I will address two issues in this post: first, the idea of meditation; and second, the role of the body in ascetic (spiritual) practise. I’m going to make some sweeping statements, purely because I do not have the time to go into a very detailed discussion and elaboration of the philosophical, historical and cultural aspects involved.
The Idea of Meditation in the West and East
What is typically considered meditation in the Oriental versus meditation in the West is rather different. Western meditation is much better understood as either prayer on the one hand or contemplation on the other. In both cases the mind is occupied with thought, with only occasional moments of silence in order to “hear” the impressions of the Holy Spirit. In the past when Christians said they meditated, they meant that they were praying or they were “meditating upon God’s Word,” meaning that they were reading a part of Scripture, and contemplating the spiritual significance of the text. Even when the meditation was not on sacred topics, like Newton meditating on the effects of gravity, the term “meditation” was used to signify being in deep thought.
Historically the Western world did not have the type of meditation—of clearing the mind of thoughts—as is so popular today. While the theistic Western idea of meditation was historically to commune with a personal God, the Oriental tradition, including the Buddhist tradition, was pantheistic, with no personal God to communicate with. Communicating with a personal God through prayer and meditation would not have made sense to the Oriental cultures. Since within the ancient Oriental paradigm there did not exist a personal supreme God, but rather a pantheistic impersonal Force (with concepts such as the impersonal Tao or impersonal Chi), prayer doesn’t make sense. The Far Eastern cultures may have prayed to their (personal) ancestors, but they didn’t pray to any personal God, and they didn’t pray or even really meditate upon (prayerfully contemplate) the Tao or Ki. They may have contemplated these topics, but not in a sanctimonious way as the Christian may contemplate the words of Jesus, or Protestants may contemplate the Crucified and Risen Christ or Catholics the Eucharist. For Christians, these are acts of worship. When the Chinese Taoists contemplated the Tao, they did not worship the Tao. They may have worshipped their ancestors and built alters and made offerings to their ancestors (keeping in mind that even this differs in purpose from the Western Christian concept of worship), but not to the impersonal Tao, even though it was their major world-view. The same applies to their approach to the Ki.
The Oriental approach to such concepts as the Tao or Ki was very much a practical approach, similar to the way Western societies approached the natural sciences. The Oriental practise of certain movements and meditation to cultivate Ki had a practical purpose—it was believed that the cultivation of Ki could extend one’s life. In fact, Taoist monks believed that through the practise of Qiqong and studying the Tao they could attain immortality—not immortality in the world to come, as Christians believe, but immortality in this present world—or at least extend their life spans in this current world.
In ancient China there existed two traditions of what we may call “meditation in motion” and which functioned as the precursors to modern day martial art forms or patterns. The Wudang tradition had Taoist monks training in certain motions to cultivate Ki. Originally, Ki exercises (Qigong) had nothing to do with martial arts. The other tradition was that of the Shaolin monks who also practised a type of forms for meditative purposes. Anyone familiar with the legends of the Oriental martial arts would have heard of the Indian Buddhist monk Boddhidharma teaching his Chinese Buddhist monks certain poses to increase the physical strength and so increase their ability to meditate. Coming from India, the poses he taught them were most certainly yoga poses, and not—as is commonly interpreted—martial art techniques. The Indian yogis use yoga poses as part of their meditation practise. The purpose of such meditation, in the Hindu and Buddhist tradition, is to reach Nirvana, by disconnecting with the present world, in order to transcend into a higher plain of consciousness.
The Role of the Body in Oriental Spiritual Practise
The Hindu and Buddhist tradition viewed the body dualistically. The body is merely a shell hosting the soul which transmigrates from one body upon death to a new body in an endless cycle of reincarnation until Nirvana is reached. The body was often viewed as a prison or hindrance—although a necessary one to work through one’s karma. In the Hindu tradition ascetic practitioners (yogi) would sometimes torture themselves by going through gruelling self-mastery, which may include self-mutilation, many hours of meditation in extreme physical positions (obscure yoga postures), fasting, and so on. The Buddhist tradition was less extreme, but still required thousands of hours of meditation. And as the Shaolin legend goes, in order to endure such excruciation meditation, strenuous exercise was necessary to strengthen their bodies. The true goal, however, was never the body—but the spirit, never this temporary life, but ultimate Nirvana.
The Wudang tradition was different in that it didn’t view the body dualistically. For the Taoist there was only one life, the present one. Their goal was therefore not to purge the soul of bad karma, but merely to extend the current life by cultivating life-giving Ki and by harmonizing with the Tao which would lead to a comfortable life. The purpose was more a practical one than a genuine ascetically spiritual one.
The problem with trying to interpret the ITF patterns as a tool for meditation is firstly that there is no clear line with either the Taoist Wudang tradition, as is the case with Tai-Chi Chuan, or with the Bud-dhist Shaolin tradition, as is the case with Shaolin kungfu. Neither does Taekwon-Do have the same goals as the Taoist Wudang monks or the Buddhist Shaolin monks. Taekwon-Do is purposely non-religious—a point specifically mentioned in the ITF Taekwon-Do Encyclopaedia. Furthermore, the principle founder of Taekwon-Do, General Choi Hong-Hi was very clear how he understood meditation in Taekwon-Do to be. He clearly stated that mediation in Taekwon-Do is “not a disconnection with the world, like a corpse, as in Buddhism,” (Volume 1). Moreover, General Choi purposefully broke away with the esoteric interpretations of the traditional martial arts and packaged Taekwon-Do as a modern, “scientific” art based on the natural sciences, in particular, Newtonian physics, anatomy, and physiology.
To conclude, whatever we want to say about the meditative value and possibly even ascetic value of the patterns in ITF Taekwon-Do, we must be very clear that it is not of a religious nature. It is definitely not in the same category as Shaolin kungfu. There may be some overlap with the Wudang tradition though—in that both the Taoists and Taekwon-Do has a health focus; the difference being however that for the Taoists this meant purposefully cultivating Ki, while in Taekwon-Do Ki is not emphasized and any such cultivation—assuming Ki exists—is a by-product rather than a goal in itself.
The meditative value of the ITF patterns, therefore, has to be searched for elsewhere than in the ascetic pursuits of the Chinese styles where the martial art forms supposedly originated.
Just to emphasize again, I’m making many sweeping statements about Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism and related martial arts in my writings above.