Are you still a black belt even if you stop training in Taekwondo?

This is an interesting question, and one to which the answer does not seem to be agreed upon by all Taekwondo practitioners. In this post I will give my opinion.

I generally believe that if you have achieved the level of black belt in Taekwondo, that you remain a black belt even if you stop training in Taekwondo. I also believe that you retain your degree of black belt – i.e., if you are a fourth degree black belt, and you stop actively training in Taekwondo, you remain a fourth degree black belt, even if you don’t train for several years. (However, I believe that if you are a colour belt, and you stop training for several years, you do not necessarily retain your grade.)

There are many people who disagree with this point of view, arguing that if you are a black belt, and you stop training for several years, you will then no longer be able to do what a black belt Taekwondo practitioner can do – and should be able to do. A black belt should be an indicator of a certain level of ability, and if, through not training for several years, you lose the level of martial skill required of a black belt, then you should no longer be a black belt in Taekwondo.

However, if we were to revoke the status of those people who no longer have the level of skill required of a certain degree of black belt, this would cause some problems. For example, perhaps someone trains in Taekwondo for fifty years, starting at age 20 and finishing at age 70; they reach the level of grandmaster, but at 70, for health reasons, they have to retire from Taekwondo. Should such a person no longer be considered a ninth degree black belt and a grandmaster because they no longer retain that level of skill? It is generally the precedent in Taekwondo that such a person would be a ninth degree grandmaster for the rest of their life (and may even be promoted to tenth degree (in some organisations) posthumously). It would seem evident from this example that in Taekwondo a person’s degree is not revoked when they stop training.

But let’s consider a different example: consider someone who starts training in Taekwondo at age 20, and at 25 becomes a black belt. Upon becoming a black belt, they then quit Taekwondo altogether. By the time such a person is 50 or 70, are they still a black belt in Taekwondo? To say that they are might seem preposterous – by the time they are 30 they will have already not been doing Taekwondo for as many years as they were training in it. By the time they are 50, they are very unlikely to have retained much of the skill that they developed.

However, even in this second example, I would say that such a person still retains their status as a black belt in Taekwondo. A belt in Taekwondo is primarily a symbol of what you have achieved, and secondarily an indicator of your current skill level. And someone who has achieved black belt in Taekwondo, but who hasn’t trained in it for a long time, and who no longer has the level of skill required of a black belt, will be aware that they are no longer at that level of skill. Such a person probably should not go around saying ‘I’m a black belt in Taekwondo’, as this implies currency. However, they are, in my view, technically still a black belt. And this is, I think, the convention followed by the vast majority of Taekwondo organisations around the world.

‘Is Taekwondo a religion?’

I’ve put the title above in quotation marks because this is not a question that I am asking of you, the reader – this is a question that was asked of me a long time ago. Actually, more specifically, it was put to me as a statement – that ‘Taekwondo is a religion’ – by one of my friends.

I hadn’t been training in Taekwondo for very long at the time – probably about a year and a half – and the friend who asked it of me was not a martial artist at all. She was just very interested in philosophy (and went on to study philosophy at university).

My answer at the time was a firm ‘no, Taekwondo is not a religion’, though not having thought of the question before, I was not very well equipped to say why it was not. Nevertheless I have not forgotten being asked the question.

Certainly in some ways Taekwondo is similar to many world religions. We have a traditional style of clothing – the dobok; we have traditional rituals that we learn from and teach to each other – the forms; we have separate denominations – the different styles of TaekwondoChangheon-yu, Kukki-won; we have founders; we have a hierarchical structure.

But these things alone do not make something a religion. Many of these attributes also apply to the supporters of football clubs, and they are generally not considered a religion (though I’m sure some philosophers would disagree). This question comes down to, as it often does: what is the defining quality of a religion?

Personally, I think that a religion has to have a supernatural belief system – you have to believe in a deity or some other metaphysical entity. While in Taekwondo we do idolise a number of people – such as Choi Hong-hi and Hwang Ki – there are no gods or goddesses. On this alone, I would say that Taekwondo is not a religion.

However, some would argue that belief in the supernatural is too narrow a constraint for the definition of a religion. It would most likely exclude Confucianism (which I would also not consider a religion, but again some would argue differently). Some would argue that a religion is any codified set of beliefs.

Taekwondo – particularly Changheon-yu Taekwondo – does have a set of beliefs. These are the tenets, or virtues, of Taekwondo: courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self-control, and indomitable spirit. These are the tenets by which students are expected to act in Taekwondo classes. But it is also often remarked that Taekwondo is not just an activity that you do for a few hours a week – it is a way of life. The five tenets, as well as other aspects of Taekwondo and Korean culture, are supposed to be part of your life outside of the dojang too. Therefore, the tenets, and the culture of Taekwondo, is a set of beliefs about how to live, comparable (and indeed heavily influenced by) the values of Confucianism.

So under this broader definition of a religion, where a religion is simply any set of beliefs, Taekwondo could be considered a religion. However, this does also make it arguable that capitalism is a religion as well. (Again, I’m sure that some philosophers would argue that capitalism is a religion.)

So in conclusion. This question leads to the usual philosophical minefield about the definition of religion and what things you think should and shouldn’t be considered a religion. While there are some similarities between Taekwondo and world religions, I think they are sufficiently different that Taekwondo should not be considered a religion.