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Korean Martial Arts: Buddhist-Based Martial Art

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Hapkido, Taekyon, Kwan Moo, Yongmudo, Gwon Gyokdo, Hwa Rang Do

Sun Kwan Moo

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A little-known, Buddhist-based martial art, sun kwan moo includes meditation and physical training with the aim of advancing students toward enlightenment. Probably of Zen origin (called “sun” in Korean), it started after 1945 and, in the 1960s, was taught at Bom Oh Temple in Korea.

Uniquely, students engage in a remarkable exercise known as “tol palki,” which involves hopping from rock to rock on a mountain top, with the hope of achieving the elusive state of “no mind.”


Developed by professional sport scientists and former gold medalists at Yong-In University in Korea, Yongmudo is a new hybrid martial art aimed at enhancing physical action, mental endurance, and functions requiring both. It has become a compulsory element in the physical education of students, with three levels of difficulty or rank— beginner, moderate, and advanced. Yongmudo combines kicking techniques from tae kwon do, shifting and throwing techniques from hapkido, and throwing techniques from judo. This art also includes elements of ssireum and fencing.

Gwon Gyokdo

Also known as “kun gek do,” gwon gyokdo is a hybrid art incorporating techniques from traditional Korean martial arts and muay Thai. Founded by Jung Do Mo, who studied muay Thai, gwon gyokdo combines kicks from tae kwon do with kicking and boxing techniques from muay Thai. Unusually, open-hand techniques are removed due to the danger of injury to fingers.

Still in its infancy in Korea, gwon gyokdo is a competitive sport that includes ring fighting and 27 self-defense techniques, some of which defend against a staff, iron bar, and knife. Training includes boxing-style techniques, such as lunging knee and elbow strikes, practiced with protective gear. Unlike other Asian martial arts, it focuses solely on “wai gong,” or external energy skill. Students increase physical strength through weight training and drilling of techniques, and condition their hands and feet with heavy-bag work and by repeatedly striking a wooden plank wrapped in rice-straw rope.

Hwa Rang Do

This system of defense and offense is named after an elite officer warrior unit called the Hwa Rang, which existed during the Three Kingdoms period of Korean history (57 BCE to 668 CE) and was unique to the Silla region in the south of the country.

Modern style

Two brothers, Joo Bang Lee and Joo Sang Lee, developed the syllabus after studying with a monk named Suahm Dosa at the Suk Wang Sa Temple in Ham Nam, North Korea. They escaped to South Korea when the Communists took over and then, during the 1960s and 70s, appeared in documentaries that were broadcast around the world. Viewers watched in amazement as they demonstrated extraordinary feats of strength and concentration, such as smashing bricks on their foreheads and withstanding the weight of trucks driving over their abdomens.

The brothers’ system teaches the use of 108 different weapons, along with three categories of distancing: striking with the hand, foot, head, or weapon; close-quarter leverage, <a href=”“>grappling, and throwing techniques;</a> and ground fighting.

Students learn qi gong (“ki gong” in Korean), meditation, breathing, full-and semicontact sparring, drills, and routines. The ultimate aims are balance in life and harmony with others and with nature. Proper alignment is a focus of training when using strikes, throws, and holds. To achieve a first-degree black belt takes up to 15 years of continuous training. Joo Bang Lee is currently the leading exponent of hwa rang do and the only holder of the black belt (10th Dan)—the highest grade.


Recognized by the Korean government in 1983, but little known outside of Korea, taekyon is a traditional dancelike and athletic martial art. It uses highly effective and deadly accurate kicks for both attacking and defending maneuvers.

It may be accompanied by dancing and singing—in a three-three rhythm as opposed to the four-four timing of other martial arts—that recall its Mongol ancestry. The basic stepping pattern is unique and extremely difficult to learn, with unusual angles of attack that are very effective in felling opponents.

Some experts regard taekyon as a sport because matches were held as form of entertainment in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Triangular footwork

Combat techniques include “sonkisul”(a grabbing action), head-butting, grappling, and trapping moves, as well as kicks, pushes, sweeps, stamps, and “palgisul” (trips). These are combined with “pumbalki,” the triangular footwork that is supposed to mimic the timing of a galloping horse. One startling fact about taekyon is that players are taught to be happy and relaxed during fighting and must not focus overly on aggression or negative mental attitudes, such as hate or anger. The attitude reduces muscular tension, leading to quicker responses and reflexes. It also reduces fear, which further enhances performance.

Renewed popularity

Taekyon’s popularity has fluctuated over the centuries—at one point it was even banned—but recently there has been a renewed interest in the art. However, in the past it was practiced mainly by farmers, peasants, and gangsters, so training was random and there were many teachers. With success in combat as the primary objective, today’s practitioners focus on learning and using a handful of effective techniques with a high degree of proficiency.


Hapkido is a systemized form of combat that uses throws, restraints, locks, chokes, kicks, and strikes. The system is sweetly and succinctly described in the hapkido poem: “As the flowing stream penetrates and surrounds its obstructions, and dripping water eventually penetrates the stone, so does the hapkido strength flow in and through his opponents.” The principles of focus, balance, and leverage underpin hapkido. Timing and motion on the physical plane can also be adopted into the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual realms.

Influences on hapkido

Over 2,000 years of tradition have influenced hapkido, including the ancient tribal techniques (or “sado moosul”) of archery, and sword and knife-fighting, which may have been practiced on horseback. Confucian doctrine shaped its philosophy, while Buddhism taught warriors to meet their responsibilities and act with benevolence. Martial arts, such as judo, jujutsu, and karate contributed to hapkido’s techniques. Added to this, the kicking and striking techniques from Korean arts, such as taekyon and subak, fermented hapkido’s collection of techniques into a way of living rather than just a fighting method.

Modern hapkido

After Choi Yong Shul founded the modern art of hapkido in the 1950s, only small groups practiced it. Later, through Jihan Jae, the head hapkido instructor to the presidential bodyguard, hapkido became very popular in Korea and abroad.

Hapkido’s emphasis is on self-defense as opposed to sport. Students learn to use weapons as well as ways of defending themselves against an untrained opponent—who is likely to mount an unusual, smothering-type attacks rather than a more coordinated, linear one. They learn to strike the pressure points of acupuncture in order to unbalance opponents prior to a throw or lock, or to disable them.

To become a master of hapkido, practitioners must grasp, apply, and live by three principles: water moves around an object, yet never loses force; the circle represents never-ending, continuous movement; and harmony applied internally must also be directed externally to every situation.


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