He's known as the father of American taekwondo, and he may have the answer for America's declining social fabric. Jason William McNeil takes a look at Jhoon Rhee's ideas for creating a better America from the ground up.

Editor's Note: This piece was originally published in the March 2004 issue of Black Belt magazine. The time and age references have been left intact for this posting.


Violence lives in our schools and on our streets. Divorce rates are soaring, and literacy rates are plunging. Everywhere you look, it’s racism, politics as usual and corruption. Even worse, everybody talks about America’s problems, but no one seems to do anything about them. For taekwondo grandmaster Jhoon Rhee, the time to do something is now, and he’s the man to get the ball rolling.

“Something is wrong with our society, and some institution must lead the reaction,” says Jhoon Rhee, the father of American taekwondo. “I have volunteered to do that — to mobilize all martial artists in one direction, to make this human society one where everybody is happy every day of their lives.”

Achieving universal human happiness may seem like a tall order, but Jhoon Rhee is an ambitious man with a far-reaching plan. To him, the dissemination of martial arts training and philosophy — from the public-school system to the hallowed halls of Congress and the White House — is the surest way to achieve health, wealth and happiness on a national scale. 

Jhoon Rhee contends that the best place to begin is at the beginning, and that means instituting dojang values into public schools. “People are a product of education,” he says. “If you are taught communism, you become a communist. If you are taught capitalism, you become a capitalist. If you are taught liberalism, you become a liberal, and if you are taught conservatism, you become a conservative. If you are taught to be honest, you will become an honest person. If you are taught to lie, then you will be a liar.

"Whatever we teach our children, they become. So why not teach them discipline?”

He has already taken the first step toward realizing his dream of disciplining millions of American youths via the introduction of his Joy of Discipline program in Washington, D.C.-area schools. Under the direction of Ken Carson, the program provides in-school martial arts training for students. It teaches them the three basic philosophical principles of Jhoon Rhee Tae Kwon Do: knowledge in the mind, honesty in the heart and strength in the body.

Ken Carson and his instructors seek to exemplify what their grandmaster defines as the very essence of the martial arts: the lead-by-example action philosophy.

To Jhoon Rhee, discipline lies at the heart of achieving a happy life. Knowledge and strength obviously require discipline to be achieved, but honesty also comes from a kind of personal discipline. “Every one of us is created to pursue happiness, yet no one is happy,” he says. “Our only problem, ultimately, is dishonesty. 

“What do I mean by honesty?” the 70-year-old asks. “To me, honesty is synonymous with philosophy. We should teach our children with martial arts philosophy, and martial arts philosophy is, at its best, no different from the best political philosophy, business philosophy or whatever philosophy there may be. When a student is honest, he is responsible to himself first. When you are responsible to yourself, how can you be lazy developing your knowledge? How can you be lazy giving up on your muscles?”

Whenever he’s met by a perplexed gaze from a listener, Jhoon Rhee shifts his philosophizing back into a lower gear. “The three basic human values are love, beauty and truth,” he explains. “When you are truthful, you are beautiful in the heart. When you are beautiful in the heart, everybody loves you. When everybody loves you, you are happy. On the other hand, when you lie, you become ugly in the heart. When you are ugly in the heart, everybody hates you. When everybody hates you, there’s no way you can lead a happy life.”

Lest the public-school indoctrination of Jhoon Rhee’s core values seem too small a task for a man with his drive and enthusiasm, his plan to bring them to the rest of America is even more ambitious. He’s confident the arts can offer a perfect blend of physical and mental training to teach students the virtues of hard work, honest living and honest expression.

As behavioral psychologists have come to realize in recent years, the body and mind are inexorably linked, and students cannot hope to make significant improvements to one while neglecting the other.

“Physiology dictates human emotion as much as emotion dictates human action,” Jhoon Rhee explains. “In other words, motion triggers emotion as much as emotion triggers motion.”

Jhoon Rhee is clearly a man on a mission. He’s determined to offer his unique vision of the martial arts as a panacea for society’s ills. “Throughout history, every significant change or contribution has been created by one man,” he says. “Then, our race expands upon it throughout the ages.”

Obviously, Jhoon Rhee believes he is that man. Judging by all he’s accomplished thus far, it’s possible he’s right.

For more information about Jhoon Rhee, visit his official website at jhoonrhee.com.

About the author: Jason William McNeil is a freelance writer and martial artist based in Roanoke, Virginia.

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