My very best buddy from High School is testing for his black belt this Friday. He trains a different style martial art than we do here at Tulen Center, but the spirit of it feels familiar. The style of Tae Kwon Do that he trains is traditional, based in compassion, even as the students learn to fight with all their heart, just like we do.
One summer, a few years back, my husband, my two kids and I were visiting Jon, his wife and his two kids in Western MA, and we had the opportunity to join his Dojang for a class. Both of our families were there and it was a wonderful evening, full of sharing and respect. Even though the style wasn’t Poekoelan Tjimindie Tulen, we all felt very at home and very welcome.
As part of the black belt testing process, students at Ashfield Tae Kwan Do are asked to write an essay. Jon sent me his, and I loved it. Jon’s a writer, he’s smart and he’s pretty funny. So I’m grateful he’s letting me share this with you. Enjoy!
By JONATHAN DIAMOND
Essay submitted for the rank of black belt
Ashfield Tae Kwon Do
Master Roger Lynch
April 20th 2012
Jon visiting Tulen Center in 2008 learning Choke Front Second Variation
An author and father of two whom I admire once wrote that, the moment you become a dad you find yourself making some big promises. As you cradle that baby in your arms you silently swear to be a paragon of virtue; to be strong, kind, brave, prudent, smart about money, and good with tools. In short, you promise to be someone else, someone better, and someone who will instill in his children a sense of discipline, confidence, power and safety—which is why I thought I might need some help. So as soon as my sons were old enough I signed them up for a martial arts class.
We chose Tae Kwon Do because the school is close to our home and is run by a
man who conducts the classes the way Jesus would if he thought the best way for “peace and love to be multiplied” was to teach children how to use their bodies as weapons. A year after enrolling the boys I joined too. As I quickly discovered, when you take up a discipline like Tae Kwon Do at my age you’re probably not going to develop ‘abs of steel’. A starring role in the latest martial arts blockbuster “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Cellulite” is more likely. Why would my opponent bother with a wrist grab when I have love handles I kept wondering to myself?
Riding home from the Dojang (school) last month my oldest son, Julian, asked me
how I thought his class had gone. “I’m really trying to bump my game up a notch or two
and train as if I were already a red belt,” he said. I told him it showed. And then he
started talking animatedly about a match he’d had with one of our young black belts, Eli.
When I first met Eli he was a painfully shy, awkward teenager. Eli started his training when he was seven, the same age as my sons Julian and Oliver began theirs. Despite his formidable skills—his flying kicks have the hang time of a LeBron James dunk shot—Eli had to wait a long time to test for his black belt. This is because our Master won’t test anyone for the rank of black belt before his or her eighteenth birthday. However, the match Julian was referring to took place six months ago just before Eli
headed off to the Coast Guard. “Master Lynch said we were so fast he was having a hard time keeping up with our kicks and punches—that was my best match ever!” he said excitedly. He was right. Julian then remarked how much he loved sparring with Eli and that he missed his gentle presence and intense, wiry energy in the Dojang since he’d been gone. I realized that I love Eli too. For the same reasons Julian does. And that got me thinking that there isn’t a single man I’ve met who sits on the board of this school, past or present, that I wouldn’t be thrilled—ecstatic—to have either of my sons turn out like. Not one.
You just can’t imagine how good that feels to me as a father. I am privileged to
have my sons be part of something like that. I want them to understand that when you
find a place as special as this you don’t sit on the sidelines and watch, you join in. When
you discover something this good, you do whatever you have to do to support it and
while that will, inevitably, entail a lot of hard work and sacrifice, it’s neither. It’s service.
This strikes at the core of what has been, for me, the most challenging part of this journey—that is, trying to figure out my place in the Dojang and Tae Kwon Do’s in my life. What is the meaning and purpose of all this training, beyond staying healthy and fit?
I often feel like the Emma Goldman of Tae Kwon Do: “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to
be in your martial art…” Taking myself, and the form, more seriously has been an
important part of the process for me. More specifically, learning how to channel my
natural joy and zest for life in constructive ways so my energy doesn’t distract from, but
contributes to, the work of the community has been crucial to my process. Like most
journeys or quests of this type, it’s involved a lot of searching.
In my case, it’s required my trying to stay more in the present moment during
class—in stretches and basics, not just when sparring or doing forms. My mantra for the
past six months has been focus, Focus, FOCUS. Honestly, that’s been a lifelong project
One of the most stressful moments in this effort took place when I was testing for
my yellow belt. Prior to demonstrating my test form, Master Markey asked me to
describe, “In one word, please” the most essential part of Tae Kwon Do. As the black
belts sitting on the board in front of me waited patiently for my response, I could feel the
stares of all the friends and family members gathered in the audience behind me. Hoping to buy a little time, I inhaled and stood up on my toes with my arms raised over my head, as if readying to perform one of the moves in Palgwe Pal Jang or Koryo. And then I found it. “Breath,” I said, exhaling and lowering my arms to my side. No matter what else I manage to accomplish in my training, I will always remember the look of astonishment and pleasure on Master Markey’s face when I came up with that answer. I felt as if I’d uncovered the secret of the universe. But this master student exchange, with its Freudian overtones of child-like admiration and parental approval, did not result in my cracking the code of an ancient practice. These moments, as gratifying as they can be when they happen, are more like flotation devices than Rosetta Stones. They buoy our spirits and help us stay afloat and remain calm when we find ourselves in a tight spot or trying to comprehend one of life’s inexplicable mysteries. Similar to the haikus Master Lynch occasionally reads before class, they’re little alleluias. They are our way of offering praise to the world.
Tae Kwon Do hasn’t unlocked the secret of happiness or blessed me with wisdom
beyond my years. It hasn’t mended my parents’ broken marriage, healed the wounds of
childhood or filled that empty space deep inside me. What Tae Kwon Do has done is gift
me a Dojang full of people who love me despite my shortcomings, or, more accurately,
because of them. I haven’t experienced a sense of community this powerful or a love this unconditional outside a twelve-step meeting. It provides me a spiritual practice that gets me through my toughest days (most of them anyway). And, best of all, for the first time ever, I’m actually meditating in the company of others—even if we spend the rest of class, trying to kill each other or learning how to inflict terrible, horrible, unmentionable pain on an unsuspecting attacker.
It Takes a Village
On Saturdays the Dojang transforms into a Korean version of Brigadoon, the
village of Scottish folklore that appears out of the clouds every hundred years. You never know who is going to show up. Former students return from college. A green belt and mother of two who took thirteen years off to raise her family comes back to continue her training. Black belts visit from strange, exotic, faraway lands like Japan and Turners
Falls. And, no matter how long it’s been since we’ve seen each other, time freezes.
Relationships pick up right where they left off. It’s an odd kind of intimacy. You can
stand next to a person for three, five, seven years without knowing much else about him
other than what brand of deodorant he uses (or that he doesn’t), but you share this intense bond together. Or, conversely, between bows and a quick handshake, you might learn about a huge death or tragedy in someone’s life. Two of my sparring partners, Dan and Louise, lost parents last year, Louise her mother, Dan both his mom and dad. Sometimes our toughest fights are the ones we face outside the Dojang.
One Tuesday in class we were learning how to perform the butterfly kick. Crescent kick. Plant. Spin counterclockwise. Fall on my ass. Repeat. Crescent kick. Plant. Spin counterclockwise. Fall on my ass. Mine was a beautiful kick (other than that last part). At the end of class, I was sparring with one of my teachers, Ms. Lorde. Ms. Lorde is a third-degree black belt. Pound for pound she is easily the most powerful person in the
Dojang. She’s also the reason they call what we do an “art.” During sparring lower ranks
are encouraged to try out any new kicks or combinations taught earlier. Mae West said
when choosing between two evils, she likes to pick the one she hasn’t tried before. So I tried my butterfly kick (again). Crescent kick. Plant. Spin counterclockwise. Land…Land! Ms. Lorde just stood staring at me, her feet cemented to the floor. I did another. This time, neither of us moved. And then (I feel like Dave Barry when he writes, “I’M NOT MAKING THIS UP”) she took both my gloved hands in hers and started jumping up and down shouting, “Oh my God, Jonathan! You ARE a butterfly!!”
The majority of students who make it to the rank of black belt, in any practice, not just Tae Kwon Do, are not, necessarily, the most skilled or talented martial artists in their disciplines. Some, like Ms. Lorde, clearly are. What it takes for most of us to achieve this milestone is, more than anything, a boatload of persistence and resilience. It is a long, long journey. There are so many setbacks and detours you encounter along the way—some good (e.g., children and school), some bad (e.g., injuries and family crises). When Ms. Lorde, or one of the other black belts, carries on like that in response to some small thing we did in class, well…Reactions like that have the half-life of plutonium. They can sustain you through a lot of the hard times and help you roll with all the little speed bumps life puts in your path.
The Heart is a Muscle
Ours is a family Dojang. The majority of us are not athletic, young twentysomething
year-olds like Eli or testosterone-charged teens like my sons. Consequently, some of the most impressive displays of Tae Kwon Do come from our hearts not our bodies, or surface in random acts of kindness.
It all starts with Master Lynch. In the kids class he sees where the children are, where they’ve been and where they’re ready to go. He doesn’t pander to them. And the kids know it. He teaches the adults the same way. He has a gift for finding that one special thing each of us does well and nurturing it. He brings grace and beauty out of clumsiness. Out of crudeness he gets poetry. He’s constantly asking us to stretch beyond our limits. He leads by example. I’ll never forget the morning Master Markey and Master White carried him into the Dojang to teach class following his abdominal surgery. Their love for him was so tangible that day you could have broken it like a board. Collectively, these men have over eight decades of Tae Kwon Do between them. Seventeen stripes adorn their black belts. But, to me, that tender exchange between the three of them was as powerful as any move executed by a Zen warrior on a field of battle.
Another of my teachers is a second degree and a breast cancer survivor. After she was diagnosed, our whole class sat with her in Muknyum (meditation) and prayed for her treatment to go well. She attended classes right up until the day of her operation. As soon as the stitches healed she started chemotherapy and resumed her training. Up all night. Sick. Sometimes she would just stop in the middle of one of her forms, like an exhausted caribou at a watering hole, and stand motionless in the middle of the Dojang. After a couple of minutes had passed she would continue on like nothing happened. I’ve never witnessed a more daring act of bravery in my life.
For some, just standing is an accomplishment. A young girl who trained with my sons in the kids’ class, suffers from a potentially life-threatening neuromuscular disease. Her parents are two of my teachers I’ve worked with the longest. They have three daughters, two of whom have the same illness. I don’t know how this family found the time to cook breakfast, never mind achieve the rank of black belt. In class, we’d take turns helping this student keep her balance and stay on her feet.
In the Dojang, life works the way it does in a family or in church: The less broken
take care of the more broken.
I keep coming back to parenting. Barbara Kingsolver wrote that mothers parent from the bottom up. That’s the way Master Lynch teaches class. We don’t separate ourselves by rank or skill. Everyone stays together. When a new student joins the Dojang, we all practice getting into Junbi (ready position) and learn how to bow all over again.
The Hyungs (forms) we study en route to our black belt are named after different elements found in nature—such as heaven, lake, fire, thunder, wind, water, mountain, and earth. They are patterns with set moves we repeat each time we demonstrate them, but, as in the natural world, there is room for self-expression. In class, we visualize ourselves moving like the wind (Oh Jang), leaping like flames in a wildfire (Sam Jang) or
ascending a steep mountain (Chil Jang). The images are powerful and archetypal and lend themselves easily to interpretation. Except for Koryo, which, simply, means Korea. The first of the black belt forms, the name “Koryo” derives from a proud dynasty whose spirit is reflected in its movements. In the opening move, we cup our hands in the shape of a circle (yin yang) and hold it out in front of us. Mr. Rawlings shared with me that when trying to make this form his own he pictures holding someone he loves and admires inside that circle. For me, this would include my wife Dana and my sons, Julian and Oliver, especially. Tae Kwon Do is a lifelong bond, one we will always share no matter what adversity life throws at us, or what conflicts transpire between us.
Another person who inspires me in the Dojang is my training partner, Dan, whom I have been blessed to have as a guide and companion on this adventure. Dan is a black belt and advanced student in two other martial arts. I’ve both marveled at and benefited from his ability to synthesize the myriad disciplines he’s studied. Observing Dan’s process made me realize that I’ve spent a lot more time thinking about what I need Tae Kwon Do to do for me—for example, helping me write and be a better father to my kids—than I have thinking about what I need to do for my Tae Kwon Do. Of course, there is a strong kismet between the two. The things I most need to work on in life— patience, balance, grace, and focus—are the same skills I’m trying to concentrate on in my training. What’s more, there’s hope!
On a recent trip to New York City I was practicing one of my forms in the hotel’s fitness center when I found myself confused about the position of my hands between moves. Four years ago that conundrum would have sent me dumpster diving into my computer bag searching for the wrinkled, folded up worksheets with the pictures of all my forms. You know, the ones that always manage to illustrate everything except the one move you’re seeking to clarify. (I don’t have much experience with weapons training but if I had to pick one to use in a fight I would become a master at drawing those tiny diagrams as nothing frustrates and brings a grown man to his knees faster.) However, this time I wasn’t panicked. I was simply curious. Because, while I didn’t know what my teachers would say, I understood enough to appreciate that there wasn’t a clear answer to my query. It was the sort of question that generates a kind of Talmudic dialogue among the black belts in the Dojang that reminds you that Tae Kwon Do is not a science with set rules and laws. It’s a tradition, handed down from one generation to the next. Becoming a black belt means that I am now part of that dialogue.
Like the bell Master Lynch rings during Muknyum to indicate the beginning of class—the first chime, to honor our past teachers, the second, our current instructors and the third, the future ones we will soon join—if someone asked me what to call my black belt test I would answer, “A good start!”