2 March - Two weeks of Zen

Dear friend Yvette, who recently took up mixed martial arts, inspired me to visit my former dojang. It has been almost 2 years since I trained at Chosun Black Belt Academy (http://www.chosunacademy.com/). Mr. Peterson, my Sah Bum Nim or instructor, was kind enough to spend time over the past two weeks to teach me several things. I found it unexpectedly exhilarating to suit up once again, as though putting on an armor of memories where attaining my first degree was somewhere in a past life. All the etiquette of respect for teacher, surroundings and the martial art of tae kwon do returned as I stepped into the dojang and bowed. I panicked as students were still milling about, not knowing whether class was beginning or ending. As a higher rank, there is much responsibility in class, i.e. opening and ending class in Korean, as well as leading exercises, sparring, forms and techniques. I was grateful in being greeted with some familiar and unfamiliar faces assuring me class had indeed just ended.

My goal was to learn my next form, Keumgang. Mr. Peterson suggested I also learn a weaponry form with a bo staff, a completely new endeavor. A form or poomse is a series of movements in a response to attacks from imaginary assailants from several directions. Here, one can see the strike of a bo staff. It has, at minimum, the strength to break a one-inch board (i.e. skull, knee, etc). This is the bo staff form, which is actually a Japanese art form.

I also wanted to see if I could brush off some dust and break some boards using some of the simpler techniques, a spinning knifehand strike and a jumpback kick.

Perusing my Chosun Black Belt Academy handbook helped me to stop, recall and appreciate anyone’s journey in receiving his or her first degree. In order to apply, we were required to submit two letters of recommendation, a statement of why we would be good candidates, our final round of zen quotes with our personal interpretations and have competed in at least four tournaments. The testing alone was a grueling 3 1/2 hours – 1 hour written and at least 2 1/2 hours physical. Upon hearing how rigorous the testing might be, I began running two weeks ahead of time just to prepare my body to sustain the exam. We were tested on the history of the art, different creeds, vocabulary and the meaning behind various symbols. We demonstrated the 65+ self-defense techniques and 12 forms, executed however the judges called them -- frontwards with somersaults in between each movement, backwards, combined with other forms. We showcased our sparring techniques with several assailants at once. Proved our knowledge of the 45 hand techniques of blocks, strikes, punches and 35 kicking techniques from simple flying side kicks, jump reverse hook kicks to 360 back kicks, breaking boards with any kicks the testing board might deem fit. I recall speaking with dear friend Shanel right after, just to exhale and decompress, but it manifested in sobbing.

I remembered the things I appreciated most during my three years at Chosun. I do believe the tone of any organization starts at the top. Mr. and Mrs. Peterson ran the school with an all-encompassing curriculum and foundation of philosophies…family first, respect, discipline and being goal-oriented, among others. With each class, we were inspired to help our fellow classmates to reach their next goal. Our instructors taught us to build camaraderie thru fun team exercises... we checked our egos at the door and participated in silly games like adult leapfrog. We utilized the same jump, which resulted in breaking two boards simultaneously by the end of class. We ended classes with meditation as well as contests such as team pushups where one person has his feet atop another’s shoulders, playing bombardment or baseball. Everyone truly felt he or she was a part of an extended family. With all the different walks of life that came through the door each day or night, we found we would choose these people as our friends outside the dojang.

Being a part of Chosun raised our standards as human beings to one another. We were reminded of simple human rules such as respect. It was a mandate to address higher ranks with a “yes mam” or “yes sir”. And as higher ranks, it was our duty to teach and respect the lower ranks. Mr. Peterson would ask the kids, "What is a good deed? It’s doing something nice for someone just because. You don’t need anything in return." The children were required to perform and list good deeds in a notebook, which was brought to every class. The curriculum outside the actual martial art…of learning the language, tasting the culture in Korean food, meditating and getting "centered", requiring us to research zen quotes, deciphering their meanings and articulating our interpretations…these were what left me with an affinity and loyalty to Chosun to this day. I relearned to work hard at something I believed in.

After teaching for almost 20 years, Mr. Peterson recently earned his fifth degree black belt, while building yet another successful school from the ground up. Congratulations, Mr. and Mrs. Peterson. Choong Sung.