Reading provides important context for the technical training we receive withing the dojang. These books are excellent resources for students at River Valley Tae Kwon Do.
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Most martial arts technical manuals are useful mainly as reference books for practitioners who already understand the material contained within. They serve as canonical distillations of material that is meant to be shared across a group of people. These three works set the standard that we observe in our particular interpretation of Tae Kwon Do.
This volume serves as our unofficial textbook. It contains the standard version of the eight Pal Gwe forms and examples of many of the kicks, blocks, and strikes that form the basis of our Tae Kwon Do practice. You can sometimes get very good deals on the hardcover edition on Amazon. Bring one in to class, and bt will make you a plastic cover for the dust jacket, like you see in a library, to protect this useful reference book through years of training.
The second volume of Chun’s highly regarded textbook, this covers the Kukkiwon’s required black belt–level forms, as well as Tae Geuk forms as practiced by Kukkiwon-affiliated schools. As with Chun’s other book, these are the “official unofficial” versions of these forms for our school. Same plastic dustjacket deal as above applies here.
CHOI BONG YOUNG
Not very well translated and almost impossible to find, this book is important to our school because it was written by Choi Bong Young, who founded our branch of Ji Do Kwan practice. If you ever see this book—on Amazon, eBay, or on the incredibly small chance that you find it in a used book store—buy it, because you probably won’t find it again. If a Korean manuscript were available for this book, bt would learn the language purely in order to create a better translation of our founding Master’s ideas about martial arts practice.
Ranging from hundreds to thousands of years old, these are two kinds of books: the spiritual texts that are the foundation of most martial arts practice, or classic documents that have been read by every serious student. All of these books have influence well beyond the martial arts and have been read by millions or billions of people who have no martial arts background—they are useful for understanding all aspects of life, whether inside or outside of the practice hall.
Because the Korean and Japanese martial arts are derived from Chinese styles, and because Korea has been politically and culturally influenced by China for most of its history, understanding Confucian thought is critically important for understanding the roots of Korean culture and most martial arts practice. Many familiar structures have their roots here: strict hierarchies, respect for elders and the learned, ideas of tradition and stability, and much more.
Among the texts of any spiritual tradition, this is one of the most beautiful and satisfying. As with the Bible, readers of theTao Te Ching will repeatedly think “so that’s where this comes from” as they read iconic passages that are valued by every culture—such as “A journey of one thousand miles begins with a single step,” and many more. bt read it in this translation, but there are probably many good editions.
Like Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, this is not an ancient primary text, but rather a contemporary work that attempts to synthesize and condense large bodies of knowledge into an accessible form. The book contains dense but readable explanations of fundamental Buddhist principles, and a lengthy appendix contains excerpts from many of the primary texts referenced in Rahula’s work.
Although there is considerable scholarly debate about the place of Buddhist practice among early martial artists, it is one of the most influential historical forces shaping politics and government, daily existence throughout East Asia. Unlike the Western monotheistic faiths, there is no single book, or even a universally agreed upon canon of texts, for Buddhist practice around the world. Suzuki’s book is one of many suitable starting points for understanding Zen practice, the branch of Buddhism most closely linked with martial arts training.
In Buddhist practice, sutras are canonical scriptures that record the Buddha’s oral teachings. Taken as a group, they form an historical account of key aspects of the Buddha’s life, travels, and instructions to his followers. The Diamond Sutra is one of the best known and most influential of these texts. The author of this edition, Mu Soeng, is a respected scholar of Buddhist practice and led a 2015 workshop for River Valley Tae Kwon Do at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies. The Diamond Sutra is brief; as with most editions, the greatest portion of this work is composed of Mu Soeng’s commentaries on the importance of each passage.
HISTORY & SCHOLARSHIP
Some of these histories are very old, and others were written in the 20th century or later. All contain accounts that an important martial arts practitioner or scholar thought important enough to be written down and explained.
This book is studied by martial arts practitioners and military leaders, business and political leaders, and many others who seek to understand strategy; power; planning and organization; management and motivation of subordinates, among many other themes. This is one of the best books that can be used to connect martial ideas directly as metaphors for everyday themes. Thomas Cleary’s translation includes commentary from some of history’s most famous Chinese generals, as well as a few companion books that complement Master Sun’s text.
Another book that is studied widely outside the martial arts world, as well as by most serious students, Musashi’s classic contains the life lessons of history’s most famous master of the sword, both as a technical and strategic manual. His two-sword style sustained him through a multitude of duels, and he died of old age having never been defeated (or defeated once, depending on which version of the story you hear). Thomas Cleary’s translation is excellent, and as a bonus to residents of the Pioneer Valley (where our dojang is based), this beautiful edition was designed by Greta Sibley, whose studio is located in Easthampton, Massachusetts.
An amazingly comprehensive scholarly endeavor, this book surveys the major interpretations of contemporary Tae Kwon Do. It contains all three sets of forms from Kukkiwon and ITF styles, as well as a balanced history of the traditional, competitive, and self-defense related threads of Tae Kwon Do practice.
HOWARD REID & MICHAEL CROUCHER
Although the treatment of Tae Kwon Do and other Korean styles is thin, this is a fine survey of Asian martial arts. The focus is on Chinese and Japanese practice, but it also contains research on styles from India and other unusual locations. Good context for the beginning student to understand the range of what is practiced throughout Asia.
RANDY F. NELSON (Editor)
A wide-ranging anthology of writings of many types, lengths, and themes—from history and scholarly interpretation to personal accounts of training. A mixed bag, and like many “kitchen sink” style anthologies, some passages are tedious or overblown and others are inspiring and beautiful.
If you enjoy this anthology, Volume II can be found here: The Overlook Martial Arts Reader, Vol. 2.
BRIAN KENNEDY & ELIZABETH GUO
Written with academic rigor, this book is merciless in separating historical fact from myth—whether describing archetypal institutions like the Shaolin Temple and the Wudang monastic tradition or its own founders. The Jingwu school may be best known today through the story of one of its founders, Huo Yuanjia (portrayed by Jet Li in “Fearless”). Jingwu broke new ground in Chinese martial arts by popularizing concepts like: training women as seriously as men, debunking superstition and mystical training methods in favor of scientific principles, teaching the general public in an open (i.e. not secret) curriculum, and incorporating other disciplines beyond martial arts practice. Though short lived—the school was influential for only about twenty years—it introduced many ideas that are standard procedure in today’s martial arts world, and was innovative in applying lessons learned to the world outside the training hall..
BRIAN KENNEDY & ELIZABETH GUO
As with their history of Jingwu, above, Kennedy & Guo attempt to debunk many of the cherished legends of Chinese Kung Fu—from the Shaolin Temple to the Taoist monasteries at Wudang—before turning to the business at hand: a survey of mostly 20th Century martial arts manuals published in China. Confirming that martial arts can’t be learned from books, the authors show what purpose these manuals served for both the people who wrote and those who studied them.
A critical reading of seminal texts about the Japanese concept of strategy, such as Musashi’s The Book of Five Rings that show how the lessons of martial ways can be applied outside the practice hall. Cleary is the translator of some of the Japanese classics listed above, but this book is entirely his own scholarship and interpretation.
This is a fascinating account of the social factors that led Japan to abandon the use of firearms in the sixteenth century and revert to traditional weapons for more than three hundred years.
An anthology of dozens of the best known, archetypal stories of martial arts training and accomplishment. Great for beginning students.
THOMAS A. GREEN & JOSEPH R. SVINTH
A wide-ranging anthology of the role martial arts plays in modern life. Includes personal accounts of martial arts training, biographies of important modern martial arts figures, and even an essay about developing martial arts “languages” for each of the imaginary fighting styles used for different races/peoples in the Lord of the Rings films.
A harrowing tale of the contentious founding of Tae Kwon Do during the mid-twentieth century.
MEMOIRS & BIOGRAPHIES
The “History & Scholarship” section, above, contains a few books that could be classified as memoirs (such as The Book of Five Rings), but those stories were told primarily as studies of martial arts practice. This section is composed of books that tell the story of an important martial artist’s life. These stories contain lots about martial arts training and practice, but the focus is larger, containing context from the individual’s life, or at least an important period in his or her life.
A well-written autobiography, describing one of the most important Korean master’s life and practice in both the US and Korea, both in and out of the dojang.
There’s not really a lot of Zen in this book, as it seems to have been written at the point in the cultural matrix when “Zen” was used as a synonym for “cool, wise-sounding stuff.” Entertaining but substantive anecdotes about Joe Hyams’ practice of various martial arts. Hyams studied with several well known and highly regarded masters and distills nuggets of wisdom from his experiences. This is the first book about the Martial arts that bt ever read—a loan from his first teacher, Daniel—and is great for beginners.
An entertaining and highly readable biography of a member of what what may be the last generation of Chinese practitioners of monastic Taoism. Set during the transition from Imperial China, through the Japanese invastion, and into the Communist regime, the story is both epic in scope and highly personal. For those more accustomed to a Zen/Buddhist orientation in martial arts practice, this provides an eye-opening contrast in styles of monastic martial arts practice. One of bt’s favorite martial arts books. It’s impossible to imagine why this hasn’t been made into a movie, or a trilogy of movies. . . yet.
Observations from a lifetime of teaching by a monk and Aikido instructor with an influential dojo in the Los Angeles area. Recommended for advanced students and Dan-level practitioners who have started teaching.
Autobiography by the founder of Shotokan Karate and one of the twentieth century’s most influential martial arts practitioners and instructors. One of the favorite martial arts books by bt’s teacher, Jeff.
BRIAN N. WATSON
Biography of the founder of Judo, a national hero of postwar Japan.
Never a formal martial arts style (until after the founder’s death, at which point some followers tried to systematize his methods and techniques), Jeet Kune Do was the process through which Bruce Lee determined which martial arts techniques were effective for him, based on close observation of his body type and way of being in the world. These notebooks may or may not be helpful for individual students, but the methods Lee used to incorporate traditional study to his own needs is engaging and thought-provoking as a model for developing a training process. As with Zen in the Martial Arts, above, you won’t find a lot of Taoism here, but I suppose this comes with the territory in books concerning movie stars.
WORKS BY DAVE LOWRY
Lowry deserves his own section here, because he is the rare writer (in English, at least) who has spent decades in training, absorbed an incredible amount of information, asked a lot of good questions, had many worthwhile insights of his own—and can write clearly about all of the above. I’ve read so many of his books that I always think “surely I don’t need to read another book by Dave Lowry,” but then I order the latest one, read it, and am always happy that I did. I don’t know of anyone else who has written so much about the martial arts who is so reliably fascinating.
The traditions of Japanese martial arts are extremely important to Lowry, who believes that separating the culture of the country of origin strips practice of much of its meaning. This is a good book for students new to the martial arts.
One of the author’s more abstract books, this is probably most interesting for the advanced practitioner, although certain passages are among his most inspiring for students of any level. His explanations of fundamental martial arts principals through the kanji (characters) that represent the words will also interest those who love language. This book is one of bt’s favorites.
Lowry is well-known, in part, for having written a zillion columns for Black Belt magazine. This book of brief essays has some good all-purpose questions and answers that are useful for beginners, and probably everyone else.
More short essays, but on a wider range of themes. This may be Lowry’s best book of essays.
Archtypal story of a student’s journey from beginner to seasoned master of Japanese sword styles. Examines roots of traditional sword practice through the experience of training with a contemporary master. Those who like this book should scroll down to find Persimmon Wind: A Martial Artist’s Journey in Japan, another training memoir by Lowry.
Not really a sequel to Autumn Lightning, but a memoir of Lowry’s training in Japan. Much more than a technical discussion, the book includes observations about Japanese culture, setting, training conventions, and the question of how Place and Tradition contribute to the practice and understanding of any Way—including and especially martial arts.
These books don’t fit perfectly into the categories above, but they may be of interest to martial arts students who enjoyed other books on this list.
Not a martial arts book, but a moving story of a Buddhist monk’s journey through totalitarian China to inter a relic of his master. Similar to Chronicles of Tao, in the “Memoirs & BIographies” section above, but without the martial arts.
TRANSLATED BY JUAN MASCARO
Hinduism is the predecessor to Buddhism and shares many of its traditions, very roughly analagous to the way Judaism precedes and overlaps with Christianity. Like Buddhism, Hinduism has no central text, but instead a huge body of writing, with different texts of various importance for different varieties of practice. The Upanishads are especially beautiful and apply more directly than most to the study of martial arts.
EDITED BY LAURIE L. PATTON
The Bhagavad Gita is a short passage from a multi-thousand page Indian epic, The Mahabharata, which together forms one of the most widely-known Hindu sacred texts. The Gita is a conversation between Arjuna, an Indian Prince, and Krishna, one of the key Hindu gods, as Arjuna prepares to lead an army into battle. A copy of the Gita is one of his few possessions that Mahatma Gandhi carried throughout his life.
Spare, lyrical, gorgeous retelling of the story of (spoiler alert) Buddha’s enlightenment, by a westerner—the German novelist Hermann Hesse. There are several translations, but bt has only read one, so can’t say which is the best.
TRANSLATED BY LOBSANG LHALUNGPA
The life of a famous Tibetan Buddhist monk, this is not a martial arts story, but depicts an archetypal teacher/student relationship that is familiar to martial arts practitioners.
This is a thought-provoking book for students who are interested in applying their training to practical self-defense. It examines the big picture of violence and discusses the virtues and limitations of traditional martial arts training by placing it in a different context than explored in the dojang.