Byung In Lee - The Rhinestone Cowboy
By John Cockaday
TKD and Korean Martial Arts - October 1999
If you had to choose someone from your chosen action/lifestyle to exhibit to the whole world everything that would show your favourite way of life to the best advantage, someone who would make people say, "whoa!, that's what I would like to do", "that's the best I have ever seen", "how des he/she do that?" or "that's for me, se sir, brilliant!"... could you do it easily?
You may be hard pushed to pick someone who was equally good in most areas" yes, there are specialists who shine in one aspect or another - but to find the all around perfect model can be a touch difficle, non?
In our world of Martial Arts there are many top class figures who often make the headlines for their athletic agility and prowess, others for wisdom and probity, some for service to their art and many, many other for all sorts of single outstanding acts and events.
So, not an easy task. in my particular style, Korean Kuk Sool Won I have never had this problem - I have always known who I would put on that world's stage in order to show everyone and say "look, my style and this person represents all that is the best about it!" Someone you are proud to call the living image of your chosen way.
The man is an singin', all dancin', bells and whistles, multi-talented swaggering, but most humble showman. Yes, ladies and gentleman, for your delectation I present Master Byung In Lee of Austin Texas. An 8th degree Martial Artist boasting a first class pedigree, with an impressive track record in the rough and tumble world of top Martial Arts.
Whilst marveling at his overall performance you will become aware of two outstanding features in his repertoire - a twin long sword form -ssang Jang Gum and all his action imitation of a serious board breaking machine.
However, let's first look at a little bit at the man behind the showman's banter and glitter and see how he came to be a Martial Arts topcat. As a young buck on the hard streets of Pusan, S. Korea, Byung In Lee served a tough apprenticeship together with other youngsters. Savage gang fights and illness persuaded the young man to turn to the Martial Arts. It was about this time that another Korean Martial Artist, the young In Hyuk Suh was perfecting the embryo Kuk Sool Won, from an amalgamation of Korea's finest Martial Arts, into probablt the foremost style that is recognized as the class act in the world today.
The young Byung In Lee immediately recognized the potential of the new style, signed up and developed a voracious appetite for training: he realized he had found refuge in the action and philosophy which was to stay with him for life. Intense application and dedication lead him to Instructor status and finally in 1975 he was appointed to the prestigious position of Chief Instructor at the Kuk Sool Won HQ, then in Pusan.
It was during this early training period that the young man began to cultivate his own charismatic method of martial instruction and operation. The rise and rise of the young warrior soon came to the notice of the KSW supremo, Grandmaster In Hyuk Suh and an invitation was given to join the top team in the USA , where it was decided that the future of Kuk Sool Won lay. The exciting traditional style prospered in the States and schools began opening up at a steady rate.
Byung In Lee's baptism of American culture and ways was not always initially smooth, located in Berkeley, CA the fresh young Master found it difficult to acclimatize easily but persevered. The loyal support of his early students assisted greatly in determining his resolution to remain and continue creating a successful school; additionally at this time, a beautiful lady entered his life and this may have been a decisive factor in one Master Byung In Lee becoming a resident of USA.
Sa Mo Nim (instructor's wife) Tina Lee is the wife and soul mate of our hero; the mother of Sun Ha Rose Lee (13), Sun Me Julie Lee (11), Sun He Crystal Lee (4) and Hyn Ki David Lee (7mths). When they first met up Byung Lee was very impressed with Tina's devotion to her family: it awakened similar consciousness in himself the importance of , and love for , one's family. throughout all his instruction and teachings it is evident that he places extreme value on his students' families, such is his intent in this direction that often whole family units join in the fun of learning the Kuk Sool Wan way of living - It's a family thing!
Meanwhile- in 1989 promotion to 7th degree was a reward for Master Lee's dedication to his own training: the youngest person at that time to receive such an accolade. Continuing to build up his school role, he also performed an amazing number of public demonstrations in the area and around the country. Gradually structuring his own experience and confidence, adding finesse and colour to performances. Introducing the wide eyed American public to the magic of Martial Arts at its very best, and of course continually putting Kuk Sool Won in the frame.
Kuk Sa Nim meantime was rationalizing his KSW empire, centralization was achieved by moving the control centre to Houston Texas in 1991. Master Lee was invited to follow and set up school at nearby Austin. This expansion style proved to be highly successful for the new Houston and Austin, as well as nationally.
Today the Austin school boats 400 + students and it's still rising! Byung In Lee is proud of the fact that he has a part in teaching every class - in this way he keeps his finger on the pulse and ensures his own quality control. The family atmosphere mentioned earlier is very evident as he underlines his message that Martial Arts in general and KSW in particular are for the masses, as well as individuals. Whole families form a large part of his school and work and train together. Master Lee personally meets and introduces each new student to his world.
However, do not be misled into thinking that the Austin school produces a mediocre standard of student because of the particular attention paid to the family atmosphere. Master Lee has personally successfully coached or 300 people to black belt status (75 at Austin) and if you have ever seen KSW black belts in action then you know we are talking top quality, indomitable spirit and courage.
Austin Students learn from this fresh approach to training in the Martial Arts - no longer the 'bash-crash' yesteryear bullyboy tactics. No boosting personal ego, no demanding respect and no bad attitudes. Instead we have the family bond of mutual respect and admiration, due attention is given to rank, all students are patiently taught that as well as being part of their own family, they are essentially members of the whole KSW family of Martial Arts. The rate at which they progress is largely determined by each student - in this way we all feel comfortable with their own foot on the gas pedal. Pressure to race through the syllabus is absent - there are those who are sure and steady as well as scope for the high flyers.
This quite unassuming approach to modeling the new recruit obviously pays dividends. When one acknowledges the large numbers attending the Austin Headquarters, the quality and standard of warrior produced is apparent to even the most inexperienced eyes. In Mr. Lee's own words: "first and foremost Martial Arts is a way to teach love and family. With old and young alike you must first show them love and love of Martial Arts. They must be comfortable with the training. As well as instilling the martial aspects of Martial Arts I try to encourage students with a love of Martial Arts. Young students must be taught concentration and respect: Next they must appreciate self control and finally. Fitness in order to remain injury free.
When greeting prospective students and their families, The Master will quickly and effectively demonstrate how Martial Arts will benefit each member of the group regardless of age, size or gender. Emphasis is place d on the importance of skill as a protection device for one's family, friends and neighbors and not a means of exhibiting aggression or taking ego trips. "fighting is for gangsters - Martial Arts are for Self - Defense." will often be heard from this do jang.
So, what of the main man's stage performance? Can he walk the talk? You Bet! I have witnessed many times this exciting artist in action. Master Lee has a flamboyant style of exhibiting his martial abilities, the dexterous performances of an expert at his chosen trade. The extrovert chatting, laughs and chuckles, obvious noisy enthusiasm, dervish whirling and swirling cannot quite camouflage the commanding and expert enactment of a quite breathtaking martial skills.
Under the bright lights inside or under the open skies, one can sense a feeling of expectancy when this young man steps into the arena. Supported by his 'shotgun riders' or on his own, he is the focus of attention. After starring in over 400 demonstrations most performances are of the 'masterclass' level.
Excellent as he is in most martial techniques, we have already indicated that there are two instances in which Byung In Lee declares he is most happy and effective. Ssang Jang Gum is a twin long sword form, steeped in ancient Korean History and born possibly as long ago as 600 AD. Two swords, each about 4ft long, are moved independently of each other, one in one hand and one in the other. Usually one is performing attacking movements whilst simultaneously the other defends. Just imagine the strength, co-ordination and power required to combine these actions into a crowd pleasing show. Then to demonstrate these uses further Lee defends against two attackers using inverted and straight sword techniques whilst in the traditional Korean "sitting warrior position."
The spectacle of the lights bouncing off the dancing, red and gold suited warrior, catching the steel highlights of the twin spinning weapons and all to the accompaniment of his "ki-aps!" and yells of delight is a sight to make one shiver with awe - indeed a "Rhinestone Cowboy."
The other trademark demo by which Master Lee is best known is his interoperation of a human exocet missile - not the heat seeking variety but his ability to penetrate and demolish with extreme prejudice almost any number of pine boards. This feat is achieved by an incredible jumping back kick, such is his timing, power and speed that he has become a legendary World Champion in the breaking arena. Additionally, he has in his arsenal a devastating spin kick - being so accurate that he regularly splits boards at sped off the top of many a fair maidens head!
Today, the whole Lee family are involved in the business of running the KSW Austin school. Sa Mo Nim Tina Lee is Program Director and generally handles the administration side of matters. Rose and Julie are both black belts and instruct in the junior classes. Crystal is now part of Dad's act and knocks 'em dead in the aisles (I've seen her in action). Meanwhile along comes young David - lets wait and see what that young man makes of it all - but undoubtedly he will be wearing a dobock before very long.
The family-first attitude which forms part of Master Lee's initiation policy is borne out in many ways. Listen to Dr. David Tower (2nd Degree). Master Lee's personal experience and enthusiasm along with his ability to inspire and persevere regardless of the circumstances of environment make him one of the most outstanding Martial Artists of his age. Above all he practices what he preaches and puts family first among all things."
It is this very caring attitude which has resulted in many students with physical and learning frailties arriving at the dojang. Attention deficiency disorders, dyslexia etc. are treated with the particular marital philosophy and patience practiced at this centre - and with much success. "time is a good medicine, take it slow, slow" says the Master. "Don't hurry." Currently, as student who is a stroke victim has fought back to near physical normality with the guidance of the Austin instructors.
Byung In Lee - beneath the razzamatazz and showbiz veneer you will find a most sincere person, a dedicated family man who likes traveling, good food and a sip of fine wine. Indeed, when he visits the UK to conduct seminars he usually finds time for a mini-tour of Europe on the way with a couple of buddies. On the other hand you will just as likely find him pressing up on fingers, storing power for those twin swords and sweating 0 just like you and Me!
Master Byung In Lee intends to be around for some time yet. Already he has appeared on the world stage in Korea, Canada, UK, Europe and the USA with international stars such as Hee Ill Cho, Eric Lee, Tadashi Yamashita, Carter Wong and Bill Wallace, etc. Many of these stars have compared him favourably with Jackie Chan - both in looks and action!
A permanent dojang is in the pipeline at present so that students can come from far and wide to train the Austin Kuk Sool Won way of life for many years. That is the fervent wish and legacy that this happy buccaneer wants to leave for many years to come.
That title? - well the figure of a dazzling cowboy star of the show - silver spurs, sequined suit bathed in bright lights., entering the arena to tumultuous applause on a prancing white stallion - has always caught my imagination. I usually place my very bestest heroes in this role - so it is with utmost respect and genuine honour that I bestow that slot to Master Byung In Lee - Martial Artist - Yee Hah!!