Friday, January 22, 2016

In the Shadow of a Grandmaster by Doug Cook

Grandmaster Richard Chun and Master Doug Cook
appeared in Totally Taekwondo Magazine April, 2015 Issue #74

     I consider myself and the students I teach fortunate indeed; not simply because we are graced with a comfortable, clean, and culturally focused training environment, but because we are a member of an elite organization under the direction of a world-renowned grandmaster who promotes a traditional style of taekwondo. In today’s world of mixed martial arts and schools boasting curricula “so simple a child can do it”, we sometimes forget the value this inheritance offers. The legacy we as a school enjoy not only reflects the comprehensive nature of taekwondo, but extends to the personalities who molded our discipline through its formative years on up to the present.
     It is no secret that the roots of taekwondo were greatly influenced by Japanese Shotokan karate-do as well as various forms of Chinese fighting arts. Furthermore, there currently exists a clear delineation between the traditional martial art of taekwondo and its sportive mate firmly based on Olympic-style sparring. Nevertheless, the present state of taekwondo as it applies to both the defensive art and world sport, coupled with the outstanding success it has achieved as the most popular martial discipline in the world today, is unquestionably linked to the masters and grandmasters native to the Korean peninsula that have refined and transmitted its unique set of techniques and philosophical doctrines over the decades. Subsequently, maintaining a relationship with an elder instructor having a direct link to the founders of the art nurtures respect for heritage in tandem with technical accuracy - benefits that cannot be overstated.
     Establishing a modern martial art based on the elements of other traditional disciplines may have its benefits as evidenced by the popularity of jeet kune do - the martial art created by the late Bruce Lee. Yet, in today’s age of internet certification and canned, commercialized curricula, it is far too easy to pick and choose techniques that highlight the physical abilities of an individual instructor, leaving out countless defensive strategies that require years to refine in the process. In many cases the long range efficacy of these endeavors turn out to be questionable at best causing students to question the authenticity of their art. Pitfalls like this can be avoided by following in the footsteps of an experienced and legitimate grandmaster that supports a combat-proven discipline based on tradition.
     Training under a grandmaster that is an acknowledged source of traditional skills is akin to being in possession of the original copy of an important document displaying clear and concise print. Undisputedly accurate in its current iteration, copies of this document, particularly those many generations later, are certain to diminish in quality resulting in distortion and possible misinterpretation. The same principle holds true when learning a kick, block or strike. A simple twist of the wrist, turn of the hip, or snap of the leg, passed on by a human vessel with decades of experience can make the difference between the mediocre execution of a basic technique and a stunning demonstration of defensive skill. The flawless transmission of poomsae, or formal exercises, dramatically reflects this belief. While a great majority of the modern forms have been exhaustively cataloged both in print and on the web, many of the traditional hyung dating back decades in not centuries, are left to the mercy of memorization. Here is where the golden relationship between venerated master and worthy disciple clearly begins to materialize. A legitimate grandmaster with roots firmly planted in decades of Korean martial arts practice, who has doubtlessly performed advanced poomsae hundreds if not thousands of times, has the capacity to correct even the most minute detail within a given form. Yet, left unattended, the practitioner will innocently promulgate error while infecting others ultimately causing the execution of the poomsae over time to stray further and further from the core of its original intent. Grandmasters with an eye for the more traditional components of the taekwondo curriculum are also more likely to focus on authentic training in il su sik (one-step sparring), ho sin sool (self-defense techniques), meditation, and ki development exercises as well

      Moreover, accumulated wisdom is generally a function of age. While there exists many youthful, talented grandmasters, acquired skill of this magnitude is generally attributed to those of advanced years. Time has a tendency of tempering ones outlook on a discipline such as taekwondo making the grandmaster, in many cases, a teacher who is demanding yet compassionate, high in expectations yet forgiving of frailty. He or she is a fountain of knowledge, an advisor at times imparting thoughtful counsel and, as is the case with our grandmaster, a single, unifying symbol of a global organization. Physically, even those of senior rank, years older than their students, can inspire and elicit respect through the execution of basic technique performed effortlessly. 
      Accepting the leadership of a grandmaster furthermore removes the potential of being hindered by a provincial world view of taekwondo. For the master instructor of a dojang not located in a large metropolitan area, interaction with colleagues can be minimal at best. Therefore, grandmasters with ties to others in the taekwondo community have the ability of introducing their loyal students to peers of equal seniority and interests thus opening the door to new relationships and unforeseen possibilities. Often a confederation of master instructors under the umbrella of a noted grandmaster can lead to mutual training experiences, seminars, association tournaments, and even trips to Korea – the homeland of taekwondo.
     But at the end of the day, it is important to remember that the grandmaster is still only a human being commensurate with all the shortcomings that station entails. Students often mistakenly elevate the grandmaster to messianic proportions leaving themselves open to the dual specters of disappointment and disillusionment should their failings become evident. Therefore, just as the grandmaster showers his charges with understanding so, too, must the student exhibit consideration in matters concerning passions of the heart.
    Some would assert, similar to a flower deprived of sunlight whose growth and hue is limited by the overhanging branches of some great tree, that a master instructor’s rate of maturity can be hindered by the influence of a seemingly oppressive grandmaster. Yet there are vines and flowers that flourish in shade without the benefit of direct sunlight. Likewise, the humble master, and thus his or her students, can flourish in the shadow of a grandmaster whose sincere intent is to promote the martial art of taekwondo through the inculcation of wisdom, compassion, and technical excellence.

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 Korea tours, seminars, workshops or questions at or

1 comment:

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