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First Published in The Flash 2000 #9.


What We Learn

by Mark Brudnak

I was recently at a Black Belt testing and heard a question posed to one of the candidates that really struck a nerve with me. I wanted to share this with the Tae Kwon Do community and martial artists in general, because I think it gets to the heart of what we all do this for.
What have you learned? That was the question. So simple and direct, that the subtlety and depth almost went by me. Initially when I heard it, I thought for sure the candidate would answer something about the Tenets. He didn’t, but his answer, having to do with learning self-defense, was accepted and the test successfully concluded for all the candidates. The test was so overwhelmingly positive that all candidates were awarded their belts on the spot. As congratulations were bestowed, a growing restlessness over that question took root in me. I really did not have what I would consider a satisfactory answer for myself. How would I have answered that question?

What have I learned from studying the martial arts? More broadly, what do we as martial artists gain from the martial arts? The health benefits are obvious but we can get many of those benefits in other ways. Many of us are career professionals and rarely, if ever find ourselves in a situation or environment where we might need to physically defend ourselves. Granted, some do, but for the most part, society is evolving away from those sorts of day-to-day situations. Self-defense cannot be responsible for the staying power of the martial arts. Surely there is more than just self-defense. Does that mean eventually the martial arts will fade? There has to be something deeper, subtler, that keeps me going back to the Dojang day after day. “Something” gets me up at 4:00 a.m. 7 days a week so I can run through the matrix before work. I dismiss the notion that it is a compulsion, although admittedly a little self-analysis reveals that compulsion certainly is an element, because the dedication spreads so broadly among the people I have met over the years. It’s not just me, or people like me. Most of the people who stick with it beyond the White Belt seem to be feeling it, too.
There is something deeper. It dawned on me while stretching and listening to a 5th Dan explain the importance of listening to the class before mine the other day. He was giving an interpretation of the phrase “still waters run deep,” and it hit me like a lightening bolt. While the instructor went on to explain the importance of listening, my mind (ironically) drifted to the original question.
Still, deep water contains an immense amount of potential energy, much like people and their own internal powers. The beauty and the perfection we observe when viewing calm waters are human interpretations of the stillness and power. That is to say, the gentleness. So what is the connection? The connection is as subtle as the question. As the waters build up in depth, so too does the student become deep with skill and strength. As the waters calm and become gentle, so too does the student. Gentleness is the goal. That is what we are learning and striving for!
Each technique practiced, each technique moved closer to perfection, moves the student closer to that state where he can move through the world with gentleness. Increasing with gentleness is the knowledge that they can protect themselves and loved ones. They can be champions of freedom and justice. They can build a more peaceful world. The real difference between a Black Belt and the colored ranks is not as much the strength and skill; those come with time and practice and are a means, they are not ends. Ultimately they are unfulfilling and eventually fade. The real difference is in the degree of gentleness.
It takes great power, great bravery to boldly stand up in this world and be gentle. One needs to be strong of body, speech and mind “to mount the scaffolds, to advance to the muzzles of guns with perfect nonchalance.” These are noble and worthy attributes and actions. The measure of how close to this perfection we are is in the purity and perfection of the heart.
Gentleness and power are two sides of the same coin. Heaven and earth, fire and water, martial and arts, gentleness and power. Without gentleness there is only the martial, the fire. Without power, there is only the art, the water. We know it in an a posteriori way, though often find it difficult to verbalize. It is the stillness, the gentleness, the God that we strive for. A calm abiding, a clearer view in a chaotic world. This is the spiritual aspect of martial arts. This is what we learn.
You need proof? Next time you watch a Black Belt instruct a White Belt, watch who is taking the harder blows and getting the worse of the situation. If you still need proof after that, you will have to find someone gentler that I. Of course, I could be wrong about all this. I am just a Green Belt after all.



Please feel free to contact me.

Mark A. Brudnak PhD, ND
957 Lake Shore Road
Grafton, WI 53024

E-mail Mark

(Wisconsin is in the Central Time Zone)



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Last updated June 17, 2009