By Ørjan Nilsen

This is a little special post. You see there is one problem that I think should be adressed. I once had a girl watching one of my training sessions at the Dojang I study (and teach). She seemed very interested in Taekwondo so I offered her one week of free lessons to see if she liked the training. "No I cant" she said. "My mother is very religious so she would never let me start practising Taekwondo". I was stunned. After a short while I asked her why Taekwondo would be unsuitable for christians. She said it was too much budhism and taoism in the Taekwondo and her mother was afraid that it would be a bad influence in her pure christian belief. But is it really any pagan or budhism or Taoism in Taekwondo? Are all people who practise Taekwondo bad (insert your religious belief here) or are we all pagans?

Taekwondo as a martial art is relativly new. Many like to say that Taekwondo is thousands of years old, but the current format of what is usually labeled "Traditional Taekwondo" (basics, forms, sparring, self defense and braking) is actually from the 1950s. The name Taekwondo was first "accepted" in 1955. The founders and early pioneers said Taekwondo did not contain any religious foundation, but that it was influenced by "Son" Budhism ("Son being the Korean word for "Zen"). As Taoism also played a part in shaping the culture of the founders of Taekwondo it is also natural that it too has influenced the way we practise Taekwondo. Note that I say "influence(d)" instead of being the foundation of the art.

Master Cook (who I briefly mentioned in another post) actually wrote a great article that can be read for free on issue 29 on the cultural/religius background of the founders of Taekwondo.

So we have established that Budhism and Taoism has influnced Taekwondo, but how much, or should I say how does this affect our training/studies of the art? The answer is simple: It will affect your training and studdies as much as you want it to. Yes we do have some "cultural trappings" in Taekwondo training that everyone is exposed to, but if you look at it objectivly it is not really a result of Budhism or Taoism but rather some of the founders of our arts culture that has been integrated into training. For example we bow when we go into the Dojang, we salute the flag (both Korean and the national flag is normal), and we then bow to the teacher. Is this Budhism or Taoism or some strange pagan rite? Maybe it was at some point, but for people today we bow to show respect and to show that we are serious in our study. We bow when we enter or exit the Dojang as a sign of respect both to the place we happen to practise, and to the people therein. We the salute the flag(s). The Korean flag is there and you salute it to show respect and thankfullness for the origin of Taekwondo (the present format was developed there), the national flag is there and you salute it for patriotic reasons. We bow to the teacher as a sign of respect and thankfullness for the teaching he/her provides.

This is not really budhism or taoism really it is just normal (or perhaps a little more than normal) politeness. We used to bow in western culture as well in older times, as late as the early 1900s it was normal to bow in formal settings in many european cultures, so the bow in itself is not something that will degrade your religious belief (unless it is stated somewhere in your holy text that the act of bowing is a no no) or practise.

We do meditate before and after every training session in our Dojang (and at most Dojang that belong to our organisation) and many believe this is a pure religious act. It can certainly be so since son/zen budhism revolves around the concept of meditation, but for most people the meditation done before practise is done so you focus at the task on hand, while the meditation after each training session is done so the student can let the sessions lessons sink in. Meditation was and is also done in almost every religion not only in Asian religions but also in the western christianity. One priest said: "When you pray you speak to God, and when you meditate you listen to God". The fact that we meditate should then not be in any conflict to any religion as it is for most people just a way to calm the mind and rid it of unwanted clutter so the teaching experience is enhanced.

In practical training there is nothing to say that we are doing religious rituals that conflict with any religion (as far as I know). There are of course some Dojang around the world that teach Taekwondo in a religious setting (e.g teaching in a strongly christian setting etc), but these are not the norm. What about the theoretical training? Are there anything there that is in conflict with religion(s)?

Most Dojang have somtehing called Kwan Heon or a students oath. In my Dojang it is the five tenets of Taekwondo developed by Choi Hong Hi other Dojang have different ones, but usually they are somewhat simular. For my part they are:

  1. I shall observe and follow the tenets of Taekwondo
  2. I shall never missuse Taekwondo
  3. I will respect my instructor and seniors
  4. I will be a champion of justice
  5. I will help to build a more peacefull world.

I did not look these up to see if they are word for word what Choi Hong Hi wrote, but they are close and this is what we use at our Dojang. I do not see anything in them that conflicts with any religion. Instead I see this as something that would enhance any religion as most religions would promote the same values as those expressed in the student oath above. Help bring peace and justice, as well as never do physical harm to anyone and respect to the elders is something both Budism, Taoism, Christianity, Islamic teachings etc promotes.

Besides the students oath we do have one "big" remnant from Taoism included in our studies through our practise of the Taegeuk pattern set. These patterns are in theory based on the philosophical foundation of Taoism, but in practical training it is not expressed. Most Dojangs will also include a very crude and bried mention of the philosophical meaning of the forms so it can not be said to be against any religion. I have never seen any instructor that demands his students to become followers of Taoism to truly understand Taegeuk poomsae so I do not think it is really a problem. Learning basic knowledge of other "ways" is good for anyone. It helps fight racism, and also discrimination and this is also often the route many schools today teach religion. While I was taught christianity in my school days, todays children learn about other cultures and religions to increase their knowledge.

Other than Taegeuk Poomsae we do not really encounter any Poomsae with a pure religious undertone untill the last Poomsae named Illyo. Illyo is the Korean reading of what is better known as nirvana. Again I must emphasise that in practical training of Poomsae this does not really come into play, but if you read the theory behind the Poomsae you will see that the floor pattern of the Poomsae forms the asian symbol of Nirvana. The theory required for testing on the other side is very basic and again I think it is best viewed as an increase of understanding different cultures and religion instead of trying to get the student to become a Budhist. While the Taegeuk has its roots in Taoism, Illyo Poomsae on the other hand has its philosophical root from Son/Zen Budhism. Again it is up to the student how much study he/she wants to do on the background of Poomsae as the required knowledge is really basic.

The conclusion? I guess that Taekwondo does have influences in cultural trappings that might stem from religion, and it is required a very basic knowledge of Taoism and on a higher lever a very basic knowledge of Budhism as the background of Poomsae, Taekwondo in itself and practical Taekwondo practise does not degrade your religion or practise of said religion. In fact the ethical guidelines expressed in Taekwondo philosophy are the same as the values expressed as desireable in most religions no matter what religious group you belong to. And if you are an atheist the guidelines are good too:-)

So to all who are afraid of Taekwondo as something pagan or dangerous to study for religious reasons let this post make you think again:) See you at practise.