Thursday, 12 January 2012

Religion and Taekwondo

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.


  1. Thank you for that post, I was looking for the Christian answer, I found one that said not martial arts in general, but I knew that this one was new so I decided to look further. You have confirmed in this article why I will not pursue this specific art. I will do more research on jujitsu and capoeira which I do not believe have specifically non christian spiritual elements involved that would require I grow my spirit in non Christian spiritual stimuli. Thank you for this post.

    1. You are most welcome. I wish you all the luck with finding a suitable martial art to study and I hope you find your "Way":-)

  2. Welcome!

    Let me just say I am christian, and also member of Paramilitary unit and martial artist.
    You see, the problem for christians is not Taekwondo values. General Choi has my respect for introducing them. Nor are it' s techniques; I know that there are " Ho Sin Sool " hidden in the poomsae. I introduced kyuksul - based self defense system to my unit ( I am from Poland, and this nothern korean form of Martial Arts has few instructors here )

    The real problem is Ki energy.
    Taekwondo, Karate, Silat, aiKIdo, HapKIdo... All of them are based on sone form of spiritual energy. And it is spiritual energy that is against christianity.

    Anyway: I wish you repentance. And if you do not, then I wish you allbthe best in Taekwondo. God granted us free will, and you have chosen your path.

    1. Thans for Your reply and interest. Interesting comment on most martial arts being based on some form of spiritual energy. The thing is that Ki (Chi, Qi)is often translated into life force and it is considered to be a spiritual energy in the East, but in Martial Arts terms Ki is often used as a term covering bio-mechanicly efficiancy (e.g good structure, weight distribution, right striking tool to the right target at the right angle etc). In the west we would just explain it With science, but we got the "ki-label" imported With the martial arts. Hapkido/ Aikido (same characters pronounced in Korean and Japanese respectivly) both refer to the coordination of energy as in you use Your opponents energy against him. It has little to do With spriritual energy in this sense. But the names do contain one spiritual meaning and that is "Do" also known as "Tao" (as in Taoism). Karate-Do, Taekwondo, Hapkido/ Aikido, Judo, Kendo and several other arts share this in their name.

      In the end I will ask you 2 questions:

      What is it that you whish me to repent?

      What is the holy spirit if not spiritual energy?

    2. Holy spirit = GOD (a person co-equal with Jesus [God in carnate] and God the Father). I Agree with your analysis about 기 100% though. I am a Christian and a 3rd Dan. I love 태권도 and realize it is a national expression of Korean martial culture and ethics.

  3. Well, I wish any non christian repentance.

    But comming to question about Spiritual energy: Well look at Morohei' s ueshiba " miracles " he was throwing people without touching them. Is it norlt supernatural manifestation? We, christians believe that there are only two kinds of supernatural powers: of God and of Satan. If somethibg is not of God it is from Satan.

    I am not saying here that ap chagi is satanic kick. Taekwondo has great Ho Sin Sool. But when it comes to meditation or moving meditation like Sanchin kata from Uechi ryu karate - it is bad for christians as meditation is religous practice.

    Apart from our discussion: Thank you for being kind and polite. And it is good to see that not everybody thinks of traditional martial arts as a sport. I am working on my own self defense program, which also incorporates many techniques from taekwondo. Taekwondo was invented by general, and why general would invent martial art? For unarmed combat for his soldiers, of course!

    1. God made Satan. Satan rebelled; just like you and me. There is nothing made that is not made by God and Satan is not God's equal opposite. Evil is all that is not in accordance with God's will.

  4. Taekwondo is like any kind of Martial Arts, whether the chinese, japanese or korean or what ever it is, they all have to do much with culture, history and of course religion. The roots of the whole Martial Arts, specially the taekwondo are very related to the very past of the people. If we try to learn the kicks in taekwondo, we will see for example that they are practiced through out lot of heavy and extrem powerful exercises who come from the very old days, it seems for us nowaday like a dance, a folklore dance, acultural aspect which comes from religion, even the horse kick or the back kick is taken prabably from the very old korean culture, out side the the temples and so on. That is why religion has much to do wth Taekwondo, the same if you are without religion, than you can not practice the korean Martial Arts like others. PPlease visite my

  5. Hi, I like your post and have a couple of comments and questions:

    - First, I am Christian, I believe in Jesus my savior and try to live everyday according to his principles and teachings.

    - Second, this is the way I am trying to guide my daughter, to LIVE (note that I am not saying "practice a religion", I am saying LIVE) according to your beliefs and honor them. “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’This is the first and great commandment. A second likewise is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’

    - That being said, my daughter is all about sports, she loves sports, she really does. She is only 7 but already won several medals in speed in line skating. And guess what?, she begged me to take her to a gym (I apologize if "gym" is not the right term) to learn "karate". She already started learning Tae Kwon Do. She's so excited about it.

    - Why do I "fuel" her enthusiasm in sports? Because sports teach you discipline, hard work, respect, team work, enjoy when you win, and learn when you lost. Let's be more practical, they keep your kids doing something productive instead of wasting hours and hours with a video game or worse.

    - Now I come to the "crossroad": should I, as a devoted Christian, let my daughter practice martial arts? Is there any danger (regarding principles and beliefs)?

    - As far as I have seen and research, I will let my daughter practice Tae Kwon Do as long as any practice of "mystic religion" is NOT involved and the training is focused to the universal principles such as the ones described in your articles and physical skills.

    - To be fair and honest, I must say that as soon as I see that the training is leading to practice things such as meditation, or anything like that, I'm immediately out (reasons and arguments would need another post I think...).

    - Now I have a question: Is it possible to train and practice Tae Kwon Do without getting involved at some point with eastern religion practices? Am I being naive? Just an honest question.

    Thanks in advance and appreciate your time to write this article, I wish you the best.

    Regards from El Salvador.

    1. Hi there and thanks for such a wonderful feedback on the post. This seems to be one of the more popular ones on this blog and it also seems that it touches on a subject many people find important. To try to answer your question: In short Yes it is quite possible to practise Taekwondo without any eastern religious practises. Your daughter is Young and when I taught (or these days substitute) children I never ever touched on anything religous. I made all memorize the student oath (the 5 "rules" I listed in my post) and I made them memorize the "symbol" behind the Taegeuk series of forms (for instance: Taegeuk 1 Jang is symbol for heaven and light, Taegeuk 2 Jang is symbol of a lake, Taegeuk 3 Jang is a symbol of fire and so on. No more indepth than the forms name and its symbol).

      In my Dojang we do meditate but meditation has nothing to do With religious practise. It is true that Son/Zen budhism uses meditation as part of their practise but Taekwondo meditation is simply mental training to focus the mind on one task (you are bombarded by what I call continious stream of conciousness. That inner voice that is wondering when you should eat and what to eat while you are really trying to practise your front kick. Taekwondo meditation tries to bring more Control of the mind so you can focus your attention more fully on mastering your front kick as an example :-) ) As for teaching children to meditate I simply tell them to sit Down, Close their eyes, be quiet and Breathe. As long as the children do that they usually calm Down and are easier to teach afterwords. What makes Son/Zen budhism meditation different from non religious meditation is what is happening on the inside and the focus of the meditation. It looks the same for the outside observer (we are after all sitting Down in the same position) but the intent is very different. If your daughter is a devout christian this is also a great time to pray if she wants to, or she can do what all the children does when I tell them to meditate: Sit Down and be quiet for a minute or two ;-)

      I wrote in my blogpost that there are Cultural baggage and that the Taegeuk forms have a philosophical basis on Taoism. But I think I should repeat here that I have never heard anyone demanding that students betray faith or start With Foreign religious practise(s) as part of their Taekwondo training. Some students will do so by their own free will, but they would in essence have to educate themselves on it as Dojang time will focus on the syllabus (kicking, punching, forms, self defense, sparring etc). There are no Dojang I know of that spend Whole sessions on son/zen meditation, I Ching divination or other activities that can be seen as religious practises.

      Also if your daughter enlisted in a very sport focused Dojang (which is probable) I doubt she will encounter anything Foreign exept bowing (which is unusual today in the West), Foreign terminology and that would probably be it. The best person to ask however will undoubtfully be the instructor :-) I always take time to talk to and adress any questions students or parents will have. If he refuses to speak With you on the matter, or he does not take you seriously I would either observe training sessions (which in Norway you would be entitled to do because your daughter is so young) or remove her from that paticular Dojang and enlist her in another one.

      I hope that is a satesfactory answer. Best regards from Ørjan

  6. Thank you for the helpful comments. We are a Christian family and pursuing our daughter's interest in taking taekwondo... This has been very enlightening, and I think everything you are teaching is great for children and people of all ages! Even myself and my husband are intrigued! Interestingly enough, my initial concern I was looking to answer was not regarding the spirituality or religious aspects, but the fighting aspect. I know you teach not to misuse the art, or use it to hurt one another (unless for self defence?), but I'm trying to think of how I explain to my children why we are learning fighting techniques in the first place? Please enlighten as I really am naive in this area! Thanks!

    1. Sorry about the late reply. I missed your last comment and just saw it now. What a great question:-) if you are a little patient I will write a blog post on it:-)

  7. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  8. As a christian I like the way you present the oath,because there is no mentioning of spirits, or that sort of thing. As for me, I am a little concern because me and both my daughter and son started kaewondo, and although we have not been asked to get involve in any religious act, our aoth begins by saying: "I will practice in the spirit of taekwondo". As a Chriatian it makes me feel uncomfortable, because the ONLY spirit i worship and call upon is the Holy Spirit.
    Would you please enlight me on what do they mean by practice in the spirit of taekwondo.

    1. It would help to see the whole oath, but I'm pretty sure they mean spirit as in:

      "those qualities regarded as forming the definitive or typical elements in the character of a person, nation, or group or in the thought and attitudes of a particular period." (Quote from my English dictionary).

      Spirit has different meanings and usages. The first one listed is the spiritual usage, the above quote is the second listed, and it would fit how most oaths I've seen are made. It's essentially saying "I will practise with the attitude of taekwondo" or something along those lines. You could ask your instructor for a clarification though as this seems to be something that matters a great deal to you :-) best of luck with your taekwondo training and studies:-)

  9. My dad has a very Christian friend, and I do taekwondo. My dad commented to his friend that I do taekwondo, and he was very repulsed. I'm a Christian, and the taekwondo I do is somewhat americanized. I see nothing wrong with my taekwondo. We just bow to our masters and the American flag. I can't wait to hear what my dad's friend is going to say at church next sunday. I hope he doesn't curse me!!! Wish me luck.

    1. Good luck :-) Ps: Cursing people (for whatever reason) does not sound very Christian-like :-/