Must the Instructor Always Wear A Dobok?

The dobok (and the belt) is not a talisman. It does not imbue its wearer with “special powers” that he did not have before donning the dobok. Still, it is a symbol of our Way…and really gets its meaning as we go through the bitter, the sweet, the sour and the spicy aspects of training and life.

White symbolizes purity, black symbolizes experience. As we train, as we learn and as we wade our way through the blood, sweat and tears, the dobok gets imbued with more and more meaning…indeed, with our very soul and spirit.

A new dobok, given to a white belt has yet to to “receive its spirit”, because the wearer’s own spirit itself has yet to be tempered in the fire of experience. That is why we as instructors have to teach them to respect their dobok and belt. As they go on their journey, hopefully they will gain lustre and strength through the tempering of training.

All true instructors would have gone through this and know what it means.

The sword of the samurai is said to be his soul…and yet a new sword is just so much tempered steel and nothing much else…except that it’s initial “spirit” would (I believe) carry some of the influence of the “life condition” of the master sword-maker at the time he made the sword. After that, the spirit of the sword depends entirely on the samurai himself. Likewise our doboks. The “spirit” of our doboks depend entirely on us.

If we take a frivolous attitude towards our training, then our doboks would not have much meaning for us. If we take a meaningful approach to our training, then our doboks would have much meaning for us.

Still, our doboks are just symbols…they are not “gods” that must be appeased at all costs. The meaning of our doboks is the meaning we give them. The man (and the woman) makes the dobok, not the other way around. So, while we must respect our doboks, we must not be constrained by a narrow interpretation of their meanings. As I said in another post somewhere, we must give our students Roots and Wings. Our doboks give us some of the Roots of our tradition, and at the same time, should encourage us to sprout Wings that free us to explore.

To me, training in the dobok is a time we connect with the Roots and Traditions of our Teachers, while training without the dobok is a time we give ourselvs freedom explore not only techniques and tactics, but also freedom of mind and spirit. 

Both ways are messages to our students: 1) Respect tradition and teachers, and 2) Be free and find your own Way.

Both must be present in a true martial artist.

There is some truth to what the ohters have said about “dobok = traditional Taekwondo”, while non-dobok (i.e. sportswear = sport Taekwondo)

Let me explain my perspective.

When I teach MA fundamentals (or when a class focuses on fundamentals), I always wear a dobok (or gi). Students will know when I’m dead serious and will brook no deviation from the standard. No talking, no running, no playing, no deviation. Keep quiet and do as I say (Not that I always succeed in this, but I try…lol). All in all, the class will be somewhat formal and a bit sombre and students usually dare not do much “out-of-the-box” or try new things. That’s what I want in a MA fundamentals class.

But when I’m focusing on sports fundamentals or tactics/techniques, then an informal (non-dobok) session works better. For one thing, *I* would not be so “strict-serious”. This relaxes the athletes. We know, of course, that stress interferes with performance. The very sight of me wearing sports wear relaxes them and tells them that they are expected to train and perform correctly, but they’re allowed to make mistakes, try new things, be adventurous.

My sport-focused classes are always loud and spirited and most times filled with students’laughter. My formal classes are somehwat more…well.. formal. Same students, different focus, different moods.

Dobok and non-dobok training…both have their uses…and a place in the modern instructor’s program.

Sport Taekwondo Vs. “Traditional” Taekwondo

The Korean national team using new technology to enhance their training

Old-school-new-school-no-school (whatever) are (to me) false dichotomies that arise only because of the improper or inadequate focus/emphasis of both sides of the divide (martial art vs martial sport). Every sport has its technical fundamentals (proper technique, power, execution, skill, character — oops, sound familiar?) that must be attained in order to play that sport at the highest level. And every martial art has IT’s own technical fundamentals (proper technique, power, execution, skill, character –again, oops, sound familiar?)

The fundamentals of any martial art must never be compromised, of course. However, putting aside the “fighting” aspects of the martial arts and the “win-at-all-cost” mentality of modern sports, we see profound similarities between the practice and focus of martial arts training and (true) sports. The focus on proper technique, power, precision, attitude, etc., in the physical dimensions of both sports and martial arts indirectly inculcates their mental/psychological equivalent in the athlete.

Compare Michael Jordan with Morio Higaoona and, below the surface, you might find great similarities in their psychological and character make-ups, in spite of the vast differences in their physical and technical skills.

Michael jordan throws hoops. Sensei Higaoon throws punches — and people — but both showed great dedication, focus, discipline, character, integrity, etc., et. in their “games” and their lives.

I would be hard put to find a so-called “traditional instructor” who would put in the kind of training, time and intensity of many of the top athletes at any level. When I was coaching state Taekwondo athletes, they trained six days a week, three times a day, and some traveled 30 miles every day to attend training. Weekends were either off-days or used for recreational activities (e.g., swimming, futsal, volleyball or just plain ‘ol play-catch).

I have never met any “master” who had put in that kind of effort or showed that kind of dedication.

Some “train” (read: go through the motions, a few punches here, a few kicks there) once a week or hardly train at all, and then lament that the “old ways” have gone down the drain. What old ways? Riding on camels? What?

I grant that there may be masters around who train with dedication every day (me, I train only three times a week, and hardly at the same intensity of the ahtletes), but I have not met them personally (yet).

In any case, the prevalence of sports (whether combat or otherwise) make them the ideal vehicles to inculcate the values of sportsmanship (which, I believe, are not that much different from the values that traditional martial arts try to inculcate) and the lessons of focus, dedication, etc., etc. In fact, I’d say that the average tennis or hockey player (or cheerleader, for goodness sake) who is trying to make the team is infinitely more disciplined and dedicated than the kid who attends a “traditional self-defense Taekwondo class” once a week.

Oh yeah, I would much prefer MY kid to attend a Taekwondo or Karate class where the instructor teaches them Sport Taekwondo or Sport Karate than one who teaches 5-year-old’s (or 14-year-old’s, as the case may be) “self-defense”. The first one will (hopefully) teach my kid the value of sportsmanship, focus, discipline — and even the “ecstasy of victory and the agony of defeat”, while the latter might get him killed because of false confidence in their “self-defense” skills.

There are, of course, many shades of instructors and coaches in between, and I’d be the first to admit that what I have written above is a generalization (or over-generalization) and is not representative of all instructors

And don’t get me started on “masters” who go, “Sports science? Naw, I don’t need all that stuff. Doesn’t work anyway. You know, back when I started, we kicked buffaloes for sandbags…”

These “masters” conveniently forget and leave out that Sensei Funakoshi walked miles in moonlight to get to his teachers place. I don’t see them walking, do you?

Hehehe…end of rant.

Namaste…

Poomsae/Kata Is Like Poetry

Pyongwon Poomsae

Poomsae/kata is like poetry.

It’s about feel, about rhythm, about the beauty of performance.

Just as there are “expert” critics of poetry who can elucidate and pontificate on the merits. demerits and technical nuances of a piece of poem but who would never become poets themselves, who could never produce a piece that would touch the heart and soul of a reader, there are “expert” judges of kata who would never move an audience with an almost mystical and beautiful rendition of a kata.

A poomsae must be felt.

Perhaps that is why you would never (possibly) find a (theoretically qualified) kata or poomsae judge who can perform at that level. It would be a different story if a Rika Usami, or Luca Valdessi or Antonio Diaz became a judge after retiring from active competition. These are the people who “KNOWS” kata and feel it in their bones.

A too analytical approach to poomsae (just as with poetry) would render that poomsae “dry”. Like a poem, it could be technically technically “perfect”, fitting all the rules and requirements, but it would not be felt — by the audience.

That is the vast difference between good kata and GREAT kata (just like poetry and dancing)

And just because someone is a qualified judge (poomsae or kyorugi) does not mean he or she is a better Taekwondoist than you. He would certainly try to steer the game in that direction (making it seem he’s better than you), but now you know better.

You are on your own Path, your own process, just as he is on his own. There is no comparison.

Taekwondo must be felt. And if you “feel” it, then you are truly “doing” Taekwondo.

Namaste…

“You Will Always Be My Teacher”

MéditationYou will always be my Teacher.

Whether you have taught me Taekwondo, Aikido, Karate, Wing Chun, Boxing, or Jujutsu for one day, one week, one month or one decade, you had been my Teacher, and hence I will forever be tied to you in spirit as Teacher and Student.

No matter how old I get, or how good I get or how famous (or infamous) I get, you will always be my Teacher. It is a fact that cannot be denied. If you have even shared one morsel of knowledge and wisdom with me, and I have been enabled to take that morsel and apply it to be a wiser and more honorable person, then you have been my Teacher.

Moreso if you have taken your precious Art and share not only the essence of your Art but also your Wisdom, your Heart and your Soul with me, then you have been my Teacher, and forever more my Teacher you shall be.

I shall honor you as best I can, and never will I bring disrepute to your name. I shall try my utmost to make your name a fragrant perfume wafting through the circles that know me, and because they know me, they shall know you; and that you, my Teacher, produce Students of the highest character.

If I fail in this, it is only because of my own failure, and not because of the insufficiency of your Teaching.

And whoever you are, wherever you may be, know that if you have taught me some part of your Art, then you are my Teacher, and I bow deeply to you…and thank you from my deepest heart.

Namaste…Teacher.

Why Practise?

Why do you practice Taekwondo (or any other martial art)?

Because of money? Health? Fitness? Competition? Position? Politics? All are valid reasons.

But consider this…

When you’re sixty or seventy or eighty, would you still have a “life practice”? Would you still be practising your Taekwondo or karate or Wing Chun or Aikido, even if there were no longer any monetary rewards, or position, or “pangkat” or whatever?

Would you practise your art like those people who are designated “national treasures” in their respective countries, practising for the love of the art, and for the purpose of “Walking the Way”? (though I doubt that any of us would be designated “national treasures”…hehehe)

In other words, would you still be “doing” Taekwondo? Would you still have a Practice?

Think about it ;-)

“You Must Leave”

There comes a time in your martial life when the Master says, “You must now leave this valley of ours, and climb the mountains beyond the horizon”. Sometimes that Master is an actual living, breathing person. Other times that Master lies within you.

No matter. At that time you can only kneel and give one last bow, and then you must leave, never to return.

But you carry the gratitude in your heart, till the end of your days on earth.

Ultimately, that is the Path of every martial artist.

“So We Can See The Sun Rise At Dawn”

A pilgrim was walking a long road when one day he passed what seemed to be a monk sitting in a field. Nearby, men were working on a stone building.

“You look like a monk,” the pilgrim said.

“I am that,” said the monk.

“Who is that working on the abbey?”

“My monks,” said the man. “I’m the abbot.”

“It’s good to see a monastery going up,” said the pilgrim.

“They’re tearing it down,” said the abbot.

“Whatever for?” asked the pilgrim.

“So we can see the sun rise at dawn,” said the abbot

(Thomas Moore)

A perfect commentary and recommendation for our harried and stressed “rush-hour” life.

Whether in personal or organizational life, we are continually trying to “build-up” abbeys that serve no real purpose except to clutter our lives, when we should be tearing them down, or better yet, not building them at all.

So too in our Taekwondo practice. We focus on seemingly monolithic abbeys that cloud our innate wisdom rather than on seeing the rising sun at dawn.

So too in our martial arts organizations. We continue to build abbeys of partisan politics, hell-bent on gaining or retaining power over others (or just to assuage our fragile egos) instead of tearing down the walls that separate our humanity.

We should be sitting together, watching the sun rise at the dawn of a shared vision and purpose. Instead, we are building our own small, little “abbey” which turns out to be dungeons that imprison our hearts, filled with demons and dragons of our own making.

Come, my friends. Let us tear down the abbeys, and let us watch the sun rise again at dawn. In our practice, Taekwondo is that sun, and the dawn is our shared vision of seeing Taekwondo evolve and progress continually.

Forget the politics, leave behind the “them and us”. There is just We.

Namaste…