The Tao of Taekwondo

Notes and reflections from a deeper practice of traditional taekwondo

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Art of War 1.19-1.24

"Hence, when able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near. Hold out baits to entice the enemy. Feign disorder, and crush him. If he is secure at all points, be prepared for him. If he is in superior strength, evade him. If your opponent is of choleric temper, seek to irritate him. Pretend to be weak, that he may grow arrogant. If he is taking his ease, give him no rest. If his forces are united, separate them. Attack him where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected."

A manual for kyrogi strategy, stemming from the principle of deception:

  1. Be active within, but hide your activity
  2. Be within range but seem out of range.
  3. Offer a target you can cover and counter attack when the bait is taken.
  4. Appear unbalanced and then strike.
  5. Be defensive if your opponent is too strong.
  6. If you find an opening that causes mindlessness, work it.
  7. Let your opponent think you are weaker than you are, an adopt a counter attacking stance.
  8. Split offence and defence. Don't let your opponent defend all the time, don't let your opponent attack all the time. Make it complicated.
  9. Use motions to feint and be in unexpected places, crowding your opponent or lurking just out of reach.

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Sunday, July 29, 2007

Art of War 1.18

"All warfare is based on deception."
Bruce Lee says "Attack by deception, especially, is the attack of the master." Deception, when well executed, tires your opponent's resources which need to be employed and split between the attention to the moment and the attention to the alternative moment. Your opponent guesses, you remain sure. Your opponent loses her mind. You open up choices.


Art of War 1.16-1.17

"While heading the profit of my counsel, avail yourself also of any helpful circumstances over and beyond the ordinary rules. According as circumstances are favorable, one should modify one's plans."

Taekwondo is not an abstract art, it is a method of physical engagement with an opponent that is grounded in the real circumstances of the moment. There is no amount of theory or abstraction that will prepare you for a real fight. In the moment, all theory must be already be internalized and the execution of techniques must be in accordance with any advantage that is afforded to the practitioner. Pre-determined strategies might only help prepare one. Slavish attention to the game plan shades the prctitioner's senses from apprehending the real opportunities.


Friday, July 27, 2007

Art of War 1.12-1.15

"Therefore, in your deliberations, when seeking to determine the military conditions, let them be made the basis of a comparison, in this wise:

  1. Which of the two sovereigns is imbued with the Moral law?
  2. Which of the two generals has most ability?
  3. With whom lie the advantages derived from Heaven and Earth?
  4. On which side is discipline most rigorously enforced?
  5. Which army is stronger?
  6. On which side are officers and men more highly trained?
  7. In which army is there the greater constancy both in reward and punishment?
By means of these seven considerations I can forecast victory or defeat. The general that hearkens to my counsel and acts upon it, will conquer: --let such a one be retained in command! The general that hearkens not to my counsel nor acts upon it, will suffer defeat: --let such a one be dismissed! "

In kyrogi or a self-defence encounter, these seven considerations may come into play. In taekwondo it is this way:

  1. Which of the opponents has trained within his limitations and acts in accordance with time?
  2. Who has the most raw ability, the best skills, the quicker reflexes and the more devastating speed and power?
  3. Which opponent is able to respond best to the external conditions and make the best choices in the moment of the encounter?
  4. Which has trained with more discipline, understanding the essence of each move, having broken down the mechanics of every technique to find efficiencies and to find extraneous motions and pare them away? Whoever has engaged in this level of training and mastery has a definite advantage.
  5. Which opponent is the stronger both physically and emotionally? Strength of heart and indomitable spirit is as important as physical strength and perhaps even more so. In Victor Frankl's book, Man's Search for Meaning, this point is made clear. The prisoners who survived Nazi concentration camps were of stronger mind and heart than those who were of stronger body. While physical strength mattered the inner strength more often determined the survivor.
  6. Training for the encounter is a predictor of success. With no self-defence training, a taekwondoin is unable to respond to a self-defence situation. With no sparring tactics a player is not ready for kyrogi.
  7. The final point is about learning. Which opponent knows himself or herself better? Which is able to learn from and adjust to mistakes, errors, ineffective or inefficient techniques? Which has provided incentives for him or herself to improve in areas that are weak?
If we are to follow Sun Tzu's advice, training in these seven considerations leads to us developing an overall competence in our art.

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Thursday, July 26, 2007

Art of War 1.9-1.11

"The COMMANDER stands for the virtues of wisdom, sincerely, benevolence, courage and strictness. By METHOD AND DISCIPLINE are to be understood the
marshaling of the army in its proper subdivisions, the graduations of rank among the officers, the maintenance of roads by which supplies may reach the army, and the control of military expenditure. These five heads should be familiar to every general: he who knows them will be victorious; he who knows them not will
fail. "

Again the division of the one tao into two. The inner world of virtue and right view (in the Buddhist sense) combined with the outer worlds of right action. In taekwondo these might translate into a proper attitude combined with the method and discipline required to master techniques and tools. One informs the other.

Our school operates with a moral code that involves an oath, an acknowledgement to the tenets of taekwondo and a four part philosophy of patience, love, respect and humility. When techniques are learned within the context of a code of honour, the fighting and self-defense system becomes translated into a way of life. When techniques are learned without a code, one grows aggressive and mean spirited and irresponsible. The code provides restraint that mitigates the methods and discipline to create an art of peace and not one of war. THe art of war is the art of peace, practiced in balanced with these five constant factors.


Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Art of War 1.7-1.8

HEAVEN signifies night and day, cold and heat, times and seasons. EARTH comprises distances, great and small; danger and security; open ground and narrow passes; the chances of life and death.

The ephemeral and the creative juxtaposed against the grounded and the practical. If you think of these as conditions of engagement, then heaven is the interior and creative conditions of the opponent and earth is the ground upon which you engage. The tao is the undifferentiated source of action, immediately divided into these two, the interior and the exterior, that which is out of your control and that which is under your control. There can be no choices about what heaven brings, but what earth brings is all about choices. Mastering both is the way to be completely a master of taekwondo. In training this means learning about the unpredictability of time and flow, training one to sense and take advantage of openings, and making good choices to not place yourself in danger. It could look like this:

Training in the conditions of heaven

  • Working on timing and quickness
  • Working with self-defense techniques to respond to an attack
  • Developing a sense of flow in kyrogi
  • Reading an opponent
  • Meditation to still one's mind and empty one's expectations that conditions will be those you desire. This is about acquainting yourself to work with reality.
Training in the conditions of earth
  • Making good choices to avoid confrontation. In our dojang we learn the six A's of self defence: awareness, avoidance, adrenal control, assertiveness, action, adjustment.
  • Being aware of the best places to strike an opponent, and the best places to keep covered. In simple practice, this means keeping your guard up while attacking. In more advanced practice it means striking precisely in vulnerable places, such as pressure points and debilitating bio-mechanical processes.
  • In kyrogi, training in strategy and tactics to take advantage of of timing and openings and favourable conditions.
  • Meditation to visualize techniques so that one can internalize patterns in order to support good choices in self-defense situations.

Photo by The Wandering Angel

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Monday, July 23, 2007

Art of War 1.5-1.6

The MORAL LAW causes the people to be in complete accord with their ruler, so that they will follow him regardless of their lives, undismayed by any danger.

In the personal case, the moral law is the tao, and the ruler is the dynamic principles of taegeuk. If you are alinged with the tao, and are obidient to the dynamic forces embodied in th etaegeuk, you will attain the courage needed to stand in the face of any opponent. You are confident to know that you can flow forward or backward as the case requires, and you avoid flinching in the face of attack.

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Art of War 1.3-1.4

The art of war, then, is governed by five constant factors, to be taken into account in one's deliberations, when seeking to determine the conditions obtaining in the field. These are: (1) The Moral Law; (2) Heaven; (3) Earth; (4) The Commander; (5) Method and discipline.

We'll get more into each of these, but this section reminds me that taekwondo as a whole style and as an art can be grounded also in high level principles. We talk of the tenets of taekwondo: Courtesy, Integrity, Perseverance, Self-Control and Indomitable Spirit. In our dojang we also have a philosophy of Patience, Love, Respect and Humilty and we have an oath which we recite together at the beginning of a training session:

  1. I shall follow my conscience
  2. I shall have peace of mind
  3. I shall have a sound body
  4. I shall fulfill my duty
  5. I shall have etiquette
  6. I shall express my love for others
  7. I shall increase my knowledge
  8. I shall have happiness
  9. I shall have an indomitable spirit.
When I first started practicing taekwondo, the philosophical and ethical context was very important to me, and it still is. When we train in deadly arts within this context, it deepens the physical practice and grounds it in a serious ethical and moral practice. The art of war and the way of war is a serious undertaking, and it is not merely a collection of physical techniques and tactics. It is grounded in a world view that serves life, peace and balance.

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Sunday, July 22, 2007

Art of War 1.1 - 1.2

"The art of war is of vital importance to the State. It is a matter of life and death, a road either to safety or to ruin. Hence it is a subject of inquiry which can on no account be neglected."
This begins a series of relections on Taoist texts as they relate to my own practice of taekwondo. The above is from Sun Tzu's Art of War.

One way to read a text like this is to bring it into the personal. When Sun Tzu talks about war, we can read this as combat, when he talks about the state, we can read it as the person, when he talks about armies, we can read it as our own weapons and techniques. One of the features of Taoist principles is that they are fractal and that they translate through many scales. One of the tenets of taekwondo is "Integrity" meaning that we meet the world the same way, out of the same principles, no matter if we are fighting one on one, or army to army. The strategy has integrity.

So the state here could be the body and the reference to vitality is about the living energy of the body. The art of war is about the vital energy of the body, and it is training in using and protecting that vital energy. Any action that we train in taekwondo has the potential to kill or to prevent being killed. Any choice that we make is a choice that ultimately may lead to those two end points. To train in in the physical art of taekwondo without also training and inquiry ito the ethics and strategy of using these tools is, for me, to only train in half the art, and to forget the ethics of the choices .

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