Korean Tae Kwon Do/Tang Soo Do's Pyung Ahn

Reverend Dr. James A. Noel, Ph.D.

Hyung & Asian Meditative Traditions #5

Korean Tae Kwon Do is art that has continuity with the profound
religious, philosophical, and martial traditions of other Asian cultures
such as India, China, Okinawa, and Japan. This is demonstrated
through an investigation of the origin of Korean Tae Kwon DolTae Soo
Do's Pyung Ahn Hyung and the meditative practices with which it once
was associated.


     Some form of indigenous martial arts discipline can be found in most Asian countries. Like the spread of religion, these distinctive national martial arts disciplines resulted from centuries of contacts and exchanges between peoples of different Asian countries and cultures. Indeed, the development, spread, and exchange of martial arts techniques throughout Asia were concomitant with the spread of Vajrayana (thunderbolt or diamond vehicle) Buddhism (also called Tantrayana or tantric vehicle) from India into other parts of the continent beginning in the 6th century AD. Vajrayana was the third major form of Buddhism after Hinayana and Mahyana. It grew out of the Mahayana and the theoretical formulations of the Madhyamika and Yogacara. Jack Finegan informs us (in Archaeological History of the Religions of Indian Asia) that: The practical methods the Vajrayana elaborated for reaching Enlightenment "include a whole series of yogic practices, e.g., the use of mudra (the Sanskrit word means "seal," and is applied to hand gestures, bodily postures, and so forth), of pranayama (breath control), of mantra (verbal formula), and of mandala (symbolic diagram)..." Vajrayana mudras and pranyamas were incorporated into the training routines of different martial arts. In the early 6th century AD, an Indian monk named Da Mo introduced many of these techniques into the Shoalin Temple. These techniques are described in two works authored by Da Mo: the Yi Jin Jing (Muscle/Tendon Changing Classic) and the Xi Sui Jing (Brain/Marrow Washing Classic). The first work taught the Shoalin priests how to strengthen their physical bodies. The second work taught them how to circulate Qi (energy) to clean the bone marrow and purify the blood; it also taught them how to make the brain more alert and energized. During the Song dynasty Yue Fei created a set of exercises for his soldiers based on Da Mo's Xi Jin Jing. Yue Fui's exercises were called Shi Er Duan Jin (Twelve Pieces of Brocade). Theses were later shortened into Ba Duan Jin (Eight Pieces of Brocade).

     India and then China played dominant roles in martial arts' development and systematization. One of the objective things distinguishing one style of empty handed martial arts from another is the form (Korea:hyung; Japan: kata; China: chuan/hsing) used by a particular style. Forms are sequences of blocks, punches, and kicks performed with varying amounts of tension, relaxation, and breathing according to predetermined sequences and patterns. Therefore, we can learn quite a bit regarding the evolution of particular martial arts styles by comparing their forms and tracing their form's history. No martial arts style possesses forms that can be called pure. Most styles use forms that predate them. It is only at a later stage of its evolution that a style devises forms that completely distinguish it from other styles. However, even then there will be dependence upon earlier models. Tang Soo Do/Tae Kwon Do evolved according to this pattern.


     According to Yang Jin Bang's master's thesis, A Study of the History of Modern T'aekwondo: All the heads of the major martial arts schools (kwans) that later become united under the name Tae Kwon Do (Moodukkwan, Chongdukkwan, Yunmukwan, Chidokwan, Changmukwan, Chongdokwan, and Sangmukwan) had studied some form of Japanese karate. After returning from Japan in 1944 Won-Kuk Lee founded Chongdukkwan. In the same year Pyong-Chik Ro earned his first dan in karate-do in Japan and returned to Korea to found the Sangmukwan. Hong­ Hi Choi (founder of the Odokwan in 1953) earned a second dan black belt in Karate-do from the University of Tokyo. Hwang Kee worked on Japanese railroads in Manchuria from 1939 until he returned to Korea in the early 1940s to found the Mudukkwan in November 1944. Kee reported having studied Chinese kuo-shu. He was personal friends with the founder of GoJu­ ryu, Gogen Yamaguchi, who was also in Manchuria during this period. Kee later named his art Tang Soo Do so as to emphasize Korea's cultural ties with China. The art's name was later changed to Tae Kwon Do in 1955 when the leading kwans agreed to the new name and in 1966 when the Korean government unified all the kwans under one international umbrella--the Korean Taesudo Association was renamed the International Taekwon-Do Federation. It took a number of years after these mergers for the newly united kwans to agree on which forms to adopt. Korean instructors in the US continued to teach the forms they had learned in their own kwans in Korea. Some instructors taught Kee's hyungs while others taught those used in Choi's training program, etc. During these years Tae Kwon Do was undergoing a period of rapid development, expansion, and identity formation.

     In the late 1950s Kee got his hands on a copy of the martial arts manual, Moo Yei Do Tong Ji (c 1790s). After careful study of this manual Kee attempted to link Tang Soo Do's history to Korea's pre-occupation subak martial arts tradition. Kee traces Tae Kwon Do's history as far back as the Kokuryo Dynasty (37-668 A.D.) on through the Yi Dynasty (1392­ 1907). Kee wrote:

Towards the end of the Yi Dynasty, a style of fighting developed called tae Kyun, which employed only foot techniques...

Tae Kyun developed from ancient Tang Soo Do, and modern tang Soo Do has benefited by incorporating the superb foot techniques into its style.

     According to Kee and others,Tae Kwon Do/Tang Soo Do's history is supposedly thousands of years old and indigenous to Korea. What is interesting is that, even by Kee's account, Tae Kwon Do's forms are quite modern and originate in either Okinawa, Japan, or China. This can be seen in the Pyung Ahn Hyungs that comprised the core of Kee's training program. If these forms originated outside Korea then borders to fully appreciate their depth and meaning they must be place within a broader historical-geographical context than Korea's national borders. This is true also of the hyungs initially taught by Hong-Hi Choi, another founder of modern Tae Kwon Do.

     As recently as 1965 Hog-Hi Choi was still teaching Shorin-ryu and Shorei-ryu forms (Heian 1-5, Empi, Rohai, Bassai, Kusanku, Jion, Tekki 1­ 3, Hangetsu, and Jitte) as well as his own Ch'ang Hon set. Tae Kwon Do's Palgwe Hyungs was a later creation and its Taegeuk Hyungs is a quite recent addition to its training requirements. The newer hyungs were still meant to help the student realize the earlier aims of martial arts training. When Richard Chun introduced the Taegeuk Hyungs in his Advancing in Tae Kwon Do he wrote:

     In its simplest sense, Tae Kwon Do is doing everything perfectly, without ego, and in harmony with the Universe. The goals sought are three: 1. To achieve a concentration of power 2. To realize one's own true nature, this is the real meaning of enlightenment) 3. To achieve the realization of the truth of enlightenment in everyday life.

     This was also the aim Kee sought to accomplish through his Tae Kwon Do training program. In Tang Soo Do (Soo Bahk Do) Kee points out that Korea's ancient Kong Bup martial arts training consisted internal and external training. The internal training "Sihm Kong is a kind of meditation which is done before body training to settle the spirits by ceasing worldly lust. . . it belongs to the state of the mind called Ryu in Chinese." Kee went on to explain:

     Ancient martial arts, in the course of passing ages, developed into a system of theories such as Thirteen She, Six Noh, and Ten Tankeum. These are the mothers of the principles of modern martial arts ...There are five Hang (forms) plus eight Koe...Eight Koe means eight directions and five Hang means Gold, Wood, Water, Fire, and Earth. Five Hang is divided into internal and external segments. Internal is the beginning of a movement ...The concept of the external is represented by the character Hyung, meaning form or method.

     The beginning student in Kee's program first learned a set of three Kee Cho Hyungs (I1 Boo, Ee Boo, and Sam Boo). After these foundational Hyungs were mastered the student then was introduced to the Pyung Ahn Hyungs (Cho Dan, Ee Dan, Sam Dan, Sa Dan, and Oh Dan) which came to Korea from Okinawa via Japan. After approximately three to four years of hard training the student would be ready to master the Basahee Hyung which was one of the requirements for obtaining the black belt rank. Each Pyung Ahn form incorporates introduces a new technique or stance while incorporating certain postures from the hyung that preceded it. The Basahee Hyung incorporates movements from all the Pyung Ahn Hyungs. According to Kee the Basahee Hyung's original Chinese name was Pal Che whose rough translation is the best choice or best selection. Kee wrote: "Movements of this form are selected from the most famous and effective movements of So Rim Sa (a southern Chinese temple)..." While Master Kee traced the Basahee Hyung to a Buddhist temple in southern China he gave the Pyung Ahn Hyungs only a hundred year history. Kee wrote:

     Originally this form was called "Jae-Nam." Approximately 100 years ago an Okinawan master, Mr. Idos, reorganized the Jae nam form into a form closely resembling the present Pyung Ahn forms. By completely mastering the Pyung Ahn forms one can develop a feeling of "Pyong Ahn" (peace and confidence).

     Later Kee notes that the Pyung Ahn form was originally created in the Hwa Nam area of China. Kee's commentary conveys the impression that The Okinawan Master, Idos, was not only responsible for reorganizing the Jae Nam form but, also, for renaming it Pyung Alm.


     Master Idos real name was "Ankoh Yasutuns Itosu (1813-1915). Itosu whose top students were Gichin Funakoshi, Chosin Chibana, Kenwa Mabuni, and Kanken Toyama, to name a few, had studied under Kosaku Matsumura. Matsumura created the Shorin-ryu school of Karate. Matsumura had studied under a Chinese military attache in Okinawa named Kong Su Kung (Kusanku). One of the principle series of katas in the Shorin-ryu and Shotokan Karate systems is named Kusanku. This form is called Kong San Goon Hyung in the Korean Tang Soo Do system. Matsumura is also said to have briefly studied with a shipwrecked Chinese sailor. This encounter resulted in Matsumura creating the Chinto kata that became Jin Do in the Tang Soo Do system. While some Okinawan accounts also credit Itosu as the creator of the "pinan" katas as did Kee, they trace "Patsai's" origin to China and note that it was one of favorite katas practiced by both Itosu and his teacher, Matsumura.


     In my view there is an intrinsic relationship between Pyung Ahn Hyungs, Basahee, Jin Do, Kusangu, and Rohai as well. This is suggested through a mere comparison of the movements in each of these forms. These forms clearly belong to the same family. After each of these forms is mastered, the hypothesis is further sustained by observing the psycho­ somatic effects produced while executing these forms. The hyungs (Korean), katas (Okinawan/Japanese), chuans and hsings(Chinese), natas (Indian) or forms were designed to serve as external expressions of spiritual states of consciousness and philosophical principles. Therefore, hyungs are always practiced on at least three levels. There is the external level of the form dealing with the physical postures and movements the form dictates. There also is the internal state of mind prerequisite for the form's proper external execution. There also is the insight or understanding that eventually occurs after years of properly executing the form. This happens when the practitioner's consciousness assumes the shape of the principle the form embodies. One experiences the form flowing through his/her body while he/she acts as the observer of the form's movement in the body. One writer explained that the martial arts are practiced on three levels: form, function, and feeling. Form refers to the external physical movements; function refers to the movement's self-defense application; feeling refers to the psycho-somatic effects. The effects are always occurring; feeling them means becoming conscious of what is happening. Consciousness strengthens the effects. The practitioner becomes consciousness not only of the body and its movement but also of the internal energies or life force that enables the movement. To these stages I would add a fourth component and call it "realization"-the insight that remains in the consciousness of the practitioner even after the psycho-somatic effects have worn off. Other spiritual practices performed this role in Asia prior to the systemization of its martial arts. Hathayogic asanas served this function in Hinduism and Mudras (symbolic hand gestures) served this function in Hinduism and also Indian, Tibetan, and Chinese Buddhism. Indeed, one cannot help but notice the appearance of identical movements and postures when comparing martial arts forms with certain hathayogic asanas, Buddhist mudras. This is especially true when we examine the movements and postures falling under the "internal" category of Ki-gong (Chinese) or Neh Kong (Korean) exercises. That Cha'n (Japanese: Zen) Buddhism was introduced to China in 526/7 A.D. by an Indian monk called Da Mo should make this come as no surprise. Da Mo also made innovations in the Shoalin Temple's spiritual regime by introducing static and dynamic hatha yoga exercises along with pranayama into its routine. We find no martial arts manual describing the cultivation and correlation of Qi (internal energy) with martial forms prior to the Liang dynasty (502-557 A.D.). In Taiji Chin NaYang Jwing-Ming wrote:

     Before the Chinese Han dynasty (206 B.C. - 221 A.D.), there were only two schools of Qigong practice: the medical group and the scholarly group. It was not until the East Han dynasty (circa 58 A.D.) that Buddhist Qigong was imported to China from India. Still, even then very little training theory and methods were passed down. The many Buddhist holy writings or Chinese classics which a student could obtain were purely the doctrines of Buddhism, and talked very little about how to cultivate Qi internally.

     As mentioned earlier, we can still discern an Indian trace in certain ancient Shoalin forms still extant such as the Bodhidharma Jin Gang Quan (Diamond Fist Form) and some of its off shoots such as the Chen Style Taijiquan's Lao Jia Yi Lu (first frame) and Lao Jia Er Lu (second frame). All the aforementioned forms begin with the execution of the "Vajra fist" where the right fist is placed in the left palm. This posture has a practical self-defense application. However, before its incorporation into the Shoalin and Taijichuan forms the Vajra fist was a powerful Buddhist mudra about which there is a vast body of literature. A version of the Vajra fist is performed at the beginning of the bassahee form. As indicated earlier, in Sanskrit Vajara means thunderbolt (Chinese: Ching Kang; Japanese: Kongo). It also means diamond. Numerous statues throughout Asia show the Bodhisattva with his hands in the Vajra fist position. It symbolized self­ unification and the power to dispel evil while pursuing the path of Enlightenment. According to Finnegan:

     In the sense of "thunderbolt" the vajra can mean that which strikes through suddenly and irrestibly, and can provide a picture of the breaking in of supreme enlightenment, which the Vajrayana believe can indeed happen instantaneously ...As a symbol and as a ritual instrument the vajra...appears in a form probably borrowed originally from the symbol of the Hindu diety Indra and originally signifying a thunderbolt. ..It may also be the form of a Greek cross, with rays radiating from its four ends.

     The unarmed martial art system of India's Ksatreya class came to be called Vajramukti (Sanskrit) after that class had become significantly influenced by Buddhist teachings. The suffix "mukti" means spiritual liberation as in "jivamukti" or liberated soul. Vajramukti (Chinese: Ching Kang Chuan/Ching Kang Chieh; Japanese: Kongoken/Kongogedatsu) means Clasped Hand of the Thunderbolt or Liberating Thunderbolt. Thus, the Vajramukti forms (Sanskrit: natas) were designed to embody this ideal. Some of the natas were made to correspond with the five element's (earth, water, fire, air, space or ether) symbolic significance in Buddhism. Each nata was designed to embody an element's principle. The principle, in turn, represented and corresponded with a mental state or pattern (Sanskrit: Skhanda). The five Skhandas are and their corresponding elements are as follows: form/earth; feeling or sensation/water; perception/fire; ideation/air; and consciousness/ether. The Mahabhuta Nata (Five Great Elements Nata) was an important form that helped the aspirant experience the above mentioned correspondences. It was a moving meditation on the relationship between one's own existence and the elements comprising all physical existence. This form was called Wu Tai and Godaigyo in Chinese and Japanese Buddhism, respectively. By at least the fifth century we find the five sections of Mahabuta Nata being referred to in China as Pinan Hsing (Japanese: Byogo). According to Shifu Nagaboshi Tornio's research:

     This series of Hsing seems to have been preserved in China for many years, but in the Tang dynasty was renamed the Ping An (Peaceful Equanimity) Hsing.

     ...These systems are often claimed to be the "originals" of other Taoist pentamerous sequences of boxing or self­ defense.

     We can see traces of the Ping title particle in the Ping Kuan meditation of the Tien T'ai sect, which describes it as a meditation concerned with merging the phenomenal and noumenal realms of existence ...The Ping Kuan was always associated closely with the practice of Kuan Kung meditation common to Chuan Fa. A much later Ryukuan student of Chuan Fa named Itosu (Chinese: Su Chow) mentions studying a set of Ping An Hsing under the Chinese esoteric monk Li Tsun San (Japanese: Rijunsan) in the late 1800s.


     When Tae Kwon Do/Tang Soo Do's Pyung Ahn form is situated within its broader Asian historical/cultural/mystical context the standard accounts of its origin .must be judged as incomplete, inaccurate and misleading. Grand master Kang Uk Lee, President of the International tang Soo Do Federation repeated Kee's error when he wrote in Tang Soo Do: The Ultimate Guide to the Korean Martial Art: "Pyung Ahn Hyung was originally called Je Nam Hyung. It was devised approximately 130 years ago by separating Je Nam Hyung into five components. Pyung Ahn Hyung symbolizes the turtle." This statement shows no awareness of the fact that the form was originally structured in five sections to correspond with the five elements. Lee wants to associate Pyung Ahn Hyung with one particular animal-the turtle. Actually, the Pyung Ahn Hyung invokes several animals-the most prominent being the Crane. Itosi's innovation probably had more to do with his restructuring the form by making it much more symmetrical than the Chinese version. Every movement performed by the left side of the body is repeated on the right. This works both sides of the brain and makes the form's external movements and directions more consistent with the Yin-Yang theory. The Okinawans also made each of the form's movements and stances distinct and kept them from running into one another. This resulted in a different aesthetic arising from the Okinawan, Japanese, and Korean forms as compared with their Chinese originals. The emphasis is on linear power, stability, and precision rather than circular speed and fluidity. However, the directional orientation and reference of North, South, East, and West (and also, Northeast, Southeast, Northwest, and Southwest) indicates that the straight lines of movement are contained within the circle these lines intersect. There are circular patterns in the changes from one direction to another that employ ninety and one hundred and eighty-degree turns. Furthermore, it is circular movement that facilitates the power transferred to the fist from the ankles, knees, hip, shoulder, and rotation of the arms. This involves the entire body. The key to moving to the advanced level of Tae Kwon Do/Tang Soo Do training and executing its forms properly is in understanding how to produce linear energy from circular energy in one's defense and offence. The straight lines are always generated by circles. The more respect and understanding we have of our forms the better we are able to execute them properly. When practicing our Pyung Ahn Hyungs we should recall Kee's statement:

     Perfect form, exquisite fusion of mind and body, is a high art and a thing of beauty...

     The practitioner cannot remember only the order of the form. It is more important for him to concentrate on balance, rhythm, breathing control, variation in speed and power control. It is vital to pay attention to these things so that the form is presented as an approach to a living ideal.

     The Pyung Ahn Hyung's ideal is equanimity and peace.


     If we have succeeded in establishing a link between the martial arts and Buddhist and Daoist spiritual practices, we still must wonder what value this has for martial arts training in our modern/secular age. Not all martial arts practitioners are Buddhist or Daoist. Some of us are Christian, some are Jewish, some are Muslim, and many are not members of any religious tradition. Does this necessitate de-emphasizing the meditative practices originally connected with the martial arts? Grandmaster Young Ku Yun, former Chairman of the International Taekwon-Do Federation Techniques Committee, thinks not„ In an interview that appeared in the July 1999 issue of Tae Kwon Do Times Young said:

     During my martial arts career, I have met literally thousands of students and instructors who are disheartened with their present organization, style and future. Will martial arts survive another 20 years?...The martial arts of today are simply teaching students the art of fighting ...This may have been fine for the last few decades, but in today's rapidly changing times and demoralizing culture, I began to realize that there was a strong need for an art form with a true philosophical base, one that emphasized self-cultivation of the mind, body and spirit. It should promote a genuine care and love for fellow human beings and not encourage aggression and a tournament win only attitude is very important for our future that we make the conscious effort to promote harmony and understanding amongst humankind.

     What Young is calling for is far more easily said than done. Whatever meditative practices are introduced into a modern training program must be ecumenical in nature so as to not offend or conflict with a student's religious background and beliefs. One should not be required to convert a martial arts instructor's religion to train with him or her. We need to guard against the danger of cult formation. On the other hand, many of us justifiably refuse to teach students how to execute deadly techniques unless we are convinced of their emotional, moral, and spiritual maturity. This cannot merely be a prerequisite for martial arts training; martial arts training must also facilitate a student's moral, emotional, and spiritual maturation and growth. Without the awakening of emotional, moral, and spiritual sensibility the martial arts practitioner will never approach the state of Pyung Ahn (peace and equanimity). Some writers such as Michael Maliszewski would have us amend martial arts training with meditation techniques brought in from the outside. In Spiritual Dimensions of the Martial Arts Maliszewski advocates the following:

     Given this state of affairs, a number of suggestions can be made to strengthen the relationship between martial arts and meditative traditions, both experientially and scholastically. To begin, once the variability in range of experiential possibilities is recognized and the authenticity of respective teachers established, truly advanced meditation teachers in conjunction with knowledgeable behavior scientists, historians of religion, and allied specialists could then proceed to suggest specific exercises to enhance and compliment meditative-martial exercises already employed in particular martial arts.

     What I have tried to indicate in this paper is that there are many profound meditative practices already encoded in the forms that are practiced in various martial arts traditions-in this case the Pyung Ahn hyung. Our first task then is to understand the spiritual meaning and possibilities of what is already at hand. Those of us who have reached the level of profeniency in our respective arts to consider ourselves masters have the responsibility of experiencing our hyungs at their depth. In practicing our hyung, when we move from form to function and then to feeling we are able to grasp the principle it embodies. This is a type of meditation and leads to a type of enlightenment.