History of Kuk Sool Won

Bool Kyo Mu Sool – Buddhist Temple Martial Arts

Traditionally the Buddhist religion embraced the precepts of non-violence and had strict injunctions against the taking of another life, even the lives of animals (leading to a strict regime of vegetarianism among the Buddhist monks). Yet the role of the Korean Buddhist temples is unique in the annals of martial arts history. Not only did they help in the defense of the nation (a function that was also observed, at times, by the Buddhist monks of the Shaolin Monastery in China), but also they were actually sanctioned by the government during certain periods of Korean history to carry bladed weapons and field huge armies of warrior monks. Nowhere else in Asia were the Buddhist monks given this type of power and responsibility.

The introduction of Buddhism into Korea began initially as a part of the cultural exchange between the Koreans and their Chinese neighbors during the Three Kingdoms period. The religion was first introduced to Korea in the Koguryo (고구려) Kingdom in the year 372 AD by the Chinese Buddhist monk Sun Do (선도). Buddhism was adopted in that year, by King Sosurim (소수림왕), as the state religion and at the same time he formed the National Confucian Academy. In this manner, he felt that the spiritual unity of the Koguryo Kingdom might be achieved through the introduction of Buddhism while the functions of the state and social order would be fostered by the influence of the Confucianists.

In 384 AD, Buddhism was introduced into the Korean Kingdom of Paekche (백제) by the Indian monk Marananta and the implantation of the Buddhist value system began in this state. Finally, Buddhism was introduced to the Kingdom of Silla (신라, pronounced Shil-lah) by the Korean Buddhist monk Ado (아도), who had previously undertaken the study of Buddhism in China, and who was also known as Muk Ho Ja (묵호자, or the “black monk”). Unfortunately, the people of Silla did not immediately embrace Buddhism, as it had been by those of Paekche and Koguryo. However, after the martyrdom of the Silla court official Yi Cha Don (이 차돈) in the year 527 AD (who prophesied that, upon his death, his blood would run as “white as milk” to illustrate the truth and purity of Buddhism) the Buddhist faith began to grow and prosper throughout the state of Silla. Ultimately, in the year 535 AD, it was adopted by the reigning King of Silla, Pobhung (법흥왕), as the official state religion, providing an ideological foundation for the unity and the solidarity of this highly centralized Korean state.

The primary reason that a particularly Buddhist form of martial arts developed is that it was necessitated by two main developments in the practice of Korean Buddhism. First, the monks became concerned for their health due to a relatively spartan lifestyle, and long hours spent in sedentary meditation. Second, because the Korean monks were often required to travel throughout the countryside on journeys away from the protection of the monastery, they wanted a system of self-defense so that they might better be able to protect themselves. This caused the development of Bool Kyo Mu Sool (Buddhist martial art teachings) to grow along two rather distinct, but ultimately integrated lines: the cultivation of internal power and the development of methods of attack and defense, which allowed this power to be utilized for combative purposes.

As part of their religious training, these Korean Buddhist monks would spend many long hours each day sitting or kneeling for extended periods of meditation. As a result of this, these meditating monks began to develop quite severe problems with both digestion and circulation. In an attempt to overcome these difficulties (which were undoubtedly having a disturbing effect in their practice of meditation), the monks began to concentrate on the use of specialized exercises designed to develop their Ki (), or internal power (an innate force within the body which is vitally linked to the air that we breathe, and the manner in which that air is processed). This concentrated practice led to further developments and certain refinements which eventually resulted in subsequent specialization of these techniques such as Hyuhl Buhp (혈법) and Whahl Buhp (활법).

This concern with the development and utilization of Ki (which can be described as a universal life force, similar to the prana of the Hindus, the pneuma of the Classical Greeks, or to what Western science has taken to call bioplasmic energy) enabled these early Korean Buddhists to develop a harmony between Wae Gong (외공, outer forces) and Nae Gong (내공, internal forces). When combined, these two complimentary forces working together result in a much greater and more efficient expression of one’s personal strength.

As a result of these exercises, the monks were able to strengthen both their abdominal muscles and their internal organs; and also develop a highly efficient cardiovascular system. These same types of breathing methods, though divorced from their religious associations, have been preserved and exist today in our training of Kuk Sool Won. They provide the same benefits to Kuk Sool Won students today, which were enjoyed by these early monks.

Due to their importance in health and martial arts training, several different types of breathing practices were developed. Nae Gong was a method in which normal breathing patterns were used, but with much attention given to the placement of the tongue on the palate, the relative stillness of the breathing itself and the sinking of the breath to the lower abdomen. Wae Gong was another method of breathing and used a pattern opposite to the one above. Ahk Gong (악공), required the practitioner to engage in a breathing pattern, in which the breath was to be held for certain intervals. As some indication of just how widespread these breathing methods were, many of the more famous examples of Buddhist statuary with which we are familiar today, such as the Happy Buddha and the Reclining Buddha, are in fact, representations of these particular types of breathing patterns; and are reflected in the breathing patterns taught in present day Kuk Sool Won.

As was previously stated, another major reason for the development of a uniquely Buddhist method of martial arts was to enable the otherwise defenseless monks to practice a reliable and effective method of personal defense. Buddhist monks were occasionally required to travel throughout the district that fell within the ministry of the individual’s particular monastery, and to visit each family within that area in their capacity as a “beggar monk”. They would offer prayers of happiness and good fortune and receive in return offerings of rice, barley and other crops. These donations were then used in support of the monastery; to feed the resident monks, and to help the monastery in its work as a relief agency, providing food and other services to itinerant beggars.

However, as might be expected, during their travels, novice monks often would fell prey to wild animals, or worse, marauding gangs of bandits and brigands who wandered the countryside in search of hapless travelers. Because of this situation, it became necessary that these beggar monks be “armed” for their protection through the training in some method of self-defense.

Although bladed or edged weapons were seldom used by the fighting Buddhist monks (except in times of national emergency when their martial arts skills were used in defense of the country), they did manage to develop a highly sophisticated system of empty-hand martial arts and weapons skills built around impact-type weapons such as the Bohng (, pole), the Dahn Bohng (단봉, short sticks) and the Ji Peng Ee (지팡이, hooked walking cane). Based on their Buddhist teachings of non-violence, many of these stick methods were designed and employed to discourage or control an attacker, rather than to kill or inflict permanent injury.

The empty-hand methods of self-defense that these Buddhist monks developed were highly effective and contained many techniques based on the movements, or more commonly, the special characteristics of certain animals that could be observed in nature. Unlike certain Chinese style martial arts (such as the well-known Shaolin system that was developed by the Shaolin Buddhists in China) in which the actual movements of animals were imitated and used to create fighting forms, the Korean martial arts tend to pattern forms and techniques based more on the animal’s spirit or fighting characteristics, rather than on its actual movements. One reason for this was that the Koreans believed that man was superior to common beasts and tries to imitate the exact movements of an animal was seen as degrading.

What really made these Korean Buddhists unique in martial arts history was the fact that, during periods of invasion or national emergency, the monasteries would field huge armies of ferocious warrior-monks who would battle fiercely to defend the temples and to throw out the invading armies. While some of the monks were skilled in the martial arts prior to their entry into the monastery, the vast majority of them received their training after becoming Buddhist monks and were skilled in the martial arts developed within the temple system (this is a condition that did not develop in the more famous Shaolin monastery in China until much later, and many of the martial artists associated with Shaolin were, in fact, soldiers or rebels in hiding). It was because of this fierce nationalism exhibited by the monks, and their warrior spirit, that the Korean Buddhist monks were given the title of “Defenders of the Nation”.

The Buddhist Temple Martial Arts not only existed in their own right, but as we will see later, they were a tremendous influence on the development of the Royal Court Martial Arts. It was a Buddhist monk who helped to found and shape the Korean Hwarang (화랑). These were a group of fierce and skilled warriors, the sons of nobility (mostly), bound by a lofty moral and ethical code of conduct. They were the most famous group of warriors in the entire history of the Korean martial arts and were the precursors to the bushi (or samurai) of Japan. Buddhist monks were also very influential in the training of Paekche warriors called Soo Sah (수사). Their training was as elite and structured as the Hwarang of Silla and many famous Paekche generals graduated from their ranks. Perhaps the most famous was General Gae Baek (계백), who won many battles against the Silla’s Hwarang.