Taekwondo represents many things to many people; but one thing that it is not is a religion. Although several masters may demand cult-like devotion more akin to faith-based institutions and require unreasonable, impractical and often dangerous techniques from their students, there is no real theological component to the national Korean martial art. Yet it would be disrespectful of history to ignore the reality that the three major philosophical paradigms of Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism have had a significant influence on the ideology of traditional taekwondo. Consequently, while these three systems were nevermeant to be deified by their founders, it is the ethical and metaphysical content that the martial artist distills from each and not the religious component. From the Ten Mental Educations recited at the end of a training session, to meditation, ki development and the respect paid to seniors, all the taekwondoist needs to do is connect the dots between the aforementioned practices and the Asian philosophical triad to gain a better understanding of their art.
Buddhism, first introduced to Korea from China in A.D. 372, encompasses the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama who came to be known as Buddha or the Enlightened One. The Buddhist canon consists of the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path and in some cases, the tradition of Seon (Zen, Chan) or meditation. A cornerstone of this system is a belief that suffering arises as a direct result of desire. While Buddhism was practiced in ancient Korea during the Three Kingdoms and United Silla (A.D. 668-935) periods, it eventually evolved into the state religion of the Koryo Dynasty (A.D. 918-1392). Later, during the Chosun Dynasty (A.D. 1392-1910) when Confucianism ruled, the Righteous Monk movement played a vital role in repelling the Japanese invasion unleashed on Chosun in A.D. 1592.
Confucianism on the other hand, revolves around a blueprint rooted in ethical and philosophical principles developed by Kung-fu Tzu (551-479 B.C.) or in Western terms, Confucius. Encouraging exemplary moral behavior and communal endeavor, Confucianism dominated during the Chosun era, eclipsing Buddhism and championed scholastic achievement rather quotidian skills of warfare. Included in this philosophy was a hierarchal respect for elders and forbearers.
Last, but by no means least important, is the influence Taoism has exerted on the social fabric of Korean culture specifically, and thus traditional taekwondo in general. Noted for its focus on the relationship between humanity and the natural order of the Universe known as the Tao or the Way, Taoism is thought to have been established by Lao Tzu (570-490 B.C.) who, as legend has it, may be a name for a combination of individuals rather than a single man.
When we consider the connection between these three primordial Asian philosophies turned religions, a good place to start is with the Ten Mental Educations or the Student Creed of Taekwondo, which includes the following principles:
· Be loyal to your country.
· Be loving and show fidelity to parents.
· Be loving between husband and wife.
· Be cooperative between brothers and sisters.
· Be faithful to your friends.
· Be respectful to elders.
· Establish trust between teacher and student.
· Use good judgment before harming any living thing.
· Never retreat in battle.
· Always finish what you start.
Upon close inspection, we find that the subsequent actions required by this code of moral behavior rest solidly in Confucianism’s camp. Filial piety, a deep respect for the wisdom cultivated by elders and the placement of the welfare of the community above self, are all signifiers of the influence Confucianism has exercised not only on the dictates of traditional taekwondo, but, again, on Korean society at large. Just as we bow to upper belts in the dojang, it is not unusual in the homeland of taekwondo for juniors to readily assist seniors in any number of situations. Similarly, even though taekwondo is predominantly a physical art, the nurturing of the intellect through the study of technical nomenclature, Korean history as it relates to the native martial arts and a grasp of the rich philosophical underpinnings of taekwondo poomsae, all subscribe to Confucian ethics.
Likewise, the virtue of using sound judgment before harming any living thing has its source in the teachings of Buddhism. It was the Buddhist monk Wonkwang Popsa who transmitted the concept of using just force in battle to two, young Hwarang warriors, Kwisan and Chuhang during the Silla era that thunders down the centuries and continues to govern the use of modern day taekwondo tactics today. Zen or Seon Buddhism has also contributed to focused meditation; a practice considered to be a vital element of the traditional taekwondo curriculum. Seating in a rooted posture emulating a great mountain, with the knees resting on the floor and the torso, shoulders and head tapering into a majestic peak, promotes stability and tranquility of mind while acting as a centering force prior to training.
Yet clearly it is Taoism that contributes most to the metaphysical aspects of traditional, pure-form taekwondo. For instance, the ancient Taoist art of qigong, or work on qi, has supplied a roadmap for the various exercises we have come to rely upon in the Korean martial arts to cultivate and manifest ki, the internal, animating life force used to amplify technique. Moreover, the Eum/Yang, universally known, with some modifications, as the Taoist Yin/Yang, provides a timeless symbol signifying the duality of opposites, balance and an acceptance regarding the notion of constant change. But it is the Way, recognized in Taoism as a central doctrine, which reminds all martial artists that we are on a path to excellence in following the Way of traditional taekwondo.
For many practitioners, me included, traditional taekwondo, if practiced with vigor, diligence and sincerity, provides many of the spiritual requirements found in formalized religion yet devoid of the complex dogma unique to such pursuits. Nevertheless, it is worthwhile remembering that the national Korean martial art is first and foremost an action philosophy and a physical endeavor supported by a rich underlying philosophy steeped in ancient wisdom.
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, all published by YMAA of Boston. He can be reached for lectures, workshops or questions at www.chosuntkd.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.