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Ji Do Kwan Tenet: Respect the Elder, Part II

Outside the dojang I do whatever I want, but during a workout, I set all that aside and follow the rules. It’s nice to have one place in life where I can choose to do what I’m told without questioning everything.

Because we are tremendous nerds, my wife and I have been watching a lot of Star Trek lately. I’m frequently struck by the extreme devotion the crews demonstrate for the captain of the Enterprise, whether Kirk or Picard. The adventures are so fantastic, and the dilemmas are often so harrowing, that the efficiency of naval discipline is essential—if organized any other way, these groups of people simply wouldn’t survive.1 The trust and respect they show translates into immediate and decisive action, which saves their bacon again and again. It occurs to me that this is a manifestation of “Respect the Elder” as described in an earlier post on the subject.

I started training in college, a time in my life when I was driven by anger and rebellion as much as anything else. Sometimes this took a constructive form—reading challenging literature, writing gritty fiction, studying the world’s great spiritual traditions—but at other times, it manifested in more anarchic forms, which I’ll lead to each reader’s imagination.

When I see these fictional crews’ respect for their captains, I’m reminded of how I viewed Daniel Hays, my first Tae Kwon Do teacher, when I first took up the practice of Ji Do Kwan. Daniel led a free and exciting existence, full of adventure and the search for truth, not unlike the life I aspired to when I was nineteen:

  • Daniel’s house in the Thames River, New London

    a certified ship’s captain, he had sailed all over the world in all manner of vessels

  • he lived in the only house on a tiny island in a tidal river that he and his dad built in a style he called “Japanese Victorian”
  • as students, we might reasonably expect him to attack without warning as we walked across campus 2
  • I heard from a reliable source that he was spotted doing a flying side kick over the hood of his car—a Suzuki Samurai (of course) 3

Because he was such a cool guy, he’d earned my respect, and I was willing to listen to things from him that I wouldn’t have accepted from many others. A pivotal moment came early in my training, which would shape my whole life inside and outside the training hall, when he told us a version of “Respect the Elder.” When a guy with this life story told our class, “Outside the dojang I do whatever I want, but during a workout, I set all that aside and follow the rules. It’s nice to have one place in life where I can choose to do what I’m told without questioning everything.” He said that once you decide to follow a martial arts instructor, part of the pact is to suspend your preconceptions about certain things when in the dojang and just see where their teaching leads. I resolved to give it a try and see what it was like.

As Daniel described it, following the rules (and the instructor’s interpretation of the rules) meant that a student should unhesitatingly do whatever the teacher said. This might mean trying my best when learning a new technique, or trying to move my hips or legs in a way that “didn’t feel right” based on my intuition and previous athletic training, or working to become more flexible, which I wasn’t in my late teens and early twenties. It might mean interacting in a certain structured but friendly way with other students, who I might not have liked or chosen to socialize with in other circumstances. It required trust in his judgment and methods, and the promise was: this might not make sense now, but it will later, once I’ve gotten to a new place in my journey along the Way.

To clarify: Tae Kwon Do is not a cult, and it’s not asked or expected that students entirely subordinate their reason and freedom to a martial arts instructor. It’s typical for students to have questions and doubts, and they should certainly ponder these issues outside of class. If anything seems confusing, incorrect, or not to square with other things that a student knows (or thinks they know), they should always feel free to bring these questions up with the head instructor (or another senior student or instructor). Seeking these answers is an important part of training, and any good instructor would want their students to do so. The key ideas are that:

  • save questions that will take more than a few seconds to answer until after class. if it’s a really complex issue, make an appointment to talk with the instructor at a mutually convenient time. this lets students use their time in class to focus on training, and let thinking/processing happen at its own pace. it also helps prevent one student from consuming too much of an instructor’s time at the expense of others who are training that day.
  • if the answer to the question still doesn’t sound right or make sense, trust the instructor’s experience and follow their advice anyway. maybe keep a journal to record your observations and share your thoughts every few months. they may change with time, or as you gain more knowledge, your instructor may have new ideas for you, which may make things suddenly snap into focus.


1 Although the stated purpose of their voyages is peace and exploration, it’s always clear that these are military ships, organized around military protocols, so this makes sense. Following orders isn’t optional in any martial context, it’s absolutely required at all times. Soldiers and sailors tend to have great respect for authority and hierarchical roles, possibly by nature and definitely by necessity. In the show, as in martial arts practice, the tension between peaceful goals and physical force—between is one of the fundamental thematic drivers. It’s fascinating to see how differently this tension plays out in the two different shows, depending on the times they were created: the fears and concerns of an audience at the height of the cold war, against a background of radical social change in the late 1960s, compared to a differently progressive social era dawning at the end of the cold war in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

2 This actually happened now and then. You’re walking past a bush on the way to the dining hall when suddenly. . . HEADLOCK!

3 For a glimpse into what Daniel’s like, read his account of sailing around Cape Horn with his dad, a best-selling book they co-wrote as a joint memoir, My Old Man and the Sea. It’s not only a fascinating and exciting adventure, it reveals the character of the Ji Do Kwan instructor who set the template for my life as a martial artist. If you like that book, you might also like On Whale Island: Notes from a Place I Never Meant to Leave, about Daniel’s year on a remote island in Nova Scotia.

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