The name ‘Haidong’ came from ‘Haidong Sungguk Parhae,’ meaning ‘Parhae, the flourishing country in the East’. -World Haidong Gumdo Federation website

Balhae Map
Map of Balhae. Image: Screencap via Vimeo.

The longer I train in Haidong Gumdo and get to know its culture, the more I associate my sword art with the sea. The history and name of our art trace its history to the ancient kingdom of Balhae, which had a formidable amount of coastline. Some of our forms and meditation can be directly linked to warriors defending their coastline! Remember 단정행공 (Kimasae dan jun haeng gong, standing meditation)? Think about how those arms we hold out are perfect to watch the horizon while cutting off the ocean’s glare! Then there is Ssangsu gumbeub 10, which is an entire form in knee-deep water! I have seen more than one group of Masters in Europe and along the Mediterranean using the ocean for their training!

As neat as all of that is, (and hey, let’s admit that water training is fun)! That really isn’t what I meant about Haidong Gumdo reminding me of the sea. I wasn’t talking about the fact that Haidong is a soft style, fluid and beautiful so that my nerd friends and I joke that we are waterbending with katanas. At the moment I am not talking about the training philosophy that views our challenges as rocks to be eroded through repetition like water. I figured most of those things out within the first year or so of training.

The part that was lurking below the surface was that the Haidong Gumdo journey itself is like taking my sword to the sea. In every other martial art I have studied, the journey was a railroad ride. Not every locomotive was chugging along at the same speed, or even at the same top speed, but every person who got on the rails would travel the same distance in the same order. Take away the metaphor and everyone will learn the same forms, the same versions of the forms, in the same order. The same was true for kibon drills, dae ryun, and all the rest of it.

While that is true in Haidong Gumdo insofar as there is a core curriculum that everyone learns as they go forward, I slowly became aware that the curriculum is not the same for everyone. Everyone in a Haidong Gumdo school can learn the core curriculum just like almost eveyone with two functioning legs can walk chest-deep in the sea.

I have discovered that Haidong Gumdo has more to learn than the basic curriculum like the sea has more depth to it than the shore. But if I wanted to get more than chest-deep in this ocean, I was going to have to learn to swim.

What does it mean to swim in the Haidong Gumdo sea? It means earning what I learn. If I still struggle with the basic forms that I have been shown, it would be a waste of time for my master to show me a more advanced version. Worse than that, it would do harm to me in my path because I would be someone struggling to keep my head above water and dragging me deeper into the sea. I would not just flounder then, I might well panic and drown (stall out, get stuck, or even quit training altogether).

The first step in swimming the Haidong Gumdo sea is dedication to the basics. I learned to swim in the shallow water, after all, so if I had a problem I could put my feet on the ground. I went home and did the reps. I set myself challenges like memorizing all of the baldo-chaggeoms Master Koivisto showed us during a review week. (I’m not bragging; I set a goal of learning them in a week and they took me a whole month, getting teased for my hubris setting the one-week goal as a yellow belt and being dumb enough to talk about it in public.)

Next I became aware that the Haidong Gumdo Sea stretched out further than chest-deep. Master Hinojosa shared sparring drills and a new form with us in the spring of 2014. Chief Master Parnell has shared the partnered gyuckgums with us and explained that our region was entrusted with them because of our hard work. *click* That was the first time that I realized not only was there more to learn than we had seen, but that the way to learning it was to earn it.

So I began my quest to learn more. It wasn’t about asking for more curriculum. The only plan that has worked consistently has been to demand new curriculum. I’m not talking about breaching etiquette like a Western stereotype: “I’m paying for goods and services so serve me the goods!” No, I mean working so hard on everything that I have been given that my masters have no choice but to quit teaching me or to teach me more.

If training is swimming, I had to learn how to take my feet off the bottom and start paddling. That gets me to the partnered gyukgums and the headquarters versions of the forms instead of the simplified international gumbeub. If I work even harder, and learn how to learn faster, then I can get to my class’s sparring and zombie drills, and learn from Grandmaster Kim’s seminars the three different ways to do each gumbeub (group form, individual form, and competition form).

I understand that it is hard learning how to swim. Every time we try to dive deeper or use a different stroke there is the chance of spluttering and flailing around in front of our fellow practitioners. As the region’s absent-minded-professor sabum, I am working on taking a more active role even though it means counting 18.. 19.. 30… in public, or mixing and matching gyukgums, even though my explanations of all the mismatched parts are correct. I am glad that I can laugh at myself, and with the passing years I have learned that if I never mess up then I am not pushing myself, so I will get in the deep end and start splashing around until I look more like a porpoise than a flounder.

Every time I learn how to swim deeper out into the ocean, I can figure out new depths that are waiting for me, if I can just earn them. Sure, I know the partnered gyukgums, but can I do them on the 8-trigram pattern remembering the philosophy of each trigram and varying my delivery accordingly? Right now I would say that I am skin diving in the Haidong Gumdo Sea. I haven’t reached the level of SCUBA and made my master teach me the shimsang or yedo baldo-chaggeoms. I have not built myself a submarine of skill and understanding to reach the depths of unarmed versus sword, two-sword techniques, the sword-and-scabbard forms, flag work, or hyeopdo forms that I see in Korean Haidong Gumdo dojang demonstrations.

I have come to realize that I will never run out of depth to explore in the Haidong Gumdo Sea, but my journey is earned by mastery. Mastery is earned through hard work and dedication.

I welcome anyone who wants to journey with me. Race me if you want! If you surpass me the region is better for it. Pace me if you want, because we can keep one another going when our efforts could flag alone. Follow me if you need to, and I will try and swim clearly on the path.

But in all ways, all days, join me on the Haidong Gumdo Sea.