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Philosophical aspects


Philosophy is the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence. When we learn philosophy from a book, we tend to forget it quickly because it is not related to our actual lives. However, since taekwondo relates to every physical movement of our lives, its philosophy is instilled into our lives so we may never forget it. Since we experience life through the movements of daily living and we experience taekwondo through its movements, we begin to understand the philosophy of taekwondo by practicing taekwondo and relating it to our daily movements.


Taekwondo is not just training in kicking, punching, and self-defense. It has roots in the many tenets held by spiritual leaders and martial arts masters throughout history. Buddhism, introduced to the Koguryo kingdom from China in 347 CE, contributed greatly to the growth of the Korean martial arts through its aim of the "Mastery of Self." Taekwondo provides a way to rid oneself of the ego, or what Zen-Buddhists call the "discriminating mind."

To fully appreciate and understand the philosophy of spirit of taekwondo, it is important to know something of Korean history, since the traditional values of the Korean people are an integral part of the philosophy of taekwondo. Although not based on any one religion, the philosophy of taekwondo was influenced by the many religious beliefs of the Korean (Han) people.

Ancient times

The philosophy of taekwondo has evolved over time in the same way that its physical aspects have evolved. The original philosophical aspects were based on the need for survival and defense of the homeland. Ancient Koreans, in learning to deal with natural disasters and the hardships of life, relied spiritually on the movements of nature's power, such as heaven, rain, cloud, sun, moon, trees, rocks, etc., for their consolation.

As the tribal and agricultural community of the Korean people became established, so did their spirit of national unity. This developed into the principle of Seon (impeccable virtuousness), which became the basis of Korean philosophical thoughts. The idea of Seon is a very profound philosophy; it is the core of oriental thoughts. In Seon, movements embody the spirit physically and the spirit is the inner working of the movements.

Taekwondo philosophy is based on the beliefs that Han people developed throughout their history. It is related to the ancient principles of Hongik-Ingan and Jaese-Ihwa, and to the spirit of hwarangdo. During the development of the Korean nation, particularly during the Three Kingdoms era, taekwondo's predecessor, taekkyeon, developed into a systematized martial art. The Korean warriors (hwarang) of the Silla Kingdom adopted Seon as their martial spirit. Based on this, they professed loyalty to their country and filial piety and believed in the virtues of courage and of having a strong ethical code.


Taekwondo philosophy developed from the traditional national thought of the Korean (Han) people. In the myth of Korean foundation in the early age, Hwan-Wung, the son of Heaven established a nation called Baedal (earliest name of Korea). He then announced the purpose of the national foundation as Jaese-Ihwa (educate with the reason of heaven) and Hongik-Ingan (universal welfare of mankind).

According to Korean legend, Tangun, the legendary founder of the Korean nation, advocated the idealism of Hongik-Ingan, Jaese-Ihwa, or Hwarangdo spirit. Hongik-Ingan and Jaese-Ihwa were a fundamental thought of Han people. These thoughts became the basis for the Korean traditional national philosophy, and later, the basis of taekwondo philosophy. With time, these ideas developed into the hwarangdo spirit and the taekwondo philosophy of today.

Taekwondo embodies the idea of Hongik-Ingan since its purpose is to suppress fighting and induce peace. Jaese-Ihwa means that the world is educated in accordance with the reason of heaven. Since taekwondo is characterized by the trinity of body, mind, it also relates to Jaese-Ihwa since we may be educated in accordance with the reason of heaven through correct training in taekwondo.

Three Kingdoms period

During the Three Kingdoms period, Koreans were having to defend themselves from foreign aggression from China and Japan. Due to this, the kingdoms tried to consolidate national unity, stressing the spirit of national defense among the people. Buddhism and Confucianism were widely practiced.

The idealism of Hongik-Ingan, represented by the philosophy of Seon, was expanded by the hwarang warriors with the integration of Buddhist and Confucian ideas into the hwarangdo spirit. The hwarangdo spirit is characterized by the three virtues of loyalty, filial piety, and trust, and three virtuous conducts of modesty, frugality, and restraint.

Koryo and Chosun dynasties

Hongik-Ingan stresses respect for all human beings. The Korean people throughout the Koryo and Chosun periods were taught in their daily life to respect their superiors and treat their inferiors kindly. During this time, scholars were expressing various philosophical theories. One of the scholars, Great Scholar, Yi Toe Gye, favored the theory of dualistic spiritual energy, which is represented by the four moral minds and seven sentiments.

Four moral minds

  • Benevolence 
  • Righteousness 
  • Propriety 
  • Wisdom 

Seven sentiments

  • Joy 
  • Anger 
  • Sorrow 
  • Pleasure 
  • Love 
  • Vice 
  • Avarice

Another scholar, Great Scholar Yi Yul-Kok, said in his writings, "I endeavored incessantly to achieve self-restraint until I could reach a realm of a saintly life," "I do what is to be done with all sincerity," and "Cultivation of the mind and learning should be continued without slowing down the tempo." These sayings partly reflect the spirit of taekwondo. One of the most significant ideals of the time was that of Chon-do (doing the right thing or following the right way), which has become an integral part of taekwondo philosophy.

Spirit of hwrangdo

The hwarangdo spirit was based on the idea of Seon along with the integration of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism. It contained three virtues, five principles of the world, and three virtuous conducts.

Three virtues

  • Chung (loyalty). Refers to loyalty to the nation.
  • Hyo (Filial piety). Means the filial piety to the parents.
  • Shin (Trust). Means to have trust among human beings.

Five principles of the world (Sye-sok-oh-kye)

  • Sa-kun-lee-chung. Means to follow a nation and a king with loyalty.
  • Sa-chin-lee-hyo. Means to respect parents with filial piety.
  • Kyo-u-lee-shin. Means to make friends with trust.
  • Lim-cheon-mu-t'wi. Means to not withdraw from the battlefield.
  • Sal-saeng-yu-taek. Means not to take another life, unless an unavoidable situation requires it.

Three virtuous conducts (Sam-mi)

  • Modesty. Means the virtue to know courteous refusal. That is, it refers to services done for a society without personal interests or gains. In addition, it refers to the idea of contributing to social development rather than to that of an individual.
  • Frugality. Means not to waste. If we live with the abundant materials without extravagance or waste, we will not suffer in difficult times. In addition, such frugality generates the ability to help needy people in society.
  • Restraint. Refers to self-denial. It means to win over one's self or ego. Through restraint, people do not fight each other; rather, they live together in harmony. 

Sam-jae and eum-yang

The philosophy of taekwondo also is related to the principles of sam-jae and of eum-yang. Sam-jae (three elements) refers to cheon (the heaven), ji (the earth), and in (the man) and the principles uniting them. In oriental philosophy, these principles explain the changes of everything in the world.

In the orient, sam-jae is a central principle that explains the changes of everything in the world. Sam-jae and the changes of eum-yang constitute the Eight Trigrams for Divination in the Book of Changes. The principle of eum-yang maintains that everything has a good and bad side. Taegeuk (the great absolute) represents the ultimate claim that eum and yang are actually one and the same.

At the core of this philosophy is the concept of duality in nature. Duality refers to the interaction of opposing forces, the eum-yang. The principle of eum (the negative or darkness) and yang (the positive or the brightness) maintains that everything has an opposite side and that the two work in harmony with opposing forces distributed equally. If one force dominates, the result is discord. For example, to defend against an aggressive hard attack, one should use a yielding soft defense to bring the situation into harmony.

Taekwondo students learn to coordinate their actions and reactions with the forces of nature, so they can overcome anything they encounter in life. By centering oneself and balancing the dual forces, students may begin to achieve the true goal of the aspiration to and application of perfection.

Taekwondo is defined and the way of kicking and punching. Students begin taekwondo training for various reasons, such as fitness, weight loss, discipline, and self-defense. Many stop their training when they think they have achieved their reason for initially beginning the training and others stop before ever reaching this point.

If students continue training until they reach the "do" phase of taekwondo training, their initial reason for beginning the training is irrelevant. At this point, they continue training because the basic principles of taekwondo have become an integral part of their lives. Through kicking and punching, they have achieved the way.

Today, there are relatively fewer chances to encounter a life-threatening situation. To spend several years of your life practicing taekwondo would seem a high price to pay for the chance to defend yourself in the not-so-likely event of a deadly attack. Therefore, the philosophic aspects of taekwondo should be what motivates one to practice taekwondo.

Today's taekwondo philosophy

Today's taekwondo philosophy is best summarized by the tenets of taekwondo that are recited at the beginning of most taekwondo classes. Most students recite the tenets by rote without thinking about their meanings. If some thought is given to the tenets while reciting them, students would find many correlations between each tenet and what they have learned during their training and how it has affected their lives. Taekwondo philosophy is not preached at each class, instead, it is something the subtlety affects the thoughts and behavior of students over time and makes them better members of society.

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