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February 15, 2003

The Student Oath and Five Tenets

Several months ago, when you made reciting the student oath and five tenets optional, I understood the rationale behind the decision, but thought that students who refused to participate would lose an important aspect of training.

To me, the oath and the tenets set the tone for my study of martial arts; reciting them reminds me that training isn’t just a physical exercise, but also a mental one.

The student oath serves as the framework for my overall practice.  In particular, I like the way the oath begins with an “I-centered” perspective – “I shall observe the tenets of tae kwon do” – then moves outward.  Next, it takes into account my behavior toward my instructors and fellow students, then my responsibility to society – “I shall never misuse tae kwon do” – then leaps to a fully global perspective – “I will be a champion of freedom and justice; I will build a more peaceful world.”

The first few times I recited these lines, I actually felt a little sheepish.  Today, however, strange as it sounds, the near-daily recitation of these promises increasingly gives me a sense of their possibility.  What once seemed rather implausible – who, me?  Build a peaceful world? – seems more and more like a true charge, a real guideline for positive behavior.  More and more, I find these ideas tickling the back of my brain during daily life, and that’s a good thing, especially as the world grows increasingly unstable.

You might remember that several months ago I wrote an article about Muslims living in our area.  I felt a strong responsibility to portray them accurately and allow them to tell their stories of alienation and fear in post-Sept. 11 America.  After that piece was published, a reader wrote in, stating how touched he was by the article.  It had given him new insights into people who were “different” from him.  In a small way, I felt that I had lived up to my oft-recited pledge to “build a more peaceful world,” starting right in my own community.

Perhaps I don’t live up to the oath every day, but it gives me something to work toward.

Meanwhile, to me, the five tenets – especially three and five – seem focused more directly on my practice of martial arts, although I also find myself trying to apply them to everyday life.

As I’m sure I’ve mentioned, tae kwon do is difficult for me.  I’m a good endurance athlete, but grace and physical control are not my strong points.  I envy students who seem to have natural aptitude

But the five tenets remind me that it’s not my aptitude that matters, nor how I stack up against other students.  What matters is that I keep coming back, even when I’ve had a rough class, and that I at once accept my limitations, (i.e., I will never be a great athlete), but fight against them to the extent that I become the best student I can be.

That, to me, is the essence of indomitable spirit.  Not necessarily to break the board on the first try, but to kick again and again until it snaps… and if it never snaps, to know that I tried my hardest to make it happen.
When I say the words “perseverance” and “indomitable spirit,” I really think about them.  I think about how I could stick to doing things I’m good at, but how there’s no “indomitable spirit” in knowing that you’ll succeed.  If you don’t test it, it isn’t really there.  It’s kind of a strange concept, but true, I think.

Finally, I like the way that reciting the student oath and five tenets reminds me that the study of martial arts is a long tradition focused on respect and self-discipline.  I think those two aspects of martial arts intrigue people.  The recitation of an oath and tenets reinforces that, in my own small way, I’ve joined the age-old tradition of men and women who’ve undertaken a similar challenge.  I’m sure that, as the practice becomes increasingly difficult, that will be a reassuring thought, and a source of inspiration.