Thursday, February 27, 2014

Holistically Embracing Traditional Taekwondo by Master Doug Cook

Article appeared in Totally Taekwondo Magazine June, 2013 issue#52

Over the years, after teaching over 18,000 taekwondo classes, I have found that some practitioners approach the principles of the martial arts as they would a menu from a restaurant, making one selection from column “A”, and another from column “B”. This outlook is particularly common among newcomers and those who have not been exposed to, or genuinely embrace, the philosophical underpinnings of traditional taekwondo. In everyday life this habit is called “cherry-picking” and while it may work in food, fashion and farming, it does not work in the sincere study of taekwondo. Korean martial arts doctrine can be viewed as a complex mosaic composed of many ideas foreign to the Western mind. Selectively removing or ignoring any of these concepts for whatever reason, significantly reduces the value of traditional taekwondo training.

As I have written about previously, the martial arts are intrinsically tied to the three Asian philosophical paradigms of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism. Each of these in their own rite has contributed greatly to the fertile ground that nurtures the seeds of discovery and enlightenment exclusive to takwondo. Consequently, the training process, physically, spiritually and mentally, will bear fruit only if the practitioner permits nature, and the wisdom inherent in these ancient ideals, to run their course. Just as an apple will not ripen properly if picked too early or, at worse, die on the tree if exposed to pollutants in the soil, so the taekwondoist will suffer if the principles that separate the martial arts from a common life style are conveniently discounted or overlooked altogether.

Let us take, for example, something as deceptively simple as the bow of courtesy so ubiquitous in taekwondo. I say “deceptively simple” due to the fact that, on the surface, an uninitiated onlooker merely sees two individuals inclining their upper bodies at a precise angle towards one another. Undoubtedly, the bow, which replaces the handshake in many parts of the world, holds obvious salutary value. However, we as martial artists realize that there is much more to this action than meets the eye. Aside from a demonstration of respect, the bow, or kyungye in Korean, represents a myriad of implied principles; principles that must be upheld if taekwondo is ever to survive in a classical form. Bowing to a fellow student represents an acknowledgement that the techniques we practice can be lethal if abused and therefore must be wielded with self-control and governed by nobility. Likewise, bowing to a master instructor is not only an expression of respect and humility, but an essential sign of loyalty unhindered by outside influences and personalities regardless of their apparent short term benefit. Moreover, in reciprocity, the master instructor is silently annunciating to his student that he will watch over them and do his best in helping to navigate the often confusing journey through taekwondo however demanding he may seem. Likewise, an instructor bowing to a fellow instructor not only implies mutual respect, but that they will treat one another with honor in their relationship. Lastly, bowing at the threshold of the dojang before entering is yet another manifestation of the student’s appreciation for the holistic practice of traditional taekwondo. This simple gesture recognizes the spiritual boundary that separates the routine of everyday life from the supercharged atmosphere of the dojang; the sacred place where we come to study the Way. Given the depth of this gesture, how could anyone fail to formally acknowledge the virtues portrayed therein?

Vocal cues, too, hold special significance to those who practice taekwondo in its fullness. In an effort to minimize the loss of students due to an overt demand for discipline, some schools have eliminated the required reply of “Yes, Sir” or “Yes, Ma’am” that is spoken by a junior when addressing a senior student or instructor. Moreover, the spirit yell, or kihop, that is so vitally required to amplify a strike, block or kick, is often overlooked and rendered unnecessary.

Similarly, the exclusion of meditation, ki (internal energy) development exercises, basic technique practice, self-defense drills, and most urgently, forms or poomsae, from the standard curriculum due to a strong emphasis on sport competition, has a devastating effect on the student’s overall maturity as a complete martial artist. All of these omissions eat at the very foundation of traditional taekwondo leaving less and less to transmit to future generations as an inheritance.   

For the most part, the ideology of taekwondo when practiced as a classical martial art, is forged in the fires of Asian culture. Naturally, we in the West often find this world view difficult to conceptualize. For instance, once, while training in Korea, I recall seeing an instructor strike a student with a kicking target simply because he felt the student was not performing up to par. In that setting the teacher’s punitive action was not construed as being unusual or cruel. Try the same action here, however, and the instructor could be facing a potential law suit. Moreover, training for eight hours at a time, as we did, in a dojang with interior temperatures of ninety degrees or more, is commonplace in Korea and elicits not a word of criticism. I provide these experiences for the reader’s consideration not because I support them, but because they unmistakably drive home the point that there are fundamental differences in the way we approach our training locally as opposed to the manner in which it is practiced in Korea, taekwondo’s country of origin. To complain about an instructor there is unthinkable. To question his authority is worse. Yet, behavior of this nature is not unique to taekwondo in and of itself, but represents a microcosm of Korean society at large. It is neither right nor wrong; it simply is and tends to stem from the hierarchal societal structure embedded in Confucian thought.

Metaphorically speaking, if one wishes to truly absorb the culture of a nation, they must attempt to speak the language, eat the food, dress accordingly and conform to the local customs. While a dilution of tradition by a small component of the martial arts community must be taken into account, the same guidelines hold true for traditional taekwondo; one must accept its physical component, mental requirements and cultural principles as a whole without condition.

Clearly, the complete and sincere practice of taekwondo is not for everyone. In order to achieve excellence in our training, we must subjugate ego, bend to seniority, practice diligently and without complaint, remain loyal to style and school, and finally, act with honor in establishing trust between teacher and student. Remaining steadfast to these seemingly superhuman ideals does not require a character of messianic proportions; rather, it demands a noble heart and an unswerving love for the martial arts that only those willing to accept traditional taekwondo in its cultural entirety will be able to develop.            

       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 Taekwondo–A Path to Excellence, all published by YMAA of Boston. Master Cook and Grandmaster Chun have recently completed a new book, Taekwondo Black Belt Poomsae: Original Koryo and Koryo, targeted for publication in July of 2013. Master Cook can be reached for lectures, workshops or questions at or

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Discipleship by Master Doug Cook

This article appeared in Totally Taekwondo Magazine January, 2014 issue #59

Disciple. To most, the word conjures up vivid images of religious devotion or a pious commitment to a spiritual icon or canon. And well it should since the concept defines a symbolic marriage between novice and mentor, a spark of intention to an ideal. But, most importantly, as it applies to taekwondo, this connection can be construed as an unimpeachable union between loyal student and venerable master.

When we think of the term disciple, many Westerners visualize the Twelve Apostles of Christ, also known as disciples. Yet, viewed from the standpoint of the practicing martial artist, this comparison is not too distant from its sacred use.

Taekwondo, or foot-fist-way, is first and foremost a traditional martial art and world sport. It is not in any way, shape or form a religion even though it has been influenced by the three Asian philosophical paradigms of Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism. Nevertheless, several of the almost superhuman individuals responsible for founding the discipline – men, in this case, who sacrificed almost everything to promote the Korean martial arts in their formative years - clearly deserve dutiful fidelity just as in the context of a religion. Equally deserving, are the remaining, living legends who continue to carry the torch of tradition forward.

Why is this? Why would anyone in this day and age sublimate themselves and, in some cases, even forfeit, their own energies in the service of another? And, having done this, what are the benefits, if any. 

In its current iteration, traditional taekwondo can be thought of as a direct reflection of modern society’s quest for a ritualized entity, devoid of religious dogma, but complete with a physically and spiritually enhanced set of ethical principles by which to live. It satisfies an innate desire for a clear path to achievement while softening the competitive impediments imposed by the workplace, scholastic institutions or the gaming fields. Moreover, as one travels through the belt ranks, the profits revealed by focused training almost certainly alters the student’s life in a profoundly positive, yet frequently surprising, manner: practice mimics a mirror - on the one hand highlighting strengths, while on the other, reflecting weaknesses that beg correction. Intense introspection of this nature never fails to arouse passions and emotions that have been buried by age, self-imposed isolation or cynicism compounded by an egocentric worldview. The notion that martial arts training, particularly when experienced by adults, can have a significantly restorative effect on the individual is not uncommon.

So it stands to reason that almost any system catering to the cultivation of the physical and spiritual self, will spin off personalities that embody the ideological foundation of the whole; those who symbolize the human incarnation of doctrine and exemplary physical practice. Consequently, the purveyor leading one on this transformative path can, for better or ill, assume almost messianic proportions. To the sincere martial artist whose desire for excellence is pure, this presence is manifested in the form of a master or grandmaster and it is to this person that a pronounced, yet appropriate, homage is paid.   

While, as a rule, monthly tuition is paid in return for instruction, this often meager fee can never truly compensate a master adequately who earnestly and selflessly wishes to pass on a genuine martial inheritance. Subsequently, it is not unusual for the master to remain vigilant for a student who stands out, prepared to receive direct transmission of skill. Those that exhibit the elevated standards that satisfy the expectations of the senior, at some point, may come to be considered a disciple. It is clear that these individuals are few and far between. While the undeserving grasp desperately for a position of singular recognition and advanced transfer of often hidden knowledge, sometimes stepping on the backs of others to do so, it can only be those possessed of pure intention, extraordinary patience, unblemished humility and unshakeable devotion, who will reach the summit.

The disciple is differentiated from the average student in that they seek the deep philosophy, customs, etiquette and history associated with the art, in conjunction with physical technique. The implied code of honor governing unprovoked use of lethal skill is intricately woven into their moral fabric. With nothing whatsoever casual about their practice, the disciple develops a laser-like focus, undiminished by the rigors and challenges of training. In short, rather than coming to taekwondo, they become taekwondo.

Furthermore, discipleship often exceeds the boundaries of loyalty, bordering instead on obsequiousness. To outsiders, a close aid to the standard bearer can appear to obviate his or her own identity in the support of their senior. Friction and criticism may arise meted out by those less worthy of the station. This situation, supported by historical precedence, is to be expected and, ultimately, endured.

So, given the almost divine characteristics that flirts with the impossible associated with discipleship, what are the benefits of this noble, yet subservient, condition?

Notably, the disciple is assured of instruction uncorrupted by misinterpretation. That is to say that the individual is not learning technique from a string of instructors originally taught by the master. Instead, they are benefiting, as mentioned earlier, from direct transmission of skill, sometimes taking on even the most trivial of the master’s idiosyncrasies. Metaphorically speaking, just as a document losses integrity over the course of successive copies, so frequently will technique. This first-hand communication of knowledge - physical, spiritual and intellectual - is perhaps the most important advantage of discipleship. Through total immersion in the art, the disciple becomes a sturdy link in the great chain of martial arts knowledge. They share in a legacy by association and through martial action. The disciple virtually becomes a vessel containing the original essence of the master’s teachings and, through osmosis, will be expected to carry this legacy forward in perpetuity.

Nonetheless, there is an additional variable in this equation: is the master eminently deserving of and justified in receiving disciples? Is the leader, not being possessed of sainthood and still capable of misjudgments, worthy of unquestionable loyalty and respect by an apprentice?

While this is murky territory to trample in, and since the Western mind is a questioning mind, there are several signifiers that can be utilized in identifying a master truly worthy of an egoless devotion on behalf of the journeyman. First, examine past actions. Look closely at the deeds and not merely the words of the one in which years of devotion will be invested. Average these out, however, underscoring significant triumphs while down playing benign human traits or frailties. Personally speaking, I recall my astonishment when I discovered, while training in Korea, that our masters smoked excessively and drank alcohol in the evening with abandon. I was young and immature then and did not fully appreciate the Eum and Yang of life as I do now, being advanced in years. These men - great masters - reflecting a generation of hardship and war, were simply living their lives as was customary within the parameters of their society. Yet, from morning till night, each day, they had every intention of teaching traditional taekwondo with total conviction and accuracy. And, they did. In these investigations, do not confuse mundane behavior with pathology.

Additionally, interrogate intentions. Martial arts institutes and masters are not regulated as are other professions with the exception of guidelines suggested by various, legitimate organizations including the Kukkiwon, WTF, ITF, ATA, USTA, WTA, TAGB and the GBTF. Therefore, in an effort to ferret out unbridled greed, If invited, the serious student of taekwondo must ask: Do dollars trump tradition in this potentially honorable relationship? Is the aim of the master’s instruction to teach taekwondo, or is to manipulate and perpetrate odious sales tactics in the practice of take-my-dough? And finally, is the senior demanding minions and serfs, or are they earnestly searching for a few elite students on whom they may imprint a lasting stamp of authenticity?

Today, when we consider the concept of discipleship, we reflect on fusions of individuals such as General Choi Hong Hi and Tae Hi Nam, Dr. Un Yong Kim and Rhin Moon Chun, Gichen Funakoshi and Osamu Ozawa, Jigoro Kano and the Four Kings, and perhaps most prominently, Ip Man and Bruce Lee, just to name a few. Considering the long standing relationships between these men, discipleship may at first appear to be a long, lonely and arduous road. Yet, in truth, it is a two-way street; for example, Jigoro Kano, during the early years of the Kodokan, provided room, board and care for his disciples, all with funds from his own pocket. So, regardless of the effort sustained, trust in the master and his or her ultimate desire for the student’s well being is crucial. It must be realized beforehand that not every training session or personal interaction will result in contentment. Discipleship will demand a pledge to a long and lasting relationship that will range across the peaks and valleys of progress and disappointment. No patch will ever be embroidered with the term disciple. In fact, the phrase may never even cross the lips of the teacher and student involved. Nevertheless, when this special bond develops, cemented by a mutual desire for technical and philosophical preservation, it will become obvious. To serve when called insures continuity; tradition is in need of worthy vehicles in order to advance and there are praiseworthy mentors waiting to shift them into drive.

Master Doug Cook, 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, co-authored with Grandmaster Chun along with its companion DVD. Master Cook can be reached for seminars, workshops or questions at or

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Chosun e-newsletter Archive Volumn 4 #2 February, 2014

Chosun Taekwondo Academy presents:
A Day for Women Celebrating  Character, Courage and Commitment
Sunday March 16, 2014
9:30am - 3:30pm
Chosun Taekwondo Academy

62 Main Street Warwick, NY

Join guest Master Yoga Instructor Paula Heitzner RYT, Chosun Instructor Jake Garrett, Master Doug Cook and the Chosun instructors for a day that celebrates your character, courage and commitment. 

Read entire newsletter...