Thursday, January 2, 2014

Interview with Master Doug Cook - Instructor, Author and Supporter of Traditional Taekwondo

This interview appeared in Totally Taekwondo Magazine issue # 32 October, 2011 

The I Ching, or Book of Changes, is an ancient Taoist classic. From it we learn that “everything happens in its appointed time.” Master Doug Cook, 6th dan black belt, school owner, author, and regular contributor to Totally TaeKwonDo, couldn’t agree more. Where most practitioners begin their journey through the martial arts during their adolescent years, Master Cook began his taekwondo training in his late thirties; and, if you ask him, he will confirm that the time was right.

Not being deterred by age, he trained diligently under the direction of several masters, eventually earning his 1st dan black belt in traditional taekwondo. His thirst for a thorough understanding of the philosophy and advanced techniques unique to the art, however, ultimately lead him to the door of martial arts legend, Grandmaster Richard Chun. After receiving his 2nd dan, Master Cook established the Chosun Taekwondo Academy, a school dedicated to traditional taekwondo instruction and Ki, or internal energy, development. Later, in an expression of his passion for writing, Master Cook decided to share his knowledge of taekwondo through the printed word, composing many articles for leading martial arts publications. In doing research for these articles, Master Cook discovered that there was little material available concerning the philosophical doctrines of traditional taekwondo. Seizing an opportunity to help remedy this situation, and to follow in the footsteps of his grandmaster, he began work on his first book, Taekwondo…Ancient Wisdom for the Modern Warrior. Destined to become an international best-seller, this work was followed in 2006 by Traditional Taekwondo: Core Techniques, History and Philosophy, and in 2009 by his most popular work to date, Taekwondo – A Path to Excellence. All three are currently available through international online suppliers and major booksellers worldwide.
      Today, Master Doug Cook teaches as many as five classes a day, six days a week at his dojang located in upstate New York, and travels to New York City to train under Grandmaster Chun and his instructors on a weekly basis. He was a six-time gold medalist in the New York State Championships and the New York State Governor’s Cup Competitions. He holds a D3 status as a US Referee and has received high honors from Korea in the form of a “Letter of Appreciation” signed by World Taekwondo Federation past-president, Dr. Un Yong Kim. In 2003 Master Cook was awarded the Medal of Special Recognition from the Moo Duk Kwan in Seoul, South Korea. In 2004, while attending a training camp in Korea, Master Cook received a Special Citation from the Korean government for forging a stronger relationship between Korea and the United States through the martial arts. In June 2006, he was inducted into the Budo International Martial Arts Hall of Fame as “Taekwondo Master of the Year”. In 2007, Master Cook was invited on several occasions to speak as a guest lecturer at the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut, at the time, the only institution of higher learning in the country to offer a major in the martial arts. Master Cook was recently listed in Black Belt magazine as one of the Top Twenty masters of the Korean martial arts in America. In 2009 he was invited to speak at the prestigious Korea Society in New York City and will appear in Legacy, an upcoming television documentary on taekwondo scheduled for release in 2013.
In this Totally TaeKwonDo exclusive interview, Master Cook shares with our readers what it is like to train under a true martial arts pioneer, thoughts on his literary contributions to taekwondo, and his formula for maintaining a successful taekwondo school. He also spoke of his frequent experiences while training in Korea, and his vision of taekwondo in the future.

TOTALLY TAEKWONDO: Thank you for taking the time to speak with us.
MASTER COOK: The honor is mine. Let me say that I am blessed to live a life filled with taekwondo and to be a regular contributor to Totally TaeKwonDo online magazine.

TT: How did you first become associated with Grandmaster Richard Chun?
MASTER COOK: As you know, Grandmaster Chun enjoys a high profile in the martial arts community by virtue of his writings, his experience as an international master instructor, and his position as president of the United States Taekwondo Association.  As a yellow belt, I recall reading a description of poomsae philosophy in one of his many books. I knew then that there was much more to taekwondo than kicking and punching and that someday I would seek his instruction. My opportunity came in 1997, when I met with him, demonstrated my skill, and was subsequently accepted as a student. It was the realization of a dream.

TT: How has your relationship with Grandmaster Chun affected your training?
MASTER COOK: Aside from the fact that Grandmaster Chun is one of the five original masters to emigrate from Korea with the intention of spreading knowledge of taekwondo in America, he sincerely personifies the spirit and beauty of the art. To see him train is to appreciate the awesome power hidden within each technique. To speak with him is to learn humility and respect for tradition. Frequently, I have gone to him for advice and he has given it freely, often by answering my question with a question in the Socratic Method, causing me to think the problem through for myself. Furthermore, he and his instructors, Masters Pablo Alejandro, Samuel Mizrahi and Maurice Elmalem have patiently taught me the importance of detail and relaxation in self-defense, poomsae and sparring. Training at the Richard Chun Taekwondo Center prior to its closure, significantly improved my abilities as a martial artist both mentally and physically. Fortunately, I am able to continue this brand of training with his instructors at Haddock Taekwondo in New York City.

TT: Tell us about your school, the Chosun Taekwondo Academy, and how you arrived at the name.
MASTER COOK: In doing research for my book, the term “Chosun” continuously surfaced throughout Korean history, first as Ko-Chosun in ancient times, and then again when referring to the Yi or Chosun Dynasty that existed between 1392 and 1910. Literally translated, it means “land of the morning calm”. Flying at thirty-thousand feet, about to make our final descent into Incheon International Airport during one of my many training trips to Korea, I recall seeing the peninsula shrouded in mist. In that moment, all the political turmoil that existed below evaporated and truly all appeared calm. I knew then, if and when I established a school, it would be called “Chosun”.  

TT: Do you import the lessons you learn at the Richard Chun Taekwondo Center to your school for the benefit of your students?
MASTER COOK: For the most part, yes; certainly the self-defense drills and advanced Moo Duk Kwan poomsae. However, at Chosun we adhere to a stringent curriculum composed of a repeating template that increases in complexity throughout the various belt levels; for instance, promotion from one rank to the next is predicated on proficiency in an escalating series of basics, one, two and three-step sparring, self-defense, poomsae, sparring and breaking skills. Students are also expected familiarize themselves with Korean terminology and the philosophy associated with their forms. There is nothing haphazard about our program; every student knows exactly what is expected of them in order to achieve advancement. Everything is clearly written out to avoid confusion and preserved as downloads on our web site to be included in the training journal our students are required to maintain.

TT: Do you emphasize some aspects of taekwondo over others in your teaching methodology?
MASTER COOK: My instructors and I highlight the self-defense, physical fitness, and self-enrichment components of taekwondo; this is in keeping with taekwondo as a martial way or a path to enlightenment. In addition, we amplify our practice with meditation and Ki development exercises. While our school attends several tournaments a year, I do not view the classical martial arts simply as sport and subsequently do not focus on competition. Instead, we offer a series of technical seminars and self-defense courses to dojangs and civic groups at little or no charge or, in some cases, as a community service. Not long ago, a U.S. Army medical unit requested that we instruct them in taekwondo self-defense skills. This was a great privilege. It was an honor to serve our country in this manner, doing what we do best.

TT: What forms do you practice?
MASTER COOK: As a United States Taekwondo Association affiliate school, we perform the eight Taegeuk and Palgwe set of poomsae, in conjunction with the traditional Moo Duk Kwan and required Kukkiwon black belt Yudanja series. We also practice the Pyung-Ahn hyung and several of the ITF tuls, although these are not required for promotion.

TT: Tell our readers about your experience of training in Korea.
MASTER COOK: Almost indescribable! We have traveled to the “land of the morning calm” on five separate occasions now and are in the throes of planning our next training tour for July 2012. Clearly, I feel one must experience Korean culture firsthand in order to fully understand the roots of taekwondo. In doing so, the practitioner makes a geographical and historical connection with their physical training. Visiting the Kukkiwon, the various dojangs and universities; meeting the many gifted masters and students of the art, adds color and meaning to one’s practice that can only be appreciated by traveling to the homeland of taekwondo. We attempt to go every three years and are fortunate beyond measure to be accompanied by Grandmaster Chun since doors that typically remain closed to Westerners, open wide in his presence. We welcome practitioners from all styles of taekwondo. Parties interested in joining us can contact me at

TT: How would you characterize the training in Korea versus here in the West?
MASTER COOK: We train very hard for extended periods of time during our visits. After all, that is why we go and we choose to take advantage of every educational opportunity available. We balance the intense kicking and self-defense drills found at the university level, we travel to outlying dojangs and to Kyongju, the ancient capitol of Silla, where we visit and train at ancient Buddhist temples located in the training grounds of the Hwarang. There, we practice basics, poomsae and meditation. During our last excursion in 2010, we were exceedingly fortunate to train at Kukkiwon, Kumgang Taekwondo Center, Gulgosa Temple and, as always, with Grandmaster Gyoo hyun-Lee at his dojang in the suburbs of Seoul. Naturally, we reserve time for cultural pursuits and sightseeing as well.

TT: Aside from being a professional martial arts instructor, you are an author, columnist and frequent contributor to this magazine with three best-selling books to your credit. How did that come about?

MASTER COOK: Clearly, it is not enough to address the physical portion of our art; one must contribute academically as well. The inspiration for all three of my books, was drawn from great masters such as Dr. Richard Chun and Sang Kyu Shim, who have demonstrated their devotion to taekwondo through their literary skills. In reading their work, it quickly became evident to me that taekwondo is not merely a series of physical techniques, but a road to enlightenment, a path to excellence. Realizing this, I too felt a desire to express my love for the martial arts through the written word. Following in the footsteps of my mentor was not difficult once I began research for my books. As odd as it may sound, I almost felt I was being guided by an external force that was using me as a conduit to disseminate this knowledge. Writing my books was one of the most profoundly rewarding experiences of my life. Presently, I am working on my fourth book with Grandmaster Chun, a work that will focus on the original iteration of Poomsae Koryo in conjunction with the current version we refer to as Kukki Koryo. The response to this body of work has been favorable, indeed, based on the many letters and emails I receive weekly from around the world inquiring about the differences in these two poomsae. Release is planned for 2013.   

TT: What expectations do you have for your school and how do they coincide with your prediction of how taekwondo will evolve in the future?
MASTER COOK: This is an interesting question, the second part of which I can only voice an opinion. As I see it, taekwondo currently sits at a crossroads. On the one hand, we have an element dedicated primarily to the practice of WTF Olympic-style taekwondo. Schools of this nature are clearly in the majority and mirror the approach taken in Korea. Conversely, there exists a minority of institutions and associations, here and abroad, that focus largely on the self-defense and life enrichment aspects of the art with little or no emphasis on sport competition. I, and other like-minded instructors, refer to this alternative style as traditional taekwondo. Nevertheless, this nomenclature may appear to be somewhat of a misnomer since the history or “tradition” of taekwondo as it exists today, is relatively short with much of it being devoted to its promotion as a world sport. Like it or not, the answer to this paradox lies in the fact that taekwondo owes much of its pedigree to foreign influences, some of which are rooted in Funakoshi’s Shotokan karate-do and, to a lesser degree, Chinese gungfu. Consequently, in its early developmental stage, prior to its promotion as an Olympic sport, taekwondo contained a complete palate of offensive and defensive techniques including hand strikes, blocks, throws and sweeps. Sadly, at least in its sportive form, these techniques have been forfeited altogether in favor of those certain to score in the ring. With this in mind, the notion of taekwondo having a “traditional” component based on self-defense, predating the WTF, materializes. It is my belief that we must maintain this traditional approach to training if the defensive art of taekwondo is to survive in its fullness. Subsequently, the primary mission of the Chosun Taekwondo Academy, in unison with establishing satellite schools, is to, first and foremost, promote the complete art of taekwondo while recognizing and appreciating its sportive mate for the catalyst it has been in promoting Korea’s national martial art and Olympic sport, worldwide. In the end, however, I think all practitioners will agree that both martial art and combat sport, in union with their diverse administrative arms, must learn to coexist harmoniously if taekwondo is to advance successfully into the future.

TT: In closing, are there any final thoughts you would like to leave us with?
MASTER COOK: Yes. I feel extremely privileged to teach taekwondo professionally. As an instructor, it is gratifying to know that you are instrumental in helping students of all ages develop confidence, defensive capabilities and improved health. Taoists metaphorically claim that one can achieve immortality by sharing their knowledge; if this is the case, then every taekwondo instructor should strive to live forever!

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 three best-selling books entitled: Taekwondo…Ancient Wisdom for the Modern Warrior, Traditional Taekwondo - Core Techniques, History and Philosophy, and his most recent contribution, Taekwondo–A Path to Excellence, focusing on the rewards and virtues of taekwondo. Master Cook and Grandmaster Chun are planning their next training and cultural tour of Korea for July of 2012. Those interested in joining this excursion can contact Master Cook at or                                                                                                                                                                                      


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