Several years ago, my daughter Erin completed a 200-hour instructor training course at the Kripalu Yoga Center located in Lenox, Massachusetts. My wife and I went to pick her up one beautiful, autumn day and while walking up a stairway I noticed a poster on a wall. In it was a photo of a woman sitting on a bus with a caption reading: “I was only trying to get home from work.”
For those of us old enough to remember, the precipitous event that produced this antiquated photograph represented a world of change.
On December 1, 1955, in segregated Montgomery, Alabama, USA, after a long, hard day at work, a seamstress named Rosa Parks headed homeward. Dog tired, she took a seat in the front section of a city bus. After a few stops, the bus driver demanded that she give up her seat to a man of European descent – she refused. Shortly after, she was arrested, convicted of disorderly conduct and, subsequently, lost her job. The response of one woman to this unreasonable command inspired the 381-day Montgomery Bus Boycott. Ultimately, it helped end segregation in Alabama and is a testament to the fact that the actions of one person can have a profound effect on the fabric of humanity at large. Later, when interviewed, Ms. Parks said: “I was only trying to get home from work.”
Rosa Parks literally changed the complexion of racial discrimination in America without any premeditated intent whatsoever.
Today, as martial artists, as modern warriors endowed with an ancient wisdom, we endeavor, by example, to live a life of virtue as dictated by the Five Tenets of taekwondo: Courtesy, Integrity, Perseverance, Self-Control and Indomitable Spirit. We set our sights not on elusive perfection, but on a path to excellence both physically and ethically. As living vessels of these moral principles, we possess the power to influence change for the better whether it be at work, at home or in school. Yet, when we awake in the morning, just as Rosa Parks did one December day in 1955, we never know where our daily path will take us.
During a recent promotion test at my school, the Chosun Taekwondo Academy, a ten-year old girl rose to read her required essay on the topic of indomitable will. By the conclusion of her reading, there was not a dry eye in the audience. I feel it is safe to say that not many adults could have annunciated this virtue as well as this child did. She is small; a little wisp of a thing, yet she spoke of her confidence and how, regardless of how her peers might attempt to discourage her, she would diligently press ahead with her adolescent dreams and, eventually, with those that will flesh out her adult life. Both she and her parents attributed this sense of self-assurance directly to her taekwondo training. Who’s to say what this youngster might accomplish in the decades ahead? Might she one day change the world simply by returning home from school or work?
Fortunately for us today, the great martial arts masters of the past chose to imbue their hard-earned disciplines, no longer as viable in a world of advanced weaponry, with meritorious codes of honor in an effort to survive cultural upheaval within their society. Evidence of this trend manifested itself in the creation of Funakoshi’s karate-do and Kano’s judo. Rather than teaching techniques primarily intended to devastate an enemy on the field of battle, the original intent of the root disciple was altered, particularly during the early 20th century, for the benefit of elementary and college level students in Okinawa and Japan. For the first time in memory, martial training methods were instead utilized as a vehicle for physical fitness and character enhancement. Later, following the liberation from Japanese imperialism in 1945 that coincided with the conclusion of the World War II, Korean masters returned to their native land, continuing this tradition. We, as taekwondoists of the 21st century are the recipients this time-honored practice.
Granted, practical taekwondo was initially developed as a form of self-defense for soldiers in the theatre of combat. However, by recognizing the necessity for an ethical framework intended to govern and balance the destructive power we as martial artists possess, our predecessors fashioned an environment where altruism eclipses apathy. By way of example, the Chosun Taekwondo Academy Leadership Team – a group of active, young students whose mission it is to serve our local community under the and train with diligence – year after year generates a vast amount of revenue for the Lions Club International and provides Christmas gifts for underprivileged children. Likewise, I personally attempt to gainfully influence fellow martial artists of all ages and creeds, by teaching with integrity and by sharing my knowledge of traditional taekwondo globally, through the written word, international seminars and by exposing practitioners to seminal skills by arranging training tours to Korea – the epicenter of the taekwondo.
Nevertheless, I am certain that my students are not unique in their pursuit of virtue through the practice of traditional taekwondo even though our comprehensive curriculum clearly emphasizes the philosophical elements of the art. Many of the schools I have visited across America and abroad can easily boast of members equally as devoted to leaving a positive stamp on their communities.
Yet, regardless of the source, it is often the deed that occurs unlooked for that resonates most through humankind at large just as in the case of Rosa Parks or my young student who stands ready to create a climate of benevolence whenever necessary. Given the blueprint set down by previous generations of masters and grandmasters, the important work of cultivating an elevated lifestyle wrapped in virtue becomes less a chore and more a gratifying reward. Therefore, as modern day martial artists, we must strive for ethical consistency through the disciplined, virtuous practice of taekwondo so that if called upon by fate, we will be prepared to affect positive change anywhere, anytime or anyplace, as best we can…even if we are just trying to get home from work.