Martial Arts


About The Author

Ms. Elaine M. Hashman, Cho Dan (ATA Dan # 36650) is a student of Kyo Sa Caura Wood, 3rd Dan, at Parkhill Tang Soo Do in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. She has also trained with and received her Cho Dan promotion from Sr. Master Carl Tate in 2009.

Why Protocol Matters In The Martial Arts

"Watch your thoughts, for they become words.
Watch your words, for they become actions.
Watch your actions, for they become habits.
Watch your habits, for they become character.
 Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny."
                                                 ~ Author Unknown

Anyone new to martial arts would immediately notice the formal nature of expected behavior, both in and out of the dojang. We bow to each other. We respond to commands with "Sir" or "Ma'am". There are rules for lining up, who to ask for help, and when and how to adjust our uniforms, to name but a few. For the most part, we accept these formalities and learn to observe them without question. Yet it is difficult to truly appreciate the usefulness and even necessity of these formalities if we do not understand why we observe them.

To glean an understanding of the why, we need to briefly return to the origins and history of martial arts. Tang Soo Do traces its historical and ancestral roots back to the Hwa Rang Dan, warriors and protectors of several Korean royal dynasties. These first soldiers and the martial arts they practiced were crucial to the survival of ancient civilizations but also later evolved so that citizens could rely on only themselves to thwart the unexpected pillage of conquering foes. Today, Tang Soo Do is practiced worldwide and despite both time and geography, certain traditions remain the same for martial artists of all styles.

Tradition has shaped the many "formalities" we practice during our training. Officially, we refer to them as protocol, defined as "forms of ceremony and etiquette". There is a specific formula which dictates how, when and where something must be done. Like any rule, its effectiveness is dependent upon consistency. That means it must be applied the same way by everyone at all times. Although protocol is arguably an expectation rather than an absolute, the framework it is meant to provide will collapse if it is not applied in a reliable manner. At times, differences in interpretation may arise and when this occurs, an arbiter is necessary to determine an appropriate conclusion. In modern society, judges are the final arbiter in matters of law and in the martial arts world, it is always the highest rank that has the final word.

In addition to providing structure, protocol imbues an organization with a distinct character. It defines what the culture inside the organization looks like. While many organizations espouse certain values, not all are successful in implementing them. By treating each other with courtesy and respect at all times, as well as fairness, patience and understanding, we communicate the importance of civility, human dignity and similar values, and by applying this to our daily lives, it benefits not only the martial arts community, but our homes, neighborhoods, towns and cities as well. We are taught that "everyone on your left is your responsibility", but we also look to our right for leadership and instruction. Therefore, every student of the martial arts has a purpose in the line of responsibility and our traditions compel us to look both left and right for direction and affirmation.

Most would agree that the relationship of protocol and military heritage are inextricably linked. The fighting techniques we learn or teach today were developed for mortal combat. Within the context of war, stakes are irrefutably high, almost always with life or death outcomes and the conditions of war can lead to inhuman behavior. In fact, the Geneva Conventions were established following the Second World War due to the abuses of humanitarian law. Centuries earlier, a code of conduct had already been established for the earliest of military personnel. One has only to refer to the Code of the Hwa Rang Dan to confirm that concepts such as compassion, chivalry, civility and so on originated long, long ago. This ethical code was expanded to include values important to society as a whole. The Ten Articles of Faith, for instance, sets out specific expectations for relationships between and among family members, friends, teachers and students. There is deference to the elderly, no doubt because of the wisdom and experience they possess.

Another major influence in the establishment of protocol is the fact that military organizations are hierarchical in nature, with a very strict chain of command. Orders are passed down from senior to junior ranks. Once again, the ramifications of not doing so are often extreme and rank becomes essential to maintaining a sense of order. In the martial arts, it is the belt system which defines not only hierarchy and chain of command, but also experience, level of skill and accomplishment. While order is immediately defined by rank, seniority is further decided by age and sometimes Dan Bon (Dan number). A white belt signifies a beginner with little knowledge and emerging skill whereas a midnight blue belt indicates mastery of technique, depth of knowledge and great accomplishment. It is therefore appropriate that technique and knowledge are passed down from master to beginner. If this was not true, then a student of any rank, and consequently any skill level, could open their own studio and be qualified to teach. It has been argued by some that humility trumps rank because we can learn from everyone, regardless of rank. Others contend that it takes competence to recognize competence. If the latter is true, then it would be impossible to maintain standards when humility is given precedence over rank, and certainly our art would not be well served, or preserved, by allowing less competent individuals to oversee the teaching of technique.

In a traditional dojang, the chain of command is further evident by the fact that questions which cannot be answered by a gup member must be referred to a dan member. It is because both humility and protocol dictate that it would be unacceptable for a junior member to correct any member above their own rank. That is not to suggest that significant errors committed by a more senior member should be overlooked, but rather that in bringing it to their attention, it is always done with the utmost of courtesy and respect, and with intentions that are purely altruistic.

One of the most persuasive arguments for observing protocol, however, is that it differentiates traditional martial arts from all other types of fighting or self defense. Even without training, anyone can fight because "fight or flight" is a basic human physiological response. Along with protocol, traditional martial artists practice self discipline, self control and measured response to a threat, fighting only when there are no other viable options. With the increasing glamorization of blood sport such as mixed martial arts and the promotion of violence as entertainment value for sports in general, protocol is the dividing line between acceptable human behavior and barbarity.

In summary, by applying rules appropriately and consistently, expectations are clearly defined and laid out in advance. As participants in the martial arts, we accept them as the terms and conditions of our membership in an organization, without reservation, and we recognize that the integrity of any organization is protected only by maintaining high standards, both of our moral and physical conduct. Now, go out and bow with conviction!

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