my comment, the student asked if the motion had been changed from the time it had first been demonstrated to her. “No”, I replied, “you are simply more prepared now to receive a detailed explanation of this poomsae along with its purpose and intent.” I then went on to make what appeared to be a minor correction, albeit one that significantly improved her understanding of the form overall.
My grandmaster does the same to me even now. Yet rather than question his action, I smile and think how fortunate I am to be drilling down even deeper, to the heart of a poomsae for instance, in the hope of revealing the very essence of tae kwon do doctrine. And so the cycle continues as it has from the beginning, from venerated master to worthy disciple, over the course of centuries.
Improvements, refinements and, ultimately, revelations are all fundamental conditions of meaningful, traditional tae kwon do training. These progressive states of learning apply not only to the novice, but even more so to the advanced practitioner. Adjustments to basic technique, poomsae, hyung or tul, self-defense and sparring, should be considered a pathway to perfection rather than a road to confusion and its accompanied stress. In the end, if embraced with an open mind, modifications chisel away at superfluous movement resulting in a profound sense of enlightenment signaled by a heightened stage of proficiency.
It can be said that tae kwon do is taught most effectively through a series of ever-diminishing circles with the outermost shell representing the most elementary understanding of a technique. Subsequently, each successive circle brings the practitioner increasingly closer to the technique’s core. This arduous, yet fulfilling process, requires great patience and humility; humility in the sense that the worthy student must not view a modification merely as a change indiscriminately propagated at the whim of a careless instructor, but rather as a stepping stone on a long path to excellence; a reward earned through diligent, mindful practice. To the curious Western mind, this process of distillation is often difficult to grasp. Customarily, we are not content with unexplained actions but frequently require detailed, verbal clarification with a focus on finality in almost everything we do. Yet, in Asian martial culture, partially in terms of Confucian philosophy, training without question is common; accepting technical refinements with gratitude rather than query is the norm.
To better understand this concept let us examine for a moment the procedure for teaching the jab/reverse punch. First, a proper fist must be formed; a structure a great majority of beginners are clearly unfamiliar with. Then, a stable platform or stance from which to execute this combination must be developed. Finally, efficient use of body mechanics needs to be explained. Most instructors I have had the honor of working with go to great extremes to clarify this formula, all the while realizing that the novice can assimilate only so much information in a given session. Yet, undoubtedly, the white belt in the formative stages of training barely scratches the surface of this skill. Frequent refinements are made until, rather than merely throwing out the hands, the student, at some future point in time, automatically assumes a sturdy defense stance, begins to pivot the hips, focuses on penetrating the target, executes the combination, and further amplifies the strikes with ki (internal energy) and confidence. If this process proceeds without the instructor constructively correcting the technique in compounded phases, increasing the practitioner’s proximity to the kernel of the technique and thus experiencing a catharsis of sorts begins to slip away.
Nevertheless, the principle of enlightenment through revelations attached to ever-diminishing circles is nowhere more evident than in poomsae training. In times past, instruction in Korean poomsae, Japanese kata, or Chinese taolu, was often limited to four or five forms over the course of the martial artist’s entire lifetime giving the practitioner ample opportunity to learn the required motions correctly and in great detail, going deep rather than wide. In fact, great masters historically recommended learning poomsae Sip Soo (ten hands) for the power and speed it generates, Chulki Cho Dan (iron horse) for building a competent horse stance, and, in the case of karate-do, Sanchin kata (three battles), for internal and external strength, to the exclusion of all others. This concept has profound implications when viewed through the lens of the offensive and defensive possibilities embedded within formal exercises. The practical applications, bunkai in Japanese or hae sul as Master Stuart Anslow explains it, can be interpreted in any number of ways dependent upon the martial wisdom of the teacher in tandem with a supreme willingness on the part of the student to learn. Consequently, it would be virtually impossible to demonstrate each component of a poomsae within the scope of a single training session or even a year’s worth of classes for that matter. Bit by bit excessive movement is chipped away, refinements are polished, and hidden techniques are revealed that principally must be viewed as revelations rather than indiscriminate changes.
At the culmination of class, traditional tae kwon do schools everywhere frequently recite a student oath. Ours includes a principle that represents a central pillar of martial arts philosophy: establish trust between teacher and student. In satisfying this standard, it is the teacher’s responsibility to transmit traditional, pure-form tae kwon do skills on to others worthy of the art, unblemished by personal preference. The competent instructor must execute this mission in a manner that satisfies the spirit and well as the mind and body, particularly in the case of poomsae, hyung or tul. If a technique is taught before the spirit is prepared to accept it in its fullness, it will be, at best, misunderstood or, at worst, taken for granted, diminished, and potentially abused. By the same token, it is the student’s obligation to absorb technical attributes with an open mind, a degree at a time, with a vengeance, until the true heart of the skill is revealed. If these gradual enhancements are viewed as refinements rather than changes in routine, then an authentic accumulation of knowledge will occur. If not, the questioning mind will eclipse the potential for enlightenment through the revelation of meaningful martial doctrine and technique.

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