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Pattern Interpretations- Inspiring, or Irritating to Learn?

Korean theory, pattern interpretations, the bane of all graders! As if learning all of the moves isn’t stressful enough, and remembering all the moves from all of your patterns on the grading day when the examiner is staring at you, not to mention the step sparring sequences!

And then, not only do you have to learn the moves, you have to know what they are called in a totally different language! Your instructor calls out the move, and you’re trying to remember what the move is despite the fact he’s shouted it out in English, but now you have to work it out in Korean as well.

Not only have you had to learn all that, you’ve memorised all of your pattern interpretations every night for a month, but now you’re being asked, what on Earth was that Dan Gun one about again? Something to do with BC? Was he the guy that invented Tae Kwon-Do? Or was that Do San? Hang on, who’s Do San again?

That may have been made to be a little bit more overdramatic than necessary, but when it comes to grading time, almost every student is nervous and panic that they have forgotten something. My mother used to check the car was packed about ten times before we set off to grading when I was a junior, and she’d still worry she’d left her belt at home until we got to the venue. When we got to the venue, she used to be a nervous wreck before doing her Korean, panicking that she’d forget her words despite months of studying for it.

Now, when it comes to pattern interpretations, a very common question that comes to the student’s mind is, “why?”. “Why do we need to learn these?”. A common stock answer from instructors is, “so we can draw inspiration from the people that the patterns are named after”. When I first started instructing, I can honestly hold my hands up and say that I thought it was something we said to convince the students to practice the theory. Then, I started reading into the people that the patterns were named after, and I can honestly say that I have never been more inspired in my life, and we can learn valuable lessons from the people that the patterns are named after.

Take Dan Gun’s interpretation for example. ‘Dan Gun is named after the Holy Dan Gun, the legendary founder of Korea in the year 2333BC’. Easy enough to learn, but the information isn’t the most memorable, and I have found that my students have found it hard to remember the sentence. So, I went another route. I told them the full story of Dan Gun, and now they can all remember the story and all of the facts associated with it.

Every time I ask them, they remember that Dan Gun came down from the heavens, founded Korea, and that he married a bear. They tell me that animals could talk, and that a tiger and a bear asked Dan Gun if they could become human. They remember that Dan Gun told them to eat garlic and mugwort and wait in a cave for 100 days. They remember that the tiger gave up after 20 days, but the bear survived the full 100 days and turned into a beautiful woman, and Dan Gun then married her and he ruled Korea for 1000 years. They also somehow remember that the bear was called Brenda, but I don’t remember telling them that bit…

So, from struggling to remember one sentence to being able to tell a full story about Dan Gun as if they read it every night, it goes to show that the people behind the pattern interpretations are interesting, they’re fascinating, and they can be absolutely inspirational. The bear in Dan Gun teaches the importance of the third tenet, perseverance, and other pattern interpretations teach other lessons as well.

For me, I have always loved the pattern Won-Hyo, and it has always been my favourite, and my choice pattern when grading. I’ve always had an affinity with it, and when I read into who the man behind the pattern was, I was so inspired that it totally changed the way I think.

The pattern interpretation is, ‘Won Hyo was the noted monk who introduced Buddhism to the Silla Dynasty in the year 686AD’. 17 words, 1 sentence. Inspiring? Not really. Memorable? Easy to recite, but not really. The man behind the interpretation? He will make you remember the interpretation for the rest of your days.

Won Hyo used to be a soldier in the army until he grew tired of killing and watching his friends die about him, and left. It is debated where the location that he went next was, but it is agreed that he became a Buddhist monk in a temple, and secluded himself there for many years, studying under a master.

When his master died, he and his friend decided to find a new master and knew of one in China, so began their journey to find their new teacher. To get there, they had to cross the desert, and this is where the story becomes interesting. Camping out in the desert one night, Won Hyo awoke feeling unbearably thirsty, but could not see in the pitch black of the night. Scrambling around, he found a cup on the floor, and drank from it gratefully. Drinking the water, it felt like the most beautiful and refreshing water he had ever tasted, and thanked Buddha for his generosity in providing it.

When he woke the next morning, he looked at what he thought had been a cup, and beheld a human skull, rotting flesh still hanging off the cheekbones and strange insects floating atop the muddy rainwater that had filled it. Upon seeing it, he vomited, and in that moment he had a sudden realisation. When he was blind and couldn’t see, it was the greatest water that he had ever tasted, but when he could see what he had drank he realised that it was foul and disgusting.

This brought him to the realisation that the same applied to life. If he followed the teachings or orders of someone blindly, then he could be committing unspeakable crimes or foul acts though he would think he was doing the right thing. If he opened his eyes, used his conscience and thought for himself, he could see with his own eyes and make his own decision on whether it was the right course of action. If he could see the metaphorical skull and its foulness, he would have known not to drink from it.

When I thought about the lesson that Won Hyo learned, I felt truly inspired. Over the thousands of years, how many wars have been started because people blindly believed what they were told? The First Crusade over a thousand years ago was started because people blindly believed lies that they were being told by the Pope at the time, who created them to distract Europe from the war it was about to plunge itself into, and the threat to the Papal States from the Holy Roman Empire.

Think about the modern remake of the film, the Karate Kid. The instructor tells one of his students to break Shao Dre’s leg, which he attempts to do. The student in this instance blindly drank from the skull, but if he had opened his eyes and thought for himself, he would have known that it was the wrong thing to do, and wouldn’t have attempted it, and wouldn’t have been disqualified from the tournament.

As teachers and instructors, we are entrusted by our students to teach them our martial art, but also to guide them and help them develop as people. For me, I teach my older children and adults about the principles and philosophies like this, and the freedom of thinking. I teach them that if they aren’t happy with something that I am teaching, or want to question something I am telling them, then question it. If I don’t have the answer, I will find the answer out for them for the next lesson.

I have always thought this way, but Won Hyo inspired me to make sure that I teach fully the freedom of thinking and following of conscience. I know many martial arts instructors that do the same, even if they don’t realise that they are doing it. As instructors, we have a responsibility to help empower our students, and Won Hyo did exactly that to the nation of Korea.

So, to continue Won Hyo’s tale, he went back to Korea without his friend, deciding he didn’t need another master, and spread his teachings throughout the country. He taught a different form of Buddhism that focused mainly on meditation and prayer instead of being able to read Chinese calligraphy, making it accessible to all social classes, not just the upper class hierarchy. Buddhism became hugely popular, and Won Hyo helped unify the Silla Kingdom, and his teaching helped in unifying the kingdoms of Korea.

To me, Won Hyo was a remarkable man. I tell this story to my students, and they remember the story and the teachings behind it. Won Hyo inspires me as an instructor to become better, to ensure that I teach the moral and ethical foundations that Tae Kwon-Do and martial arts was founded upon, and to help empower my students to fulfil their potential in both Tae Kwon-Do and in life.

When it comes to grading time, and you think about the pattern interpretation that you have to learn, before worrying or thinking that you will never remember it, or questioning why you need to learn it, read up on the person behind the pattern. You may find that they truly inspire you and motivate you, and you’ll find yourself wowing the grading examiner with your knowledge.

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