Taekwondo is the world’s most popular martial art in terms of the number of its adherents. There are over four hundred clubs affiliated with the Taekwondo Association of Great Britain alone and in excess of twenty five thousand members.
In Korea it is the national sport and the earliest practise of Taekwondo originates there also. This dynamic style complemented weapon skills used in self defence, and as the legs are approximately three times stronger on average than the arms, this particular martial art places a heavy emphasis on kicking movements. Although there were forerunner styles of modern Taekwondo that can be traced almost two thousand years ago, it was only in 1965 that the Korean Taekwondo Federation was formed and in 1973 the World Taekwondo Federation was established.
‘Whereas a coach and athlete will train and compete as a team, in taekwondo there is a sense of honour and respect for the master that goes deeper than the sport itself. Trainees quickly learn the deep-seated culture of respect and courtesy practised in taekwondo.. Self-confidence and achievement are gained by persevering through repetitive training with resoluteness and indomitable spirit. Correct sporting behaviour requires accepting the win or loss of a game in the spirit of fair play. When the proper attitude toward winning or losing becomes more important than the result of a match, a man or a woman is born again as a man or woman of taekwondo.’(Yong Sup Kil, p ix Introduction)
The Kukiwon form has been an Olympic event since 2000 and is governed by the World Taekwondo Federation. There is also a separate school administered by the International Taekwondo Federation. A more contemporary form known as Songham Taekwondo, otherwise known as that practised by the American Taekwondo Federation has recently emerged.
‘Combative, competitive, philosophical and exciting are just some adjectives that could be correlated with this art. This newly recognised martial art form was earlier called Supakhee and was officially recognised as taekwondo only in 1954. Tae is a Chinese character that literally means foot; Kwon means striking with the fist and Do represents the way—the correct path.’ (Shukla)
Taekwondo is a hard martial art as opposed to soft forms such as Tai Chi and Aikido. Soft martial arts involve using the aggressors force against them whilst hard martial arts meet force with force. Karate and Kung Fu are also hard forms. Taekwondo incorporates rapid, high kicking moves with philosophy, approved etiquette and meditation.
Each Taekwondo school (kwan) has at its core, a list of chivalrous tenets that all students must adhere to. Breaking any of these codes constitutes a serious offence and can result in expulsion, regardless of the practitioner’s skill. For example, the tenets of the ITF are integrity, perseverance, self-control and indomitable spirit. The Jidokwan school goes even deeper, holding to the principles of view, feel, think, speak, order, contribute, have ability and conduct correctly. (talktaekwondo)
Thus there are many purported benefits of practising Taekwondo including improved health and fitness, flexibility, stamina, confidence, stress reduction, strength of character, discipline and the ability to defend oneself in any situation at any time.
2. History and Development
The origins of Taekwondo can be charted from Korean History.
‘there have been numerous martial arts throughout Korea’s history, such as Soo-Bak Do (or Soo Bak Gi) as it is sometimes referred to) and Tae Kyon, which were practised in the court of kings and which formed part of the armies’ training. In fact, during the Koguryo dynasty, competitions were held annually, and it was often referred to as foot fighting, there was a band of warrior youths, which called itself the Hwa Rang-Do (‘the way of the flowering manhood’) and which was similar to the Samurai of Japan, that trained in several arts included unarmed combat techniques.’ (Corder, p8)
Nonetheless, there are also legendary doctrines that have contributed to the principles and character of Taekwondo, in addition to ancient and contemporary Korean ethics. Tan-gun, the so-called product of the son of a divine being and a beautiful maiden, is noted for uniting the six northern tribes and is regarded as the original patriarch of modern day Korea.
‘Raised by the ancients, Tan-gun went on to help civilize the uncultivated tribes by teaching them farming, architecture and various social graces. More importantly, however, the mythical founder is credited with originating a traditional, national philosophy through his advocacy of hongik-ingan (the benefits of universal humanism) and jase-ihwa the rationalization of human living). These concepts, especially hongik-ingan, which codifies the Korean sense of duty to the state, family, and forebears, constitute the foundation of a social framework that has blossomed into the uniquely Korean culture that exists today.’ (Cook, p7)
Korea was formerly divided into three kingdoms known as Silla (57 BCE-935 CE), Koguryo (37 BCE-668 CE), and Paekche (18 BCE-660 CE) who were continually at war with one another. Meanwhile, there was great apprehension concerning possible invasion from its two stronger neighbours, Japan and China. Hence skilled warriors and those in the military were held in high esteem. Interestingly, the means by which a warrior could advance up the ranks appears to parallel how a student pursues various belt gradings in contemporary Taekwondo practise and other forms of martial arts.
‘As a result, Koguryo, the largest of the three kingdoms with land holdings reaching far up into what is now North Korea and Manchuria established a warrior corps that came to be known as the Sunbae. Essentially meaning “senior,” Sunbae philosophy was underscored by a deep belief in the gods who created the universe coupled with a strong will to defend the country against all odds. These philosopher/warriors, selected from all rungs of society, wore black velvet clothing and shaved their heads. The Sunbae were democratic in nature in that anyone, given high aptitude and ambitious character, could obtain superior rank.’ (Cook, p8)
In Silla, the smallest of the three Korean kingdoms, there was also a strong philosophical religious element underscored by a commitment to the three primary Chinese belief systems, Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism.
‘Aside from their knowledge of kwonhop and subak, two native martial arts of the day, these youthful soldiers were distinguished from combat troops by virtue of their unique holistic training in archery, music, poetry, equestrian skills, and the Eastern philosophical paradigms of Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism. (Cook, p9)
Korea later became unified and toward the end of the 10th Century learning the art of Taekwondo became compulsory for all young men.
‘However, in about the 16th Century the military traditions of the country fell out of general favour and the practise of taekwondo was kept alive only by Buddhist monks. Following the Japanese occupation in 1909, the suppression of any form of martial art only served to further its decline. The few remaining dedicated practitioners emigrated to China and Japan and thus the art survived.’ (Goodman, p13)
3.1 Philosophy and Meditation
As the principles of Taekwondo are expected to be incorporated into all aspects of an individual’s life, the philosophy of Taekwondo requires attention here. According to the World Taekwondo Federation,
‘we can understand the philosophy of Taekwondo by doing Taekwondo, and this understanding should lead to better understanding and enhancement of our life. The principles of Taekwondo can be explained in several ways but here we will explain it simply with the principle of “Sam Jae” [Three Elements] and that of “Eum” [the Negative or Darkness] and “Yang” [the Positive or the Brightness]. “Sam Jae” refers to “Cheon” [the Heaven], “Ji” [the Earth], and “In” [the Man] and the principles concerning them. In oriental countries, it has been recognized as the central principle that explains the changes of everything in the world. “Sam Jae” and the changes of “Eum” and “Yang” constitute the “Eight Trigrams for Divination” in the “Book of Changes.” (WTF)
Also Nishtha Shukla writing about the philosophical origins of Taekwondo writes.
’The basis of taekwondo comes from the concept of Taegeuk, derived from the I Ching, a work of constant change, which is a movement towards the life of spiritual and moral harmony. The philosophy of taekwondo is harmony with all living things and is therefore a medium for spreading the values of truth, honesty, courage, discipline, creativity, respect, compassion and duty. The emphasis here is not only on physical strength but also on the individual growth of one’s moral and spiritual self.’ (Shukla)
Even the colours of the belts have greater significance than merely indicating an outward sign of proficiency in Taekwondo. The grading system for the various Taekwondo belts is known as the Taekwon-do Evergreen Tree. The concept is that in the same way that a plant progresses through stages culminating in a towering tree, the colour of each belt depicts a particular stage in that process. Therefore the belts that can be obtained represent the following.
White (Huin-Saek) signifies Innocence-the innocence of the beginner who has no previous knowledge of Taekwon-Do
Yellow (No-Rang) signifies Earth-the earth from which a plant sprouts and takes root as the foundations of Taekwon-Do are laid.
Green (Non-Saek) signifies Growth – the growth of the plant as your Taekwon-Do skills begin to develop.
Blue (Ch’ong-Saek) signifies Heaven-the heaven towards which a plant grows into a towering tree as Taekwon-Do skills and training progress.
Red (Pal-Gang) signifies Danger-the danger that cautions the student to exercise control and warns the opponent to stay away.
Black (Kom-Jung) signifies Maturity- the plant which has now grown into a towering tree and, as the opposite of white, it indicates maturity and proficiency in Taekwon-Do. It also indicates the wearer’s imperviousness to fear and darkness.’ (Corder p17)
3.2 Taekwondo and the use of Ki
An essential and valid question Christians often ask concerning most martial arts is whether it is possible to perform the physical actions for technique, self defence or health benefits without engaging in the spiritual disciplines involved? Writing with regard to the spiritual aspects of Taekwondo, James Noel from San Francisco Theological Seminary writes,
‘All of the various martial arts styles have devised techniques to experience the energies found in one’s body, other persons, and nature… The purpose of martial arts training is not to increase one (sic) chi at an other’s expense but to experience a oneness with nature and other persons through a practice that allows one to become conscious of and flow with the universal wave energy.’(Noel)
James Noel goes on to explain, in practical terms, how breathing techniques are utilised and transferred into combat situations.
‘All the martial arts contain practices that entail deep, abdominal breathing wherein the exhalation is longer than the inhalation. The breathing is done to circulate chi/energy in a circular fashion along the microscopic orbit—from the top of the head down to the coccyx or soles of the feet and back to the head. Excess energy is stored in the energy center below the navel. In combat energy is directed from the energy center to the space between the shoulder blades and into the arms and fists. The fighting energy is emitted from the body and by the body in a straight line.’ (Noel)
Relating more specifically to the practise of traditional Taekwondo, Doug Cook author of Traditional Taekwondo Core Techniques, History and Philosophy and holder of a fourth-degree black belt in Taekwondo explains:
‘The practise of traditional taekwondo requires the student to become proficient in a multitude of blocks, kicks, strikes and sweeps. However, in order to support these techniques far beyond the limitations of the physical body, one must introduce an element not easily definable in common terms. This element is referred to as Ki in Korean and Qi or Chi in Chinese.’ (Cook, p47)
The above quote is helpful in highlighting the necessity of utilising chi or ki to progress in Taekwondo. Cook continues, and also clarifies, how the physical and spiritual elements are intertwined by using an apt illustration to demonstrate the importance of Ki in traditional Taekwondo.
‘Ki development is an essential component of martial arts training that is often overlooked in all likelihood due to the metaphysical issues it raises. Nevertheless, teaching traditional taekwondo without offering the practitioner exercises in Ki development is tantamount to sitting someone behind the steering wheel of a car, but telling them nothing of the fuel that powers its engine. Ki is the elixir that amplifies technique and great strength. It is the force that shields the body from harm while maintaining health and a sense of well being.’ (Cook, p47-48)
Ki or Chi may be explained as, or compared with, a bioelectric current or more simply energy. Ki is understood to flow throughout the body along a transportation network referred to as the meridians, and is said to be stored two inches below the navel sucking in an immense amount of energy from the universe.
These meridians are not visible and cannot be categorically proven to exist. Nevertheless, traditional Chinese medicine attempts to manipulate the flow of Chi in a particular area or organ around the body to cure a patient.
In contrast, the Taekwondoist attempts to strike an accupoint in their opponent, to defeat them in a contest. Also, dynamic exercises and breathing practises can be cultivated to stimulate ki flow.
Whilst it may be possible to embark on a competitive Taekwondo session without engaging directly in meditation, this particular aspect is of such importance that it cannot be overlooked. When I searched through the index of Master Yong Sup Kil’s book ‘Competitive Taekwondo Winning Training and Tactics’ which was published in 2006, although there was no specific reference to meditation, there was a chapter devoted to developing the mind of the champion. Within that chapter there was instruction on how to develop mental control and concentration, and how to apply visualization prior to competition. In other words, certain contemporary terms such as visualization or mental control, used in that context, either mean are a part of, or are used with, mediation. Furthermore, they certainly encourage the use of mediation to enhance performance and clarity of thought, leaving the athlete open to non-biblical practises. Hence the advice provided included the following statements:
‘Concentrate on the sound of the air filling your lungs as it is expelled. Listen to the resonance in your head and shut out any external distractions’ (Sup Kil, p86)…There are many imagery techniques. Which method you use depends on the information and equipment at your disposal, your personality, and the strength of your imagination. Choose the method that suits you best.’ (Sup Kil, p88)
In fact, another author specifically links the practise of visualization as part of meditation.
‘Taekwondo meditation takes the form of sitting or kneeling, clearing the mind and relaxing completely. Special breathing techniques are used to bring about muscular relaxation and allow the mind to separate from the body. The second stage of mediation involves visualisation. Difficult techniques can be performed in the mind before they are done in reality. Indeed the mind must understand the concept of any technique before the body can hope to do it.’ (talktaekwondo)
Doug Cook writes more directly, explaining exactly what type of meditation would be most beneficial for a Taekwondo or martial artist to enable the flow of ki to travel through the body.
‘there are many types of meditation. Which is appropriate to achieve the result as we martial artist’s desire? One approach, as a preface to self defence training, consists of sitting crossed-legged in the half –lotus posture…The hands are positioned in a gesture known as mudra. Mudra, literally translated from Sanskrit means “to seal”. Thus the mudra is utilized to seal in the internal energy known as Ki…Aside from allowing for a smooth exchange of breath, this posture encourages a free flow of Ki or internal energy, to circulate throughout the body.’ (Cook, p42-43)
4 Can Christians practise Taekwondo and not compromise their faith in God?
For various reasons Taekwondo is sometimes considered a healthy activity for Christians to embark on and even use as an opportunity to witness. For example, there is an official Christian Taekwondo Association and Christian Martial Arts Schools, both of which advocate the same. Taekwondo instils respect, discipline, honour and perseverance and self control. From that perspective, one may argue that self control is a fruit of the spirit and therefore Taekwondo is helpful in achieving that.
Nonetheless, whilst the motives for pursuing those activities are likely to be well intentioned, Taekwondo is so entrenched in non biblical principles and practises that attempting to combine Christian values with a martial art form, so rooted in eastern religions and philosophy, is akin to injecting petrol into a diesel engine. The two cannot work in unison, they are polar opposites. Similarly, combining fundamentally opposing ideologies or belief systems is nonsensical since they cannot be meaningfully synchronised. The roots of Taekwondo are grounded in the three prominent Chinese religions, Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism.
Consider that Paul wrote to the Corinthians ‘Do you not know that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If anyone defiles the temple of God, God will destroy him. For the temple of God is holy, which temple you are.’ (1 Cor 3:16-17) In the same way that it would make no sense for a Christian to participate in Chinese religious practises, it would also be unwise for a believer to take part in a martial art that has underlying principles based on those same religions which contradict Christianity.
Whereas Christians are taught and guided by the Holy Spirit, (John 14:26, 16:13) Taekwondo greatly encourages the individual application and manipulation of ki flow around the body. Ki can be described as universal wave energy, a bioelectric current or energy. Ki is an impersonal life force or the fuel that powers the bodies’ engine. In direct contrast the Holy Spirit is a Person, is not a force and speaks, (Rev: 14:13), bears witness, (1 John 5:7) helps the believer (John 14:26) and can be grieved. (Isa 63:10, Eph 4:30)
Ki is related to balancing the yin and yang inside the body. Although yin and yang work in partnership they are exact opposites. Examples include male and female, good and evil or dark and light. The Christian understanding of God opposes the yin, yang comprehension of how the universe operates. 1 John 1:5 states ‘God is light and in Him is no darkness at all’ and James 1:17 stresses the point that ‘Every good and perfect gift is from above and comes from the Father of light, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning.’
Again Biblical meditation and that practised by Taekwondo proponents are poles apart. The Christian mediates on the word of God and His ways. (Josh 1:8, Psalm 1:2, 119:15) Christian believers fill their minds with what God requires, whereas Taekwondo meditation involves emptying the mind and the use of imagery or visualisation. Visualisation is considered necessary before a goal is attained. In other words, if you can see something and believe that it will happen in your mind, you can achieve exactly that. Mind over matter is encouraged, a concept that is never recommended in scripture.
Most martial arts involve a philosophy that stems from eastern religions and are in opposition to Biblical teaching and practise. Taekwondo is no exception. One may attempt to practise Taekwondo purely for health, recreational or social reasons making a conscious effort not to meditate or engage in the spiritual aspects. However Christian involvement is likely to send out a message that it is reasonable for all believers to participate. This would not be helpful for new Christians as, in addition to taking part in ungodly activities, the philosophies presented are likely to compromise their Biblical worldview. Also, faith in the Lord Jesus Christ being the only way to access the Father may be challenged, as the belief systems that underscore the spiritual aspect of Taekwondo do not support that view. Instead, they provide an alternative explanation of salvation and replace the absolute goodness and integrity of God with a universe that is governed by dualism.
Although some of the values esteemed in Taekwondo appear to be commendable at face value, such as truth, honesty, courage, discipline and respect, the basis for those values originates from the I Ching. The I Ching is generally accepted as the original source of Taoism. It provides philosophical wisdom concerning situations and problems via means of divination, a practise expressly forbidden in Scripture. (Lev 19:26) This is carried out by flipping coins and adding the numbers to determine which of the sixty four hexagrams of the I Ching is appropriate in relation to the circumstance.
Lastly, trying to direct one’s Ki, either for energy circulation or for combat, is a concept completely alien to Scripture. In view of the beliefs and practises mentioned above, it is evident that the practise of Taekwondo is irreconcilably opposed to Biblical Christianity.
Cook, D. Traditional Taekwondo Core Techniques, History and Philosophy YMAA Boston 2006
Corder, J. Taekwondo From White Belt to Yellow Belt Carlton 2001
Goodman, F. The Practical Encyclopaedia of Martial Arts Lorenz London 2005
Yong Sup Kil, M. Competitive Taekwondo Winning training and tactics Human Kinetics Champaign 2006
Noel, J. http://www.sfts.edu/faculty/noel/taekwondo/spirituality.asp Taekwondo and Spirituality 2: Circularity, linearity and the Palgwe Concept San Francisco Theological Seminary
Shukla, N. www.lifepositive.com/Mind/Sports_Psychology/why_do_taekwondo72004.asp Why do Taekwondo?
www.taekwondo-network.com/meditation.html Meditation in the martial arts
www.talktaekwondo.co.uk/guides/taekwondo_class.html What is taught in a Taekwondo class?
wtf.org/ World Taekwondo Federation