by Mark McNutt - Brown Belt Essay
Light, water, fire, earth, the peacefulness of a lake, the stability of a mountain, the intimidating effect of thunder, the duality of wind that can alter between soothing and destructive: connect these to poomsae and what was once a mere workout for the body becomes exercise for the mind and spirit as well. What Taekwondo and the I Ching have in common is that they are both meant to be a way of life. The I Ching is just a book until it is lived by a person who moves and talks and thinks and interacts with other people; Taekwondo poomsae is merely a series of defense moves, not thatpractical for daily living, until it is imbued with the spiritual and ethical philosophies of its founders.
The I Ching, also known as The Book of Changes, was originally composed by the Taoist sage Fu Hsi and became a cornerstone of Taoism; Confucius later amended it. Taoism and Confucianism were two of the philosophies that the ancient Korean warrior the Hwarang, forerunners of Taekwondo, embraced. I believe its safe to say that here the original connection between the I Ching and Taekwondo was made. But it was centuries later that someone solidified this connection by putting sixteen specific Taekwondo forms, the eight Taeguek forms and the eight Palgwe forms, together with the I Ching’s eight trigrams. Their motives for doing so are clear. They wanted the body and the mind and the spirit to come together and be as complete as the yin/yang philosophy that is at the heart of the I Ching and in turn at the heart of the Korean culture. They wanted each student of Taekwondo to be a living representation of the yin/yang symbol where the negative and positive of everything is represented by two complete halves forming a perfect circle.
So today, each Taeguek and Palgwe poomse has its correlating I Ching symbol. Taeguek Il Jang along with Palgwe Il Jang have Heaven and Light; Taeguek Ee Jang along with Palgwe Ee Jang have Joy and Lake, and so on. As with most things spiritual, we are handed down established interpretations by teachers and sages, then encouraged to have enlightenments of our own. I shall approach the meaning of the I Ching symbols with this in mind.
Il Jang - Heaven and Light
Here is the concept of Pure Yang. It points to the Creative Force that lies behind everything. The actual I Ching interpretation is Sky; to me that suggests openness, perhaps openness to learning and the spontaneous creative process that arises thereof.
Ee Jang - Joy or Lake
Non-aggressive. Serene. Gentle. Spiritually uplifting. This seems to point directly to meditation and the meditative way of life. Our spirit, like water in a lake, reacts to agitation. When left alone, both water and spirit will revert to their natural state, that of serenity, which can also be interpreted as joy.
Sam Jang - Fire and Sun
This suggests great energy, something that is very lively and unpredictable. In contrast the sun by day and a fire at night can be a source of consistent warmth and comfort. It is interesting to note that the forms that coincide with these symbols are very different from each other. Taegeuk Sam Jang contains quick double punches and ends with a complicated series of low blocks, front kicks, and middle punches; whereas Palwge Sam Jang has no kicks, only singular punches, and at times draws on the elementary and therefore comfortable forms of Kicho Il and Kicho Ee.
As for a personal meaning, I think I spot a bit of yin/yang humor here in this sense. That while we aspire to be quiet, calm and peaceful, like a lake or the glowing sun, we must avoid boring those around us. Amidst our tranquility, we must embrace the unpredictability of fire, its vibrancy, its spontaneity. That way we attract life to us, rather than cause life to sit back and yawn.
Sa Jang - Thunder
A storm and the danger it can bring – Thunder gives this a voice. The yin and yang of this of this has to do with courage in the face of danger. Thunder can make a person cringe, and yet by itself it is harmless. The disrupting effect of a kihop is one way of putting an attacker off-balance, but then it must be followed by action. Thunder reminds us to be prepared for action and to be on guard about losing our focus. Courage can be described as a mental and spiritual action, the ideal stance for facing thunder. Courage has the wisdom to know that trials will pass like a thunderstorm.
Oh Jang - Wind
The yin and yang qualities of Wind are obvious. It is sometimes forceful, sometimes gentle; sometimes it pierces through, sometimes it is yielding; sometimes it is destructive and sometimes soothing. I was born in the Nashville region, part of Dixie Alley, the Tornado Alley of the South; I am very aware of the destructive power of wind. Also, the humidity in summer can be overwhelming there, but a gentle breeze can be the ideal answer for it. A poomse flows and if done meditatively, it can have a soothing effect upon the performer and perhaps upon observers; yet its movements are intended for battle situations where one must be destructive in order to prevent destruction to oneself or to others.
Yook Jang - Water
This is the idea of acceptance, flow, and consistency. Even the idea of forgiveness is here, for being unforgiving creates impasses in one’s path. A person must be malleable to life. As it has been said in the dojang, water flows downhill and takes the path of least resistance. Unlike the water of Ee Jang’s lake, this water is moving and meeting obstacles head on and becoming what the situation requires.
A Taekwondoist must accept whatever an attack demands and take the proper shape for defense, while at the same time looking for an opening to flow into with a counter-attack. Poomse done properly must flow and be as pleasing to the eye as the motion of a stream. It has been noted that the consistency of flowing water can in time smooth down the rough edges of rocks and even carve out canyons; a student with a black belt is simple a student with a white belt who has had their rough edges worn away by consistency.
Chil Jang - Mountain
My first inclination is to say that this is about stability, perhaps the stability of knowing one’s own mind or the stability of maintaining a healthy and balanced life. In Taekwondo there is the physical stability of its stances that act as launching pads for all of its moves. There are also the five tenets of Taekwondo that encourage stability in day-to-day life.
However, upon studying I discovered a different meaning. The actual I Ching interpretation is Top Stop. In Master Cook’s book Ancient Wisdom for the Modern Warrior this is described as “the wisdom of knowing when and where to stop, as if one is traveling up a steep mountain.” Coming at it from that angle, I believe this is about setting your own pace, working toward your personal best, reaching for your own goals and not for the goals someone else has set for you.
Pal Jang - Earth
Here is the concept of pure yin. It marks the wholeness of opposites coming together to form perfect balance. Taeguek Pal Jang and Palgwe Pal Jang equal completeness. They are the last forms before obtaining black belt status. Earth represents physical creation, the final result of what was begun with Heaven and Light. Earth must be yielding in the creative process in order to be solid in the end.
As a final note I will make the observation that like the I Ching, poomse is best when it is internalized. It is good to think, ‘The I Ching says, therefore I should do’, but it is even better to simply do. When a certain form is in my mind’s memory, I can execute it accurately: but when it is in the memory of my muscles, it frees my mind to go elsewhere, perhaps into those spaces in between thoughts where the act of meditation lies. But a form should never be mechanical: therefore, its philosophy must be absorbed as well. Then instinctively an advanced student performing poomse can have excitement like fire, can flow like water, can express inner joy, can be forceful like the wind, can inspire courage like thunder, can know when to start and stop like a mountain climber, and know when to yield like earth. When I think of the totality of Yin/Yang, from Heaven and Light, the act of creation, to Earth, the creation itself, I realize that a poomse that was created for students is not finished until a student performs it. Only then is it a complete and solid creation. In the same way Traditional Taekwondo is not complete until a student lives it in and out of the dojang. Thanks to the influence of the I Ching students have something to carry away with them, something that will help their daily lives be as balanced as the Yin and Yang symbol is to the eye.