From the moment he or she sets foot in the dojang (school) for the very first time, no student can fail to be impressed by the diversity and range of skills that the traditional Korean martial art of Kuk Sool Won (KSW) comprises: self-defence, kicks, hand strikes, acrobatics, grappling and — mostly for the more advanced — a variety of weapons, to name just a few. So what of the origins of KSW? Perhaps the most obvious clue lies in its eclectic and traditional nature, itself betraying the fact that the roots of KSW reach far deeper into the history of martial arts in general than the year of its foundation (1958) would suggest. Let’s go back in time… to sixth-century China. Yes, China.
While there’s no written evidence to pinpoint the exact moment the first martial art came into existence, some practitioners attribute its origins to Bodhidharma. On an unknown date in the sixth century AD, this Buddhist monk is said to have travelled from India to the Shaolin Monastery in the northern Chinese kingdom of Wei, whereupon, either having being refused entry to the Shaolin temple or having being ejected after a short time, he retired to a nearby cave. It is here that Bodhidharma, an experienced teacher of a new and more direct approach to Buddhism that involved long periods of static meditation, is said to have sat facing a rock-face wall for nine years, instructing his fellow monks to do likewise. So focused was Bodhidharma during this period that he is quoted as claiming that, while meditating, he “listened to the ants scream”. Although the source of Bodhidharma’s knowledge remains unclear, Indian history holds that he hailed from the southwestern state of Kerala, the home of reportedly one of the world’s oldest (and still practised) martial arts, Kalaripayattu.
To help the monks withstand long hours of meditation, Bodhidharma taught them breathing techniques and exercises to develop both their strength and their ability to defend themselves in the remote mountainous areas where they lived. Could these breathing techniques have been the invention of — or at least the acknowledgement of the power of — what is referred to in KSW as ki hahp and ki (breathing techniques)? For certain, it is generally held that the fighting art known as Shaolin Temple Boxing (the precursor to Kung Fu) is based on the exercises practised by Bodhidharma and his monks.
Whether wholly true or not, this story does imply that, from very early times, mediation and martial exercises were mutually complementary, particularly in Buddhism: one passive and static; the other active and moving. As the student progresses through the KSW ranks, it will become increasingly clear that both of these skills are very much an inherent part of the KSW system.
Although the date of the first martial art(s) appears to elude all historians, there is other evidence that at least some of the techniques we associate with martial arts in general — and KSW in particular — today are millennia old. One very interesting example is the image depicted on a stone plaque carved in Babylon more than 5,000 years ago (interestingly, in the Middle East rather than the Far East), in which the left-hand figure is using a blocking position characteristic of the Asian martial arts: he’s using his forearm to deflect a punch (mirroring one of many types of block used in KSW). A second example is a Babylonian copper stand, dating from the third millennium BC, in the form of two wrestlers employing a grappling technique not dissimilar to the technique used in Korean wrestling, certainly in terms of the position of the combatants’ heads and the way the opponent’s belt is gripped — though displaying a different stance.
Earlier I referred to the dearth of written records of the history of martial arts so, before examining the spread of martial arts (to Korea, in particular), it’s important to note here briefly why this should be (if only to emphasize the deep-rooted virtues of reverence and pride with which martial arts continue to be synonymous): to be permitted to share the techniques and wisdom the Masters had accumulated during their many years of dedication was a privilege accorded to a select few (and then only verbally and physically) and, additionally, practice in many schools was not only carried out in secrecy but its very existence was often concealed from the authorities. These qualities of pride and reverence are a fundamental part of progression in KSW, with all students feeling a sense of privilege to be learning skills and techniques known only to a relatively small number of people.
This privilege, it can easily be argued, must include the acceptance of another virtue that supersedes all others in martial arts in general — and KSW in particular — and that has been inherited and passed on by successive generations: respect. Proof that it forms the backbone of KSW etiquette, nothing is more immediately indicative of respect to the KSW beginner than the act of bowing. While it’s traditional in the West to shake hands when greeting someone, the custom in the Far East is to bow. Having said that, bowing in KSW is about much more than saying “hello”. In KSW, there are times and places for (compulsory) bowing.
Virtues and privilege aside, the story of martial arts to observers and students alike has been one of the gradual development of their techniques, the enrichment of their philosophies and their slow spread into other countries, and many different variations have evolved. As martial-art systems spread — predominantly through ancient trade links between neighbouring countries —  from nation to nation (and Korea was no exception), they would have been combined with and absorbed into each country’s indigenous fighting arts to create “super arts” — the best of all martial-art systems. Many characteristics of various forms of Chinese boxing appear to be prevalent in the existing martial arts of Korea, Burma, Thailand and other countries in the region, further evidence of the link between the Korean KSW — whose style and techniques continue to honour the fundamental and traditional martial-art philosophy — and the teachings of Bodhidharma mentioned above.
A synergy of tribal, Buddhist and Korean Royal Court martial arts, no system epitomises this eclectic blend more aptly than KSW. Indeed, the World Kuk Sool Association’s (WKSA) official website describes KSW as “… a comprehensive martial arts system… a systematic study of all of the traditional fighting arts…”. That’s not to say that the “indigenous” Korean martial arts were in any way inferior. Quite the contrary: primarily as a result of the numerous foreign invasions of their peninsula over the last millennia, the Korean people developed unique martial arts and military strategies in order to defend themselves and their territory. Despite the external influences on indigenous systems mentioned above, however, the Korean martial arts continue to be based fundamentally on three separate historical branches, but it’s in the Korean Royal Court where the KSW journey truly began.
Notwithstanding this — as they nevertheless constitute an intrinsic part of KSW — a history of KSW would be incomplete without, at the very least, a résumé of all three of the historical branches of Korean martial arts mentioned above:
  1. The country’s earliest indigenous martial arts are tribal in nature (known in Korean as Sa Do Mu Sool), and were passed from one generation to the next within each family, enabling them to continue to defend their homes and villages.
  1. In the years following the introduction of Buddhism into Korea, a Buddhist version of martial arts, known as Bul Gyo Mu Sool was developed. As with the tribal version, Buddhists did use their arts to defend themselves while travelling, but this wasn’t the only reason for their development: primarily, their particular style was used to improve their health and general well-being while meditating. Consequently, special breathing methods in addition to “external” training — with emphasis on effective self-defence techniques — were the principal traits of the Buddhist form of Korean martial arts.
  1. The martial arts practised by the private armies and bodyguards of kings, royal families and Government officials were known in Korean as Gung Jung Mu Sool, and focused predominantly both on weapons (such as short swords and folding fans!) as well as on the unarmed joint-lock and pressure-point techniques (Kuk Sa Nym’s speciality).
That KSW’s founder, In-hyuk Suh (Grandmaster), was the grandson of Royal Court Master-Instructor Myung-duk Suh is well known, but examining the events that led to the creation of KSW is imperative to understanding fully this relatively recently formulated martial-art system.
In 1910, around 50 years before KSW, Korea’s Royal Court was dissolved — and, consequently, Korea’s traditional martial arts banned — by the occupying Japanese, as part of a wider scheme to suppress all Korean institutions and culture. As a result of this ban, not only were martial-art instructors forced into hiding but anyone caught teaching these arts would face the harshest of punishments. Although this fear of reprisal may — quite understandably — have resulted in most Koreans refraining from participating in any martial art activities at all during this time, Myung-duk Suh — for one — was not to be intimidated from honouring a 16-generation-long family tradition. Prior to the Japanese invasion, he was well noted for teaching three types of Korean martial art — Kwun Sool (kicking and hard punch), Yoo Sool (joint-locking and throwing) and Yoo-Kwun Sool (a combination of the two, hard or soft) — and so, returning to his hometown near the city of Daegu in South Korea, he set about the courageous task of preserving his vast martial-art knowledge. This he did by teaching his techniques, in the strictest privacy, to his immediate family members. However, faced with growing older, he ultimately had to make the momentous decision regarding which of his children or grandchildren he should pass the entire scope of his knowledge on to. He chose his grandson, the future founder of KSW.
Kuk Sa Nym started young: his martial-art training began when he was aged just five years old and continued uninterrupted until he grandfather’s untimely death at the hands of North Korean soldiers during the Korean War (25 June 1950 – 27 July 1953). However, letters of introduction and his grandfather’s reputation as a Master-Instructor enabled the young Kuk Sa Nym not only to visit and learn from many different private martial-art teachers the length and breadth of South Korea, but also to gain access to hundreds of Buddhist temples where he would scour numerous volumes and texts on martial arts and techniques that had been hidden away out of Japanese hands and, in some cases, completely forgotten about. (Buddhist temples are no longer used as martial training grounds, but the documents held in their repositories proved invaluable to Kuk Sa Nym, and had been preserved thanks to the fact that the temples had remained neutral during the Japanese invasion.)
Reading books, good teachers and hard work will only get you so far in martial arts, however; to become a Master-Instructor and Grandmaster also requires intuition and insight, skills which Kuk Sa Nym displayed most informatively when he reportedly spent almost an hour persuading an old man — the last descendant of a famous martial-art family — to reveal his technique of using just his thumb to break one of Korea’s traditional steel smoking pipes. Kuk Sa Nym eventually realised that, although the old man was unwilling to divulge the technique verbally, he had throughout their whole meeting been holding one such pipe in one particular position, with his elbow at the same exact angle for the entire time, revealing that the technique was less about the thumb and more about the angle of the elbow itself. This was a true test of Kuk Sa Nym’s wisdom, a test which he passed.
We can talk freely about many facets of KSW, but it’s evident to students that Buddhism remains the common thread: reminiscent of the story of Bodhidharma, it was a Buddhist monk by the name of Hae Dong Seu Nim who became Kuk Sa Nym’s second most influential teacher, disclosing those special breathing skills and meditation techniques in addition to knowledge about maximising internal power that Bodhidharma had most probably taught his fellow monks in the cave in China all those centuries ago.
By the late 1950s, having gained an “encyclopaedia” of knowledge, Kuk Sa Nym began the challenging task of organising and formulating all of the many varied martial-art techniques he had learnt on his travels into one single logical system. And so it was that in 1958 Kuk Sool Won was born; it would, however, take another 15 years for this new Korean martial art to be exported to the world at large — initially to the United States (in 1973), where, after just two more years, the WKSA was formed (and continues to be based), and later to 27 other countries worldwide.
Author: Carl Richmond, Kuk Sool Won (Boston)