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JenJen

Green Belt Test
Written Assignment

June 15, 2001

THE TAE KWON DO STUDENT OATH

I shall observe the tenets of Tae Kwon Do.
I shall respect my instructors and seniors.
I shall never misuse Tae Kwon Do.
I will be a champion of freedom and justice.
I will build a more peaceful world.

    When I began my study of Tae Kwon Do (TKD), I was simply interested in another way to exercise, get stronger and lose weight. As my body got stronger, I realized that TKD actually requires as much from my heart and mind as from my muscles. At this point in my study, I'm becoming more and more fascinated with the origins of the art. Who started it? Why? What was it about his/her life that led to the development? For me, the more I understand something on an intellectual level, the better I can embrace it on an emotional level. I am not interested in blind loyalty to an organization, a school, a person, or, in this case, a martial arts set of ideals.
    When given the assignment to write a paper about the student oath. I didn't think I wanted to write a "what it means to me" type of essay, but it sort of turned out to be that anyway. This paper asks more questions than it provides answers. I would like to take this assignment forward as I begin to think about what I am interested in researching for the black belt thesis. I have a lot of questions about the origins and purposes of martial arts, and how the beginnings of the different styles translate to today's practices. As Richard Mitchell states in the introduction to his book, The History of Tae Kwon Do Patterns, "The founders and masters of virtually every style of martial art have inferred, if not actually stated, that the goal of their followers should be to develop a refined moral character." Mitchell also says that the code of ethics or oath is directly related to the military behavior of the country of origin. When I began to practice, my instructor said that the working class, who, by law were not allowed weapons, formed Tae Kwon Do in order to defend themselves at times of military conflict. Shifu Nagaboskhi Tomio writes, "Modern forms of the Chuan Fa art - such as karate - have become so fragmented and over-specialized that it is easy to lose sight of the fact that originally their practice was a spiritual, not physical endeavor that was based upon a religious, not military philosophy."  I want to try to reconcile the various origins with current practices as they relate to the rituals and customs we observe today.
    With these conflicting results after only looking at a few resources, and the limited time I had to write, I decided that this paper needed to be personal and not academic. I will enjoy researching the topic, thought, for future papers and book reports. I want to read about the rituals, the reasons they were important at the time and why they are still valuable today. I want to talk to other students, those just beginning and those who have achieved the rank of black belt, and hear what reciting the oath means to them. At what point does it change from being just something said, by rote, at the beginning and end of each class, and when does it really begin to mean something? This parallels a recent conversation with you, Laura, when we were talking about the point at which one begins to think about and call oneself a martial artist and not just as someone taking TKD.
    As I look at the oath, I see that it progresses from a promise to obey certain ideals in relationship to the self to a promise that encompasses the betterment of womankind. No one, neither scholar nor shaman (not even Ness) could possibly have a higher goal than the last statement of the oath, "I promise to build a more peaceful world."

    Building character is such an integral part of learning a martial art that you can't separate it from the physical component. But, when I'm in class, I wonder if that is indeed the attitude of most martial artist instructors and students today? Are we all on the same journey? Are my fellow students really interested in building a more peaceful world or just learning how to defend themselves? Is the typical TKD student hoping to gain spiritual enlightenment through the practice? Is TKD a mechanism by which social good can be accomplished? Does entering a dojang and participating in a martial art have that much influence on someone's character? Are unethical people transformed into into law-abiding citizens? I believe that unless there is a mechanism for proving these ideals outside of he school, something is missing. How does the head instructor determine what is ethical and against whose standards for integrity are students measured? Although I have only been involved in a martial art for a very short time, I have already heard story after story about black belts and school owners acting without integrity. I have heard stories abort lack of self-control and lack of courtesy. Of course these acts occurred mostly outside the dojang, but I think that that is something to consider also. If the tenets are strictly adhered to within class, but ignored as soon as street shoes are donned, what real meaning do they have? How can a school owner be responsible for the moral character of her students outside of class? Of course the oath is meant to carry forward to outside of class, but how is that measured or enforced? Being a champion of freedom and justice can only in a very limited fashion be accomplished within the confines of the dojang.
    Why we adhere to other "traditional" rituals is also a question I have. I know that bowing to the black belts as they enter and exit the dojang and to each other during class is a symbol of respect, but it does not in any way guarantee it. Bowing to the International Tae Kwon Do Union (ITU) flag feels like an empty gesture to me. I cannot place my allegiance to an organization without understanding or agreeing with its mission statement, which I am not familiar with and have not been able to locate the ITU web site.
    Stating the oath after each class reminds us that we are not only learning to fight well and defend ourselves, but that the art is dedicated to a higher purpose. I am skeptical, though, that recitation of the oath without genuine intention of living the values stated within may do more harm than good and will certainly make a mockery of the practice. Especially as new students observe senior students just talking the talk.
    Because I have developed a sincere respect for the art, for my instructors and for my fellow students, bowing when I enter the dojang reminds me of that respect and is an outward gesture and physical activity that helps me get to where I want to be mentally. Like the beginning of Qi-gong, when we dedicate the time to ourselves, each other, and to the highest good of the world, bowing is a way to place myself completely into the class. The gesture is a way of indicating that we are now in a special place, apart from the world.
    Stating the tenets can feel phony, though, if the intention is not present too. Just saying something does not make it so. It is your actions and your intentions that bring substance to them. It reminds me of members of the clergy who do not uphold Christian beliefs when not in the pulpit. However, just because some practitioners, either those in leadership positions or novices, do not uphold the tenets, and therefore the oath, it does not make them  invalid. Hypocrisy does not decrease nor diminish the importance of the tenets themselves.
    Stating the oath as a beginner of course doesn't carry the same meaning as it does when you begin to internalize the tenets and fully embrace them. It's part of the process of developing a holistic approach to the art.

I know this is very informal, but I hope you don't mind.