Taekwondo As Spiritual Practice #1: Form, Function, Feeling And Expression

Dr. James A. Noel, PH.D

     Tae Kwon Do, like its sister martial arts, has four reciprocal levels of spiritual attainment: 1) Form, 2) Function, 3) Feeling, and 4) Expression. When these four attainments are integrated, there is Ilyo or Oneness. Ilyo is a state that is beyond verbal description but it is referenced in Hinduism, Taoism, Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity. For example, Jesus said: God, I am in you, you are in me and I am in them.” Paul wrote: “In Him (God) we live, move, and derive our Being.” Mystics and martial artists have struggled throughout the centuries to find the adequate words to describe their experience of Oneness with the Infinite. Christian mystics seek to experience oneness with the Trinity--God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit. [1]

     Human beings are also composed of a trinity—body, mind, and soul. To this we can then add spirit (the ground or basis of the afore mentioned constituents). This human trinity plus spirit corresponds with the attainment levels as follows: form is at the level of the body; function is at the level of the mind; feeling is at the level of the soul; and expression is at the level of the spirit.


     Form, the first attainment level, is achieved by mastering the basic blocks, punches, stances, and kicks comprising Tae Kwon Do. This entails understanding the principle utilized in each of the techniques for maximizing their speed and power. While performing the techniques, the body must be properly aligned and one must be balanced. Throughout the movement one must consciously coordinate one’s breathing with the relaxation and contraction of ones muscles.


     Function, the second attainment level, is achieved when one learns how to apply Tae Kwon Do’s basic techniques to simulated fighting/self-defense scenarios, such as three-step sparring and one-step sparring and, also, free-sparring. At this level, you will be performing Tae Kwon Do’s techniques with a little more understanding of their defensive and offensive applications. This understanding will give you an appreciation of why techniques are combined or sequenced in certain ways in the Hyung patterns.


     Feeling, the third attainment level, is achieved when one experiences a profound and unmistakable sense of peace and well being resulting from one’s Tae Kwon Do practice. At this level you are able to perform a hung without thinking about each individual technique. You are not doing the form at this level; the form, rather, seems to be doing you. You are now becoming one with the motion and the moment—the hung’s rhythm. As the hung is being done, you are aware of your body moving through the pattern, your body’s energies, and the space surrounding your body. You are also aware of your awareness. This non-cognitive perception of the self is not easy to describe. At its most profound level, you have a sense of Presence—The self is experienced not as a single monad but as being lodged within and permeated by a vaster, larger Presence. This feeling comes through the perfection of form and function and leads, in turn, to new insights into the nature of form and function.


     Expression, the fourth attainment level, is achieved only after years and years of Tae Kwon Do training. At this level of attainment you sometimes find yourself effortlessly performing an entirely new hung comprised of all the basic techniques that are a part of your body’s muscle memory. Something take over and you alternate from a state of consciousness wherein you are completely one with the movement and, then, into a state of consciousness where you are the observer of your body’s movement and feeling. This new hung you are doing is the conscious bodily expression of your unconscious deeper intuitions of form and function. You experience this new sequence of movements, however, as something welling up inside you and as something being revealed. You will usually not be able to reconstruct the new patterns that come to you because of the state of mind you were in while doing them. Nevertheless, the deeper insight and awareness does remain. The purpose of this attainment level is not to create a new form but, rather, to provide the process for consciously expressing what had heretofore only been unconscious.

[1]See, for example: Rudolph Otto’s The Idea of the Holy.