Taekwondo: “Foot, Hand, Way”, or the “art of smashing with hands and feet”; three simple words representing a universe of power. Certainly, the consequences of striking with feet, tae, and hands, kwon, are clear. However, to underestimate the significance of the last syllable, do, due to its grammatical positioning within the root word taekwondo, is to admit to a profound ignorance in this diverse, holistic discipline. To subtract this suffix entirely is to remove the heart and soul of the art, transforming it, instead, into a mere pugilistic pursuit; a hollow, physical exercise rather than an organic philosophy complete with a ritualized set of moral principles. Pronounced “doe”, this simple two-letter declaration above all symbolizes the spiritual, intellectual and ethical dimensions manifest in the traditional Korean martial art of taekwondo. Literally translated, do is The Way or Path every martial artist must travel. It is the essence and standard against which all practical and theoretical technique is measured. It is the level we must seek; the ideal we embrace. It is a continuum the sincere practitioner will visit time and time again with never any hope of reaching an end. It is a work constantly in progress. The late Grandmaster Sang Kyu Shim put this journey into perspective when he wrote:
“One must not confuse the skills of living with the Way of living. The martial arts point the way while providing the skills to follow the Way. This is the road to creative change, a road of encounter and discovery. It is the road of a million miles that begins with the first step.”
While it is true that the term taekwondo itself is only several short decades old, the fact remains that the art we are presently familiar with resonates with philosophical overtones gleaned from a mixture of traditional fighting styles rooted deep in Korean history. One cannot help but appreciate this virtue while visiting the temples and monuments built high in the mountains of Korea intended to memorialize legendary figures such as the Hwarang and their fearless leaders. Still, there are those today who assert that taekwondo is nothing more than a competitive sport based primarily on its acceptance by the International Olympic Committee. These are the few who would remain rooted in the stands cheering on contestants rather than recognize the virtue in champions of the heart. Forgotten are the centuries of invasion and imperialism during which the Korean people have had to defend the sovereignty of the sturdy nation with the blood of their young warriors while nurturing a robust code of honor in the process. This courage is evident in every technique of the national, Korean martial art. Today, the contemporary model of do partially stems from a desire expressed by noted masters of the past to transform their traditional martial arts skills, no longer as relevant in times of peace, into martial ways. Simply put, a martial way distinguishes itself from a battle art in that the ultimate goal is not necessarily one of combat preparedness so much as it is in discovering a method or means to achieve personal excellence through the practice of a martial discipline accompanied by its implied code of honor. By way of example, taekwondo, tangsoodo, karate-do, aikido and judo are all offspring of fighting systems used primarily for the purpose of subduing an adversary in battle and expanded upon by their innovators in modern times to include a roadmap for ethical living. Men such as Choi Hong Hi who notably emphasized the military aspect to the art, Hwang Kee, Anko Itosu, Gichen Funakoshi, Morihei Ueshiba and Jigoro Kano, regardless of their national heritage, appreciated the value of elevating their defensive skills, already steeped in ancient ethical philosophies, into still usable disciplines intended to infuse defensive strategy, confidence and morality in society at large. Consequently, tens of millions of practitioners worldwide study some form of martial art in an effort to fortify their physical, mental and spiritual capabilities while becoming proficient in a form of self-defense. Practitioners of taekwondo further support this model by striving to live a balanced life using the Five Tenets as a moral compass. These five ethical directives include Courtesy, Integrity, Perseverance, Self-control and Indomitable Spirit; virtues the entire Korean citizenry have had to rely on, particularly during the twentieth century, in rising from the ashes of war to their present state of economic and social development. Taekwondo, being a product of this will to survive, coupled with a need to reaffirm a national identity on the heels of the Japanese Occupation, has served as a platform for the cultivation of do.
Furthermore, taking a utilitarian approach to the basic theme underscoring The Way can have a significant effect on the practical application of taekwondo technique in general. For example, the very basis of martial arts movement, now and in the past, can be traced to the observation and mimicry of nature. Therefore, one must concede that nature is embraced by do. Many of the more advanced strikes and stances such as tiger mouth and cat stance derive their very names from a flirtation with the defensive tactics seen in the animal kingdom. Likewise, the method of wrist rotation found in the execution of the middle punch while in horse stance replicates the revolution of the planets as described in the principles of celestial mechanics; a truly grand manifestation of The Way. Furthermore, Taegeuk series poomsae, the choreographed forms that stand as the central pillar of Kukkiwon taekwondo, are rich in an abundance of natural metaphor. Borrowing heavily from the ancient Asian classic, the I Ching, these essential patterns draw their philosophical individualism from the palgwe with its eight sets of trigrams representing nature in its fullness. The elements of thunder, wind, water, fire and earth are all in evidence as the practitioner learns to overcome the physical limitations of the body, instead experiencing the spiritual aspects of The Way while performing this form of moving meditation. Natural harmony, too, should be evident in the execution of all techniques as it applies to the human anatomy. By practicing within the constraints of the body’s natural range of motion, stress and injury will be brought to a minimum. Likewise, permitting the muscles to remain in a relaxed and natural state will result in the development of explosive power upon impact. Consequently, since The Way is all encompassing in its relationship to physiology, natural movement equates to do. Clearly, from the early stages of social development on up to the present, an understanding of do has been accompanied by a deep appreciation of nature. In fact, one cannot exist without the other.
The Way, then, is unmistakably paved by virtuous thought and action. It is arrived at through diligent practice and a never ending commitment to excellence. To waver is an admission of one’s humanity. To reclaim the rightful path, however, is a sure sign of discipline and commitment. In the words of the Zen patriarch, Bodhidharma:
“All know the Way; few actually walk it.”
As we advance in the martial arts our sense of balance, both physically and spiritually, begins to increase. Better health ensues. Reflexes are sharpened and a profound appreciation for the value of life pervades our being. Finally, we are rewarded with increased confidence and self-respect through our knowledge of self-defense. This course is a journey marked by many mileposts. It is a highway whose unbroken line leads to the philosophical and spiritual refinement of the individual. With each new revelation the practitioner comes closer to the ultimate goal of enlightenment. This journey, this road is called taekwondo and it is defined by its simple, two letter suffix, do.
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, Taekwondo–A Path to Excellence, and Taekwondo Black Belt Poomsae: Original Koryo and Koryo, a recently published work, co-authored with Grandmaster Chun. Master Cook can be reached for lectures, workshops or questions at www.chosuntkd.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.