Moo Do Jaseh (Korean for Martial Way) is the underlying philosophy for martial artists. It’s evident in various places, including how the martial art portrays itself to the world, the impressions you get whilst training, and how you present yourself as a martial artist through your behaviour, thoughts, and appearance. In this interview, Steven Lemner SBN, a 7th Dan practitioner and Instructor in the USA Moo Duk Kwan, shares his martial arts journey, explains the philosophy of Moo Do Jaseh in more detail, and suggests how you could apply this to obtain a deeper meaning for your journey too.
Could you tell me how and when you discovered Soo Bahk Do?
I discovered Soo Bahk Do (then called Tang Soo Do) back in 1981. Essentially, I got started in martial arts because a friend was Japanese-American. I would go over to his house and his mom would make dinners. We’d sit on the floor and eat – which sparked this whole thing about cultures for me. He decided to take karate and so I did too. We were in high school – probably sophomore year. He stopped and I kept going.
During that time, I remembered seeing a Black Belt Magazine that had two guys sparring on the front cover. One had this trim on their uniform and I thought ‘man, that’s really unique!’ So, I started looking into it. It was called Tang Soo Do Moo Duk Kwan. I tried all the styles in town and wasn’t really happy with their instructing or philosophy. I thought ‘if I’m going to invest my time into something, I want to make sure it was legitimate, historical, and traceable’. By chance, I came across a Tang Soo Do program that had opened at the local YMCA. I met the instructor, Master Paul Barton, and could see right away just from his character what he was talking about and thought I’ll give it a try. I started it and liked it.
Master Barton was a very generous man. I couldn’t afford too much at the time. I was 21 years old, newly married, had two little kids, and was working full-time. He didn’t charge for my lessons. I’ve always owed a debt to him, and I’ve kept that as my policy: I never turn away a student as long as they’re wiling to train and be consistent.
What was your main reason to start this martial art? Did this reason change over time with more experience?
Yes it did. Just from meeting some of the other seniors and making connections, in Region 5 first. I met some great people and we’re still friends to this day after 33 years. I started teaching because my instructor’s program stopped at the YMCA as he had to move out of town. One day, I was in my back yard training, and two high school kids came up on bikes and asked me what I was doing. So, I told them, and they asked if I would teach them. At this point I had already received my Cho Dan and was the only person to have received Cho Dan out of Master Barton’s class. I thought ‘ok’ – I needed somebody to train with, so I told them to stop by the following weekend.
Next thing I knew, 10 people showed up, then 20, and then 30. So, we turned my garage into a dojang. The next thing I knew, I had 60 people coming to my house! We ended up having three classes a night for two times a week. It was teens – mostly high school guys at first – and then children, and then another class for adults. So, it was kind of a fluke that all of this happened. During that time, I was training and preparing for my Ee Dan, and then decided that I should get my Kyo Sa. It just started snowballing. By the time I left, in preparation for my Ee Dan and Kyo Sa, I had around 90 students. We decided to move to a bigger building. It kept growing from that point.
How many years have you been training? And what is the main reason for you to keep training?
I started in Tang Soo Do Moo Duk Kwan…it’s been 33 years that I’ve been Head of Studio, and roughly 37 years training. As your life changes, so does your Um and Yang. Once you recognise that, the things you want to start will change. You’ll start to see the depth of the martial art. Because of that depth, I found that no matter what I did, the philosophy was incorporated into every aspect of my life.
Especially working in surgery with doctors, I saw how awareness of the environment, the people around us, anticipating things, everything that I was training in, I used. They saw that in me and joked: ‘he’s the karate guy’. I’d hand something to them before they’d do anything and they’d go ‘how do you know to do that?’, and I would say ‘I just anticipate your movement’. From then to now, you just can’t separate it. It just becomes you and becomes your Do (Way). That’s what I love about it.
What value has martial arts brought to your life?
Everything. All of my family have trained. I never once asked any of them to train. All of my family members are Dans. I have three children: a daughter and two sons. My daughter is a Cho Dan. She actually married one of my Sam Dans. They grew up together in the dojang. I’m proud of that because we’ve had about eight couples meet in the dojang through the Art and got married. My sons, my wife, and my stepson are all Ee Dans.
The Art impacted our whole family in what we did. We travelled. We had a vacation together with Moo Duk Kwan people and became connected. Because it’s such a part of me, the family recognises that and they end up sharing in that. I’ve been so fortunate to have my family support me through the years, even when things were tough and sometimes I’ve had to skip something at school because I had to teach. Everyone understood and supported me in that whole endeavour.
At what point did you start your own dojang and why?
When I was a 7th Geup, my instructor saw how well I worked with people and immediately made me the Assistant Instructor. We’d have many nights training together, we’d talk about class plans, and he saw my drive. He had a speech impediment, so it was very difficult sometimes for him to get points across. As a result, he would let me explain and we would work as a team and take each other’s strengths and weaknesses and utilise them. I then got thinking about my calling in life – you know how you think about that when you’re becoming an adult – ‘what am I supposed to do?’
Sometimes the big picture isn’t what you think it is. What I discovered as I went through that is, it finally clicked in my head that God must have a purpose for me, and that purpose was to positively affect people’s lives. The vehicle He gave me to do that with was the Art. Therefore, even though I thought I might be doing something different, this became natural and was in harmony with what I was doing. It just flowed, and obviously worked because it continued to grow and I ended up with 125 students at the second studio.
People see it. They see your character and your passion. It makes you feel very good in your heart that you’re affecting people’s lives. Sometimes as an instructor you feel like you’re getting burnt out, but those moments when the child gets it, or the adult conquers something and you see it and you knew you had a part in that – or even relationships get reconnected because of your influence with them, it makes it all worthwhile. What better could you do in your life than to help other people?
For those not very familiar with the term ‘Moo Do Jaseh’, could you please explain what this means in your own words?
Moo Do is a big phrase in my dojang, and it’s always been like that. My philosophy is very simple and my students understand it: we train hard, we play hard. So, we will train very hard but we would also get together and have a good time. That connects us.
Moo Do Jaseh is the ability, in my view, to carry your character forward in a positive way. People recognise that: how you walk, how you talk, how you greet somebody. So, when you carry that posture positively, whether it’s in technique or meeting people, it’s their persona, their energy, their aura that surrounds you that affects other people. Every time I’m with my seniors, like Kwan Jang Nim, he has this power. He’s the most humble, soft-hearted man I’ve ever met. When we walks into a room, it’s like there’s an energy that’s produced. He’s not doing anything fancy. He’s just smiling. I recognise that as Moo Do Jaseh. When he moves, his philosophy moves. To me, Moo Do Jaseh is the living philosophy experienced by your actions, and experienced by other people.
Can you talk about the Moo Do Jaseh behind the Art. What’s the key message that students must have in mind when training?
I think they should start by understanding the key concepts. Each one builds on the next one. When they walk through the door for the very first time, they had to have Yong Gi (courage). They didn’t know what was going to go on. But then they discovered they were willing to put their courage in play. The next thing is after Yong Gi is Chung Shin Tong Il – concentration. So now they have to concentrate on what they were trying to be brave about. Then In Neh (endurance): they had to stick with it. If you follow each one of those, it just builds on the previous one. Through that, students start to discover the philosophy, the technique, the history, the 5 Moo Do Values, and the Moo Do Jaseh.
I have a drill that I do with my children, where they memorise those by physical actions based on each one. So, they will do Yong Gi through fighting stance, and then they will do the attention stance standing nice and straight for concentration. In Neh, they do horse stance punching. Chung Jik, the bow, honesty. Kyum Son and Wan Gup…you know, speed fast and slow. So they can relate physical movement with a mental understanding. We do the same thing with the 5 Moo Do Values and with the 10 Articles of Faith. My Tiny Tigers learn them. They’re learning technique but they can associate movement with a meaning of something. That’s where Moo Do Jaseh starts to fertilise your growth. It feeds you.
What’s the key message that you would give for students to have in mind when they’re grading?
Most people think it’s a test. I prefer to say ‘presentation’. This is a presentation of your understanding at this time. You might forget something – and that’s ok, we’re human. It’s how you handle forgetting something. Do you show courage and ask to do it again because you forgot? Sure, go ahead. I forget stuff. That’s Kyum Son (humility). It also puts them on the spot that they’ve got to remember it. But I tell them: ‘we’re proud to watch you’. What we’re looking for when watching you, isn’t so much whether you’re making a mistake, but what, as the instructor, do I need to do to help you get better. So really, we’re testing ourselves to see the quality of the instruction we’re giving – not just what you’re showing.
I get all my Dans who teach or assist to sit at the Testing Board, because then I’d ask them questions. I’d say: ‘when you’re with them, I’d want you to help them with this’. So maybe we weren’t doing it right. It takes some pressure off them so they can enjoy it. The second thing is, every test is a moment in time. You’d want to have a good memory and do the absolute best but we’re not here to judge you as a person. We’re here to judge the quality of what we’re doing as an instructor to the technique. So, just give me 110% and then you can walk out of here proud.
Because we want to be successful studio owners, there’s a very fine line that you have to be careful of. That line is: you want to support your students but you don’t want to give away false sense. So, I tell my students if you do it right, I’m going to tell you. If you do it again or something’s different, I’m going to tell you. There’s no ‘good job’ all the time – I might be like ‘let’s do this again’. That’s honesty: Chun Jik – and they appreciate that.
What advice or reflections would you give to others who are looking for a deeper meaning in their martial arts journey?
Don’t rush, it’ll come. There’s a saying: when the student is ready, the teacher appears. That’s so true. The human tendency is that we want things now. And, the beauty is in searching. Don’t rush – it’s not going anywhere. It’s like life: enjoy every moment to the fullest. That’s my message. Take that moment and at that moment that’s all there is. When you do that, you are fully engaged in the moment and there’s nothing else that matters. When you tie that dee (belt) on and you enter the dojang, everything else stays outside.
Finally, can you give some insights into how you’ve cultivated your Moo Do Jaseh over time?
In the beginning, and it’s important for Geup members especially, is building your foundations. You have to do many repetitions physically. Through that, you start to see how your concentration and the other things improve. That takes courage because it’s a long duration. It’s 3-4 years to become Cho Dan, the beginning level. Many think ‘I’ve got my Dan now I’m done’. You’ve just got the tools from the toolbox. You haven’t opened up the tools and built anything yet. So, developing that from there, you have to have good humility to understand and recognise how it continues to grow as you grow. As we age, we start to get Ji, which is wisdom. We also learn what’s important and what’s not essential to our growth.
Right now, I’ve been doing more meditation. I practise Moo Pahl Dan Khum every day since I learned it – and that shot into a whole new other thing because I then started learning Tai Chi and Ki Gong. Talking to SBN Hanke, we’ve had great discussions about that and how that leads to internal development: your chi, your ki. In the beginning, you shouldn’t even search for it, but it comes and all of a sudden you’ll discover it. When you do, you’ll discover it’s true source. It’s like being a Jedi – you’ll discover the force.
I would like to thank you for having me share my thoughts, and am very humbled. I am a student, just like you. We are all on the same path, guided by those that came before us. Thank you also for your move to take action to share the Art in this way.
You’re very welcome, and thank you for your time.
The philosophy behind Moo Do Jaseh is detailed yet simple. It’s detailed because it’s open to various interpretations depending on the context and life experiences. It’s simple because the key components are essentially to understand the essence of your martial art and also to understand yourself. Steven Lemner SBN is a highly experienced practitioner and instructor, who’s time for this interview I’m very humbled to receive. You can find out more about his dojang here: Lemners Soo Bahk Do.
Do you have other interpretations of Moo Do Jaseh and how you’ve used it in your martial arts journey? Comment below and share your thoughts!
Photos: © Steven Lemner, USA Moo Duk Kwan. All Photos used with permission.