[Viewpoint] Searching for true martial arts spiritI have been drawn toward disciplines like taekwondo and karate ever since I was first introduced to them in 1984. I cannot explain my fascination with or devotion to the martial arts any more than I can describe the necessity to breathe; I simply must do both. Thus, it was not a surprise that when I first stepped foot on Korean soil, I hastily sought a quality martial arts school. Over the years I have accomplished my primary ambition for living here: to learn about and from Koreans in hopes of bettering my life. Yet, not surprisingly, the one aspect of my Korean life that continues to reshape and redefine who I am is the martial arts.
Prior to living here, I had studied taekwondo for over a decade but was disappointed in the non-traditional and kindergarten-like atmosphere I saw in the taekwondo studios in Korea. My previous taekwondo instructors taught me the rigorous discipline that is needed to fully utilize the beauty created in this art. One example of their hard training is the fact that I trained continuously for over seven years before I was asked to test for my black belt.
Here in Korea, however, students receive a black belt within a year and most, at least to my eyes, cannot correctly remember basic posture. I also saw instructors who sat behind desks while children performed choreographed routines that resembled modern dance more than martial arts training. While these instructors were successful businessmen, what they were missing was the genuine spirit of martial arts, something I believe all martial arts classes must possess.
Since then, I have learned that in the West, a black belt means that a student has mastered the fundamentals of a martial art. But here, a black belt implies someone has learned its basic movements. Although I initially thought this difference lost the “tao” (or “way”) in taekwondo, I now see it as an intriguing aspect of how the art has changed across the globe.
I could not find a taekwondo instructor after many weeks of searching for someone who would take me to my next level of training. Reluctantly, I decided to follow my American instructor’s advice and walk into a hapkido studio near my home. There, I finally found the spirit of martial arts that I desired.
I started training and quickly found the other students did not treat me as a foreigner, but as a fellow martial artist. Time, injuries and ranks have all passed since that first lesson in March 1999, but my fascination with hapkido has never ceased. I broke through cultural, political and language barriers as I mastered how to strike, twist and throw other hapkido fellows under the Jeongmu studio roof. I have even had the honor of helping the art grow by volunteering at the Korea Hapkido Federation in various international liaison positions, organizing hapkido demonstrations at Yongsan Military Base and along the DMZ, and assisting the production of an episode of “Fight Quest” that appeared on the Discovery Channel.
All in all, Master Cho Young-sup taught me more than just how to inflict pain on someone. He showed me how to find inner peace and spirituality in martial arts. In this sense, it was only under his guidance that I was taken to that next step in my training: to understanding the evolving stages of personal martial arts development from martial technique to arts to tao.
My favorite memories, however, are when I sat discussing hapkido with Master Cho, and his excitement about the art grew uncontainable. He often threw his hardened fists at the desk, walls and even at me. If I was not careful, I went home with a couple of extra bruises than I bargained for that day. Some may find this behavior odd, but my instructor only allows himself to show his excitement around a few people. While it may not always feel good to be hit, it is a wonderful feeling to be trusted in this way. Yes, the master knows I can take a hit, but more than that, he knows that we share the same love for martial tao.
Now, as I look back at my hapkido life, I realize the proudest moments I have are not the certificates and pictures on my wall, but the moments when I was teaching in the studio. At first, Koreans usually wonder why an American is teaching their art. Without exception, the cynics have learned I am there for the same reason Master Cho was there for me: to help.
As I trained in hapkido, I never turned my back on taekwondo; I just practiced by myself at home. In fact, one of the most important lessons hapkido taught me was that all martial artists, regardless of style, grow physically, mentally and spiritually. I realized by studying both arts that “Everyone is equal in the studio.” Likewise, I do not feel I am ignoring hapkido as I pursue a taekwondo doctoral degree from Kyunghee University. Instead, I see myself gaining new tools to understand and grow in both arts.
I will keep these lessons I learned from Master Cho and others that have so enriched my life. Although I cannot escape the irony of using a combative art to teach peace, the emphasis on balance and harmony in Korean culture is not lost on me. I know that by teaching my students to stabilize their aggressions with the quiet confidence found in martial tao, I will also be helping them rediscover the innate peace that lies within their hearts.
* The author holds a fourth-degree black belt in taekwondo and a fifth-degree black belt in hapkido.
by John A. Johnson