In July of 2014, I lead thirty enthusiastic teens and adults on a journey to Korea, the epicenter of the Korean martial arts. Our martial pilgrimage - because that truly is what it was - found us training throughout the entire Korean peninsula from Jeju Island in the south to Seoul City in the north and everywhere in between. Training venues included Dongyang Taekwondo in Jeju, Golgulsa Temple in Kyongju, the all-new
Taekwondowon in Muju, and the Kukkiwon and the Kumgang Taekwondo Center in
Seoul. But perhaps the most enlightening feature of this adventure was a visit
to the dojang of Grandmaster Kyu Hyun Lee situated in the tiny village of
Yangsu-ri, an hour’s drive west of Seoul.
|Master Cook and Grandmaster Lee|
I will never forget my first exposure to Grandmaster Lee. Paging through an early edition of the Kukkiwon Textbook in 1994, I took notice of a severe looking martial artist chosen to model the unique and effective techniques of taekwondo by virtue of his long experience and skilled attention to detail. Again, in 1998, this high-ranking practitioner would appear to me as a staff instructor in a promotional video for the Organizing Committee for Taekwondo Korea 2000. Seeing Grandmaster Kyu Hyun Lee in action rather than on the printed page convinced me beyond the shadow of a doubt that I would one day seek out his instruction. As destiny would have it, this was more difficult than expected.
In planning the 1999 United States Taekwondo Association Korea Tour with Grandmaster Richard Chun, I had inquired if Grandmaster Lee would be one of our teachers and was informed that his schedule did not coincide with our visit. Subsequently, in the initial planning stages of the 2004 Chosun Taekwondo Academy Training & Cultural Tour, I once more requested his talents; “Unavailable” was the response from Korea and so, disappointingly, I turned my gaze elsewhere. Then, a few short weeks before our departure in June 2004, I received a surprise email from our travel agent in Seoul stating that the grandmaster had accepted our group for a day of exclusive training provided we allow his senior instructors to assist. This stipulation took all of one minute to consider. Rather than a condition, it was truly a bonus! Since then, training with Grandmaster Lee has become a required component of our comprehensive itinerary and we have done so in 2007, 2010, 2012, and then in 2014.
Following breakfast at the Somerset Palace Hotel during one of our stays, we boarded a luxury motor coach and began the journey to Yangsu-ri. Our training in the “Land of the Morning Calm” to date had been challenging and highly rewarding, balanced between the martial art and combat sport of taekwondo. This day’s training, however, would focus on precise basic technique and the pursuit of excellence in poomsae, the formal exercises unique to taekwondo.
The metropolitan scenery flashed by as our guide directed us to turn our attention to several key points of interest along the way. Slowly, the urban sprawl began to thin as rice fields replaced the seemingly endless array of high rise apartment buildings. We exited the freeway and snaked our way through winding country roads barely wide enough to accommodate the width of our bus. A tiny, picturesque village eventually materialized with a gas station, restaurant and shops selling fish, garlic cloves and red peppers coupled with an assortment of daily needs.
Crossing a well-maintained concrete bridge minus guard rails that spanned a swiftly running brook, we went as far as our bus could take us. As the doors opened, I was the second person off after our driver who
was animatedly chatting with two gentlemen standing next
to a Hyundai (pronounced “shunday” in Korea) sedan. I was suddenly overwhelmed
with awe as I saw the grandmaster we had traveled over six-thousand miles to
train with before me. Single file, my students lined up and bowed. It is then
that the stern face I had only witnessed in photos and on film erupted into a
broad, welcoming smile and Grandmaster Lee invited us to follow him and his
instructors up a rutted dirt road. We passed a squat, single-story dwelling on our left that is his home, and then continue on a few steps to a red brick building with two sets of double doors thrown open to the outside that houses the grandmaster’s dojang and is headquarters to the World Taekwondo Instructor Academy. Inside, it was cool in stark contrast to the humid air that weighed heavy in the basin of the small valley. Instantly, we were enchanted by our surroundings. The floor was set with green puzzle-mat bordered in orange, and the walls adorned with memorabilia from a lifetime devoted to the Korean martial arts. In a neat row, over the doors, hung circular brass plates, tarnished with time, inscribed with the names of the original kwans, or martial arts schools established in the 1940s and 50s before the discordant styles were united to form taekwondo; names like the Moo Duk Kwan, Chung Do Kwan, and Oh Do Kwan, leapt out reminding us of the tenure and seniority Grandmaster Kyu Hyun Lee enjoys in the taekwondo community. Suspended on the far wall, in a black wooden frame, hung a scroll written in hangul characters reading: “A National Sport, Taekwondo”. Fifty of these icons were purportedly painted in the personal calligraphy of the late South Korean president, Chung Hee Park, father of the current president, in March of 1971. The majority, such as the one that was displayed before us, reside within the borders of Korea while the remaining few were distributed to master instructors throughout the world. One was exhibited in the New York City dojang of my teacher Grandmaster Richard Chun for over thirty years and, subsequently, was presented to our school as a treasured gift.
|Rice paddies in front of Grandmaster Lee's dojang|
With reverence, we quietly prepared to train by changing into our doboks and lining up, four across. Finally, there before us was the man the Kukkiwon had endorsed as the standard against which all practitioners of taekwondo should be compared for excellence in basic motions and poomsae. Moreover, Grandmaster Lee and his colleague, Master Kook Hyun Jung, were chosen by the World Taekwondo Federation and Kukkiwon to model in a series of instructional DVDs aimed at standardizing the Taegeuk and Kukkiwon-series black belt poomsae. These DVDs are intended to be used as reference tools in training referees, coaches, instructors and competitors to participate in the WTF Poomsae World Championships. Since then, Grandmaster Lee has gone on to earn numerous medals and citations in senior competition.
Both in the media and in person, Grandmaster Kyu Hyun Lee cuts a striking image; with a shock of white hair centered over the left eye, in concert with his drill sergeant demeanor, his presence is unmistakable. Although now in his early seventies, he moves like a cat. His flexibility, enthusiasm and strength are in direct proportion to his long years of
dedication to the art of taekwondo. He is currently president of
the World Taekwondo Instructor Academy. From 1990 to 1998, his abilities earned
him the position of Chairman of the Training Subcommittee, Kukkiwon, and prior
to that, from 1973 to 1982, he was head of the Kukkiwon Demonstration Team.
Knowing this, I respectfully approached him and offered up a letter of greeting
drafted by Grandmaster Chun introducing me as one of his senior students and
briefly describing my qualifications. He accepted it with the humility one
would expect from a man contented and secure with his place in the universe.
Returning to my position in line, I assumeed the joombi posture, bowed, and the training session officially began.
|Grandmaster Lee and Chosun students|
The tension our group was projecting immediately shattered as the grandmaster, smiling, began to wiggle from side to side, shaking his arms up and down in an effort meant to relax our taut bodies. Then, reminded to breathe, the standard warm up and flexibility exercises began in earnest. It appears that many of the more extreme postures were borrowed from the ancient discipline of hatha yoga and we began to perspire as the heat from our bodies warmed the room. We continued by working on technique that many would accuse of being far too simple in exchange for a six-thousand mile journey. Nevertheless, my students and I were so intrigued when the grandmaster reviewed the process of making a proper fist that we photographed the precision with which it was accomplished along with the wear and tear that was a result of striking solid objects for many years. Happily, our training did not stop there; front stance, back stance, middle blocks, knife hand blocks, front kicks, round and side kicks, are all scrutinized under the microscope of experience. A common thread running through the execution of every strike or block was the constant reminder to relax in our delivery and to tense at the point of impact, penetrating the target. The phrase, “relaxation and POWER!” was repeated over and over again by the instructors present reflecting the Korean martial arts doctrine of shin chook.
After several hours of uninterrupted training, a break was called and we congregated in small groups to compare notes and review what had been demonstrated. Some gravitated to the water cooler situated in a corner of the room for a sip of much-needed refreshment. There, the conversation turned to differences some were noticing in the fabric of instruction. However, before I could gain a better understanding concerning the root of these questions, we were commanded to reconvene.
At the close of the opening ritual, we again separated into groups according to belt rank and prepared for poomsae practice. Clearly, for black belts and color belts alike, no banquet had ever been as bountiful as that day’s forms practice; each student was afforded the opportunity to refine the basic skills contained within the poomsae unique to their belt level, either under the intense scrutiny of Grandmaster Lee or one of his accomplished instructors. I was working on poomsae Jitae while other black belts were focusing on Koryo, Keumgang, Taebaek and Pyongwon. I could still not believe that I was receiving private instruction from Grandmaster Kyu Hyun Lee who patiently explained the practical application of each movement of my form in conjunction with its proper
trajectory and chamber. From the corner of my eye, I glimpsed my students
receiving equal attention in analyzing the various Taegeuk poomsae, albeit with some minor alterations from what they
have become accustomed to. Although the Palgwe
set is not given any credence, the eight Taegeuk,
in tandem with the mandatory Kukkiwon black belt series poomsae, were
thankfully addressed in great detail. One refinement that I found of interest
was the first preparatory motion in poomsae Koryo
consisting of a pushing block, or momtang
milgi makki. Having performed this form both in class, in competition on
countless occasions and in the new DVD on the topic featuring Grandmaster Chun
and myself, I had become use to projecting my hands forward with palms facing
outward, thumbs a fraction of an inch apart, describing a triangle of sorts. Instead,
Grandmaster Lee directed us to extend the hands forward as before, but with the
palms turned inward and the thumbs slightly hooked similar to where they would
be placed when executing a knife hand technique, or sonnal. Although the practical application of this block is to
intercept an incoming head butt, it has several less obvious functions as well.
In our DVD and in his autobiographical book, Taekwondo: Spirit and Practice, Grandmaster Richard Chun states
that this technique, which he refers to as “barrel pushing block”, is a
physical expression of firmness and resoluteness, demonstrating the confidence
and strong will of the Korean people.
|Master Cook and Grandmaster Lee|
Yet, another surprising variance came in the form of the footwork used in front stance, or ap koobi, when stepping forward in combination with a variety of blocks and strikes. Rather than the crescent-step that is commonly taught in traditional taekwondo often resulting in a sweep, the instructors of the World Taekwondo Instructor Academy suggested that we move in a more linear fashion vaguely reminiscent of the sign-wave motion subscribed to by practitioners of the International Taekwon-Do Federation. Furthermore, when teaching the dynamics of the inside middle block, or ahn momtang makki, Grandmaster Lee’s execution can be defined as economy of motion. Manipulating our wrists with hands inculcated with knowledge, he described the proper height and fist rotation that adds to the efficiency of the technique.
Suddenly, as the day progressed, a potential dilemma began to gnaw at me as it must many instructors from time to time, and I sensed what it was my students were referring to earlier as “differences” in curriculum. Grandmaster Kyu Hyun Lee, as well as personnel from Kukkiwon and the Taekwondowon are attempting, at least on the surface, to introduce a subtle shift in the dynamic principles of taekwondo technique based on an advanced understanding of physics as it relates to body mechanics. A modern approach, authored by these entities, is being applied to footwork, power ratio and chambering while attempting to maintain the value of traditionalism at least in Grandmaster Lee’s case. That day in a small village surrounded by rice paddies, we were being exposed to technical variations that faintly contradicted the manner of execution we had become familiar with, forcing my students to politely ask: “What do we do now?” Buried in that question was an important lesson both for me and my colleagues. Traditional taekwondo is a cultural treasure chest; a vast mosaic filled with effective self-defense skills supported by a virtuous philosophy. Although the Korean discipline contains immutable tools such as the round kick, back fist and knife block to name a few, the manner in which these are performed may vary slightly from master to master. This fact does not corrupt the basic principles of taekwondo; rather it adds color and individuality to something that is an art rather an absolute science. Consequently, it is my desire to expose my students, at least those capable of sustaining an open mind, to the diversity inherent in taekwondo whether it is at home or abroad, resulting in what I hope will be perceived as an enhanced training experience overall. Having said this, however, it is to the teachings of my instructor, Grandmaster Richard Chun, that I remain faithful.
Finally, in comparison to prior visits to Korea, I could not have been more delighted with the direction our training was taking during this extraordinary martial pilgrimage. Thinking back, in candid discussions with several Korean practitioners during previous trips, I was told of a movement initiated by local masters to return from a strictly sportive approach, to a more holistic style of training including formal exercises and self-defense drills. Our experience at the dojang of Grandmaster Lee, and the days previous at other venues, confirmed the reality of this trend.
Training in the Land of the Morning Calm, whether under the direction of Grandmaster Kyu Hyun Lee or at other renowned institutes, is an experience the martial artist will embrace for a lifetime. Traveling to
South Korea on seven separate occasions has provided my students
with insights that have significantly amplified their cultural worldview and
technical skills hopefully eclipsing the potential for provincialism. It is a
journey every practitioner of taekwondo should consider making at some point
during their never-ending quest for ancient wisdom in the martial arts. Those
interested in joining us on our eighth martial pilgrimage to Korea in 2016,
should contact us at email@example.com. Our training tours are open to all
taekwondo practitioners from anywhere in the world.
|Chosun Taekwondo Academy students pose with Grandmaster Lee|
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. He recently led thirty students on his seventh martial pilgrimage to Korea. Master Cook can be reached for seminars, workshops or questions at www.chosuntkd.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.