12 June 2013

What the Meditative Value in the ITF Patterns Is Not

I hope to continue my series on the value of the ITF patterns, and in my next installment in this series, I want to discuss the meditative value of the patterns. Most people that uncritically accept Oriental mysticism as part and parcel of the Oriental martial art package may not realize that such a discussion is anything but straightforward. As westerners (as I assume most of the readers of this blog are), we have no tradition of “meditation in motion,” as the patterns are sometimes described. Actually, the idea of meditation in its modern Oriental manifestation in the West is quite foreign—yes, the European, i.e. Christian tradition, has a history of meditation but what is meant by the word “meditation” is quite different.

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.


Ørjan Nilsen said...

Thank you for writing this. I have been Reading just about everything you have written so far, and I must say that this one blew me away... I hope you will Write more about this in the future.

You say that the notions of Ki was excluded, but there are several Things contained within Taekwondo (at least Kukkiwon Taekwondo) that are in fact Kigung excersises. For instance the Chumbi Seogi, the use of Danjun Hohup (breathing) in certain movements within the forms and Kihap being the most obvious ones.

SooShimKwan said...

Indeed, some Ki-related aspects are still retained and Breathing is one of the six main principles in power generation in ITF Taekwon-Do.

However, in ITF Taekwon-Do there is no specific emphasis put on Ki, but rather on Newtonian physics. Even the esoteric "danjeon" term has been replaced with the more common terms "hips" or "waist". (Although the "danjeon" is sometimes implied.)

For those interested in Ki, there is surely a loose framework to pursue this in, but it is not something that gets much attention in ITF Taekwon-Do.

Power generation in orthodox ITF Taekwon-Do is described purely from a natural science paradigm.

Unfortunately I cannot speak much about Kukkiwon Taekwon-Do as it is not my primary training focus.

Thanks for your compliments and dropping by.

Anonymous said...

As a christian orthodox priest I have come up with the "mystical" part of martial arts many times.I agree that TKD ITF doesn't have much to do with internal power or similiar stuff.Gen.Choi Hong Hi created a system based in physics.Maybe that's the reason why TKD was so easily spread in the western world.It was easier to understand how power generates.

Ørjan Nilsen said...

Taekwondo is explained in Scientific terms (and that was the reason I chose it as it was "easy" to understand) and it is much the same way in Kukki Taekwondo. Little to no emphasis is given on "Ki", but gaining some understanding in this area really enlighten a lot of the Things we do in training. Now Ki is so closely Integrated in Korean culture that it is not strange that it influenced Taekwondo training eventhough Choi Hong Hi chooses to either explain it scientificly (and I like that) or not explaining it at all.

In Kukkiwon forms you never bend forwards or backwards eventhough bending forwards would aid the official Applications. Why is this? I was explained that the forms were also used as Kigung excersises and to promote a free flow of Ki you need the Three energy centers aligned in one line (the Three centers being the Third eye,, solar plexus and Danjun).

Ørjan Nilsen said...

The usage of forms training as a kigung excersise is older than Taekwondo. In fact one of the articles in the Okinawan Bubishi is about this very thing..

SooShimKwan said...

Fr Kostas,

I agree, that Taekwon-Do's non-religious stance definitely contributed to it being spread very easily in many parts of the world, including both Christian and Islamic parts of the world. The "scientific" explanations also appeals to the materialistically minded, as some of my atheist friends who also enjoy Taekwon-Do confess.

SooShimKwan said...

Ørjan Nilsen,

Yes, the use of qigong exercises in forms is indeed much older than Taekwon-Do and very much a part of the forms of many different martial arts. I doubt, however, that it is indeed a purpose of the Taekwon-Do forms. Nonetheless, there are certain motions in the Taekwon-Do forms that do resemble qigong motions and which may even be employed for this purpose.

Regarding the upright posture, I'm not fully convinced that ki-development is the reason. The traditional martial arts value equilibrium (balance) as one of the primary martial art principles -- an upright posture with the head over the hips is most ideal in this regard.

Thank you for your comments.

Ørjan Nilsen said...

Thank you for writing:-)

Chris said...

"As westerners (as I assume most of the readers of this blog are), we have no tradition of “meditation in motion,” as the patterns are sometimes described."

Well, yes and no. The Christian west does have various body postures and movements that are associated with meditative prayer. Kneeling, standing, making the sign of the cross, etc. are well known examples of this. Making the stations of the Cross, which often entails actual locomotion by those in prayer is also an example of Christian meditation I motion.

Less well know is St. Dominic's (the founder of the Dominicans) Nine Postures. While the majority of these are bodily postures one adapts while at prayer the ninth posture was engaging in meditative prayer while travelling by foot.

That all being said, you're quite right that the *nature* of meditation between Christianity and Eastern religions differs markedly. The bodily postures and motions used in western meditation are not so much focused on simply attaining an "empty mind" but rather to call to mind the mysteries that are being contemplated. Many people tend to make too big of a distinction between body and soul in the west, which is quite alien in much of Christianity's history. Man is a composite being; the soul is the form (that is, the formal cause) of the body. You distinguish soul from body in order to *unite* them.

"Actually the idea of meditation in its modern Oriental manifestation in the West is quite foreign—yes, the European, i.e. Christian tradition, has a history of meditation but what is meant by the word “meditation” is quite different."

Exactly. Christian meditation is, to some extent, more active than eastern meditation in that it is a reflection on some aspect of the faith, Scripture, etc. In the Old Testament the people were told to meditate on the Law day and night. The Rosary combines meditation on aspects of Jesus' life with mental prayer.

Even infused prayer (i.e. prayerful contemplation initiated by God) results in a dialogical state between God and the soul.

Stuart W. Mirsky said...

Interesting remarks on the difference between Buddhism and Taoism and their respective roles in the martial arts.

I studied a form of "karate" which had its genesis in Japanese Shotokan transplanted to Korea to become one of the variants of early Korean karate (before the consolidation into modern taekwondo). Of course, Japanese Shotokan traces its own roots back to the Shuri te traditions of Okinawan karate or kempo (ch'uan fa in Chinese) which extend back into southern China and many of the kung fu traditions that existed there.

My teacher sought to restore to the karate he had brought with him to the U.S. from his native Korea the "classical" elements which he believed were to be found in kung fu (given the tradition that karate descends from southern Chinese king fu).

Over the years he changed the methods and techniques he was teaching to become increasingly kung fu-like. However, the most important influence on him was tai chi (which he studied under Taiwanese expatriate master Cheng Man-Ching) and so tai chi really dominates his methods and system.

Now the kung fu methods he adopted come from the Buddhist Shaolin tradition, via styles like Hung Gar, Wing Chun and Choy Li Fut, but it was the tai chi principle of sensitivity and fluidity, conjoined, that governed his amalgamation of kung fu and traditional karate techniques.

Your point about the difference between the Buddhist Shaolin and Taoist tai chi traditions intrigues me since I had not realized, until now, that there was such a divergence as you describe. Indeed, I had always thought that Zen Buddhism, the kind of Buddhism my teacher practiced and which may well have been the sort practiced by the Shaolin monks, was, itself, a fusion of traditional Buddhism from India (the Theravada tradition) and China's native Taoist tradition. If so, there is also an important link, which is highlighted all the more by the difference in metaphysical perspective (dualism for Buddhism vs. physicality for Taoism) you ascribe to the two traditions.

Certainly my teacher, who adopted Zen Buddhism in his later years, believed in a fusion of the two!

SooShimKwan said...


Interestingly, the idea of Zen in the martial arts is a more strongly Japanese characteristic than a Chinese one. My hypothesis is that the meditative value of the Taekwon-Do patterns is more a Japanese Zen one, than a Chinese one. Movement wise, I think the modern ITF patterns teach us Chinese internal style concepts, but mind wise, it is more Japanese. I'll hopefully get to write a post on that soon.

Thank you for your comments.

Stuart W. Mirsky said...

It certainly seems true that the Japanese make more of a "thing" out of meditating in karate than the Chinese do with kung fu. I'd guess it's a function of the Japanese tendency to regimentation and to stripping things down to their leanest (a particular characteristic of Zen but seen in much of archaic Japanese culture). My teacher, a Korean who settled in the U.S., was very attracted to the practice of Zen but he was also strongly drawn to the more complex and flowery movements of kung fu (and, especially, the circularity of tai chi). These do not always seem to fit with the Zen admiration for bare essentials.

My teacher did strip away all practice of particular techniques, the "combinations" taught in so many styles, in favor of reliance on various practices to bring out suitable combat responses. His focus was always on us allowing our bodies to find the right response rather than trying to apply some prescribed moves to particular situations. As such he adopted Wing Chun's sticking hands and tai chi's pushing hands, while dropping the old karate exercise of "one point" or "one step" where one guy moves on the other and the other defends and counters with a variety of different techniques. He just thought that pointless.

Instead he pushed us to do hours and hours of sticking hands (and, once we'd reached black belt level and learned the tai chi form he taught) hours and hours of pushing hands. Combined with basics and forms (which contained the record of the kinds of moves he felt effective but which he let us interpret to suit our own physical capacities) plus, of course, hours and hours of sparring practice, he gave us a system of "karate" which many of us came to find pretty effective.

It's not the only way to learn karate or the only kind of karate worth learning. I have an abiding respect for the classical Okinawan, Japanese and Korean systems, but his approach, which united Chinese elements with the karate tradition proved itself to me over the years. However, I admit to always being curious about his strange approach which melded the leanness of Zen as found in Japan with the heavily layered traditions of ancient China. Perhaps it was because, as a Korean expatriate in America, he had no allegiance to any particular culture but had his feet in several worlds. (His school was only a short distance from New York's Chinatown and he was often involved with kung fu practitioners there. But having Korean and, some said, Japanese roots, his starting point probably lay with those cultures. Being an expat in America though probably freed him from hidebound allegiance to either.

Alexis Moore said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
This will help people's knowledge and research about taekwondo.

Martial Arts Brisbane

David Kiy said...

This blog is really good. As someone who is coming back to ITF Taekwondo after years in the Chinese arts, it really helps bridge the gap.

Just one thing, the West did and does have a meditative tradition of stilling the mind, very similar the the Eastern traditions that use mantras. Please refer to the medieval manuscript called 'the cloud of unknowing'. This tradition is and was very rare.

Keep up the food work.