Taekwondo and Spirituality #2: Circularity, Linearity, and the Palgwe Concept


James A. Noel, Ph.D

     Many of my fellow Tae Kwon Do instructors lament Tae Kwon Do’s lack of the kind of explicit philosophical foundation that can be found in Chinese martial arts. In China there is an explicit connection between the martial arts and the ethical and spiritual principles of Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. This “connection with philosophy” is what should distinguish the martial arts from mundane forms of physical culture and self-defense. Because Tae Kwon Do is not taught as a method of spiritual awareness, many Tae Kwon Do practitioners discover that they have little to gain from the art once they have reached their maximum level of physical development. Unfortunately, because of its sports emphasis, most Tae Kwon Do training methods are only appropriate for persons who are in good physical condition and not older than 40 years of age. This doesn’t have to be the case. Tae Kwon Do has based its forms on the Palgwe principle. By explicating the Palgwe concept’s source in Chinese philosophy we may be able to identify some of Tae Kwon Do’s deeper dimensions.

     As a martial art Tae Kwon Do had a connection with breathing practices and meditation techniques that were designed for spiritual development and health maintenance. These Neh Kong practices did not conform to the needs of Korea’s post-WW II modernizing mentality. Eventually the inner meaning of a number of Tae Kwon Do’s stances, individual techniques, and forms or hyungs was lost. One purpose of Neh gong exercises is to help the practitioner find his ontological center and to experience “That” within which his center is grounded. This was done through standing meditation, sitting meditation, as well as moving meditation. Tae Kwon Do’s different stances were designed to assist the student to actualize different Palgwe principles/energies during standing meditation. In standing one’s focus is on one’s center and its ground. After actualizing the particular Palgwe principle in standing meditation, the practitioner would then actualize it in moving meditation. Tae Kwon Do continues to associate its different forms with one of the eight Palgwe principles. Such associations, however, are in most instances made in an arbitrary fashion and do not explicate the form’s inner principle. There is ignorance even at the higher belt levels of the meditative techniques needed to realize the ideal associated with the form. With the focus resting almost exclusively on external form there is little understanding or cultivation of martial virtue.

     The gwe concept stems from the I Ching. Virtue was envisioned as something attainable through harmonizing with the basic principles of nature that were signified in the gwe. Martial virtue is a philosophical conception and spiritual attainment that is rooted in the virtues of Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. Because the Korean Masters did not develop a literature regarding this connection between Tae Kwon Do and Asian philosophy, we must borrow from the Chinese Masters. This procedure is not as capricious that it may seem since all Asian martial arts originated in China.

     The Chinese conceived of the martial arts as a pathway to the realization of spiritual Enlightenment or the Tao. Tai Chi master Shi Ming wrote in Mind Over Matter: Higher Martial Arts that “refinement of consciousness is the core of higher training in martial arts (p.99).” Shi Ming’s notion of consciousness “does not refer to the abstract consciousness as ordinarily misconstrued by people, but to a condition in which body and mind are fused, spirit and matter are united (p. xxiv.).” Through refined consciousness or “dynamic thought” one can overcome the dualism of mind and body. It is “capable of enabling people to reach a level of profound interpenetration and harmonious merging of instinct, the subconscious, and manifest consciousness (p. 91).” Learning to defend oneself with blocks and to attack an enemy with kicks and punches is a lesser art. The real aim of martial arts training is to realize the Tao. Advanced martial artists “no longer think of hitting anyone.” Paradoxically, however, martial artists “use fighting techniques as methods of complete realization (or restoration) of the ‘original mind’ or the ‘mind of Tao’ (p101).”

     The literal definition of Tao is “Way” or “Path.” It is also somewhat synonymous with the concept of “gnosis” or a kind of knowledge of the Logos or order of Existence through a direct spiritual apprehension. In John’s Gospel Jesus is “the Logos made flesh…The Way, the Truth, and the Light.” The Chinese notion of Tao is closer to the one found in Greek philosophy than its Christian appropriation. Phenomenologically, however, the Tao has its analogy in the writings of numerous Christian mystics who describe their experience of God as a non-dualistic merging of subject and object wherein the Absolute alone is cognized in non-cognition. Dionysius the Areopagite wrote: “And if anyone who sees God recognizes and understands what he sees, then he himself hath not seen him.” Nicolas of Cusa wrote: “What satisfies the intellect is not what it understands.” Eckhart wrote: “When the soul beholds God purely, it takes all its being and its life and whatever it is from the depths of God; yet it knows no knowing, no loving, or anything else whatsoever. It rests utterly and completely within the being of God, and knows nothing but only to be with God. So soon as it becomes conscious that it sees and loves and knows God, that is in itself a departure.”

     The experience of chi is also an aspect of this martial arts phenomenology. All of the various martial arts styles have devised techniques to experience the energies found in one’s body, other persons, and nature. According to Shi Ming behind all the various martial arts schools can be discovered a “universal wave of energy (p.7).” The purpose of martial arts training is not to increase one chi at an other’s expense but to experience a oneness with nature and other persons through a practice that allows one to become conscious of and flow with the universal wave energy.

     The energy permeating the cosmos flows in spiral, circular, and linear patterns. The Tai Chi Classics admonish: “Find the straight in the curved; accumulate, then emit (Yang, Tai Chi Secrets of the Wu & Li Styles, p. 5).” It is both string-like or wave-like and photon-like or quanta-like. There are numerous Neh Gong exercises available to Martial artists to help them circulate the human body’s chi along the microscopic orbit in a circular pattern along the ren and du meridians. All the Neh gong exercises are variations of the ones introduced to the Shoalin Temple by Bodhidhrama. He was an Indian Buddhist monk. The ancient Indian yogi adepts observed energy concentrated in seven spheres along the spine, termed chakras or wheels. They, therefore, focused on the double helix like movement of energy up and down the spine and a linear projection from its base through the subsumma into the crown chakra during Self-Realization. In certain forms of Laya Yoga one’s entire body is conceptualized as the center of a cosmic circumference from which energy radiates linearly in all directions. The I Ching conceptualized the universal wave energy in the Tai Chi symbol as Yin energy and Yang energy. These two energies then differentiated themselves into eight primary archetypes or guas (gwe in Korean). Although each martial art style developed its own unique set of Neh Kong exercises, they share certain features in common.

     All the martial arts contain practices that entail deep, abdominal breathing wherein the exhalation is longer than the inhalation. The breathing is done to circulate chi/energy in a circular fashion along the microscopic orbit—from the top of the head down to the cocyx or soles of the feet and back to the head. Excess energy is stored in the energy center below the navel. In combat energy is directed from the energy center to the space between the shoulder blades and into the arms and fists. The fighting energy is emitted from the body and by the body in a straight line. There are eight primary directions that one must be concerned with for deflecting and emitting energy. The theory of the eight directions is fully developed in the Chinese martial art of BaGua (Eight Gua). The method of emitting straight power is fully developed in the Chinese martial art of Xing Yi. Karate and Tae Kwon Do emphasize straight power. However, the line cannot be fully comprehended in isolation to the circle. In other words, the opponent is a sphere who is vulnerable to eight directions of attack. My straight power can penetrate his sphere if it is emitted at the right angle. On the other hand, I can deflect my opponent’s straight power with my sphere.

     The eight gua take on the significance of eight directions—North, South, East, West, North-East, South-East, South-West, and North-West—when they are place around the Tai Chi symbol. Conceptualization of the eight gwe requires us to think simultaneously of the linear and the circular. The eight directions were particularly important in swordmanship. Place yourself in the center of a circle that forms your energy sphere. In front of you is North; behind you is South; to your right is East; to your left is West; etc. Your opponent(s), who also has an energy sphere, can be located in any one of the eight directions. Also, you or your opponent can be cut in eight different directions. The slice can occur: downward at an angle from the right shoulder to the left side or vise-a-versa; downward at an angle from the left shoulder to the right side or vise-a-versa; vertical/downward from the head to the groin or vise-a-versa; horizontal/across the mid-section in both directions. These total eight different cuts. The eight directions must be internalized for defensive and offensive purposes. When these energies can be felt in oneself and ones opponent you are ready to practice “no-mind.”

     “No-mind” is the mental state that accompanies this phenomenon in Japanese Zen Buddhism. In this state,, for example, “I as a swordsman see no opponent confronting me…I seem to transform myself into the opponent, and every move he makes well as every thought he conceives are felt as if they were all my own and I intuitively, or rather unconsciously, know when and how to strike him. All seems so natural (D.T. Suzuki, Essays in Zen Buddhism, p. 204).” This is also called Bunkai. Darrell Craig wrote, in Iai: The Art of Drawing the Sword: “In truly learning the Bunkai of swordmanship, you must find your circle and know the enemy’s circle…let him enter your circle. You must then advance into his until you have become intertwined with his attack…in his movement of attack, for one second you become the attacker (p.160).”

     The Bunkai of swordmanship can be simulated in Nneh-gong exercise, one-step sparring, free sparring, and in forms practice. What is missing in the Tae Kwon Do system, however, is a true Palgwe form. The pattern of a true Palgwe form should be a wheel with eight spokes. The practitioner would begin in the center and move in all eight directions. This pattern would facilitate the internalization of the universal energy wave as circularity and linearity. Ultimately, when one realizes the Tao there is neither line nor circle; neither center nor circumference—God alone exists in that state of consciousness. This is what Eckhart meant when he wrote: “And here one cannot speak about the soul anymore, for she has lost her name yonder in the oneness of divine essence. There she is no more called soul; she is called immeasurable being.”