Austin Mu Sool Won
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Articles on Master Byung In Lee

Byung In Lee - With a Sword in Each Hand He Fights for Family Values

By Lee Martin
Tae Kwon Do Times - July 1994

I was a student at the University of Texas at Austin and a first degree black belt in Kuk Sool Won when I met Master Byung In Lee.  For the past three years I had trained on my own while attending college, but my training was not at the level I wanted.  I was able to "keep up," but without a dojang, classmates, and my instructor close by, I didn't yet have the foundation to truly excel.  Luckily, I learned that Master Lee, a seventh degree black belt in Kuk Sool Won, was moving to Austin.  

I had seen Master Lee perform several times and was amazed by his speed and power.  His most famous technique, sang gum (double sword) stuck especially in my mind and his twin swords had become his trademark demonstration technique.  but Master Lee was also widely known for his breaking prowess-his jumping back kick had won him the title of U.S. Kuk Sool Breaking champion.  His more than 300 demonstrations had included appearances with such martial arts luminaries as Hee II Cho, Erick Lee, Tadashi Yamashita, Carter Wong, and bill Wallace and in places as far away as Canada and England.  I was excited at the opportunity to learn under such an experienced and accomplished martial artist, but little did I know of the depth of the learning experience before me.

I soon found myself the senior student in the largest dojang I had ever trained in.  Enrollment began slowly, but Master Lee has a special way of showing people the benefits of martial arts-even as they just walk in the front door into the office.  He shows men twice his size that they can't even hold on to his wrist.  He teaches women simple pressure point techniques that discourage larger opponents.  And all this with insistence that martial art is for the protection of oneself, one's family and one's neighbors.  The effect of his simple one-on-one demonstrations seems almost magical as people suddenly realize that martial art is not so much about fighting as it is about learning ways to protect themselves without having to be aggressive or offensive.

"fighting is for gangsters," he says. "Martial art is for self-defense."  


It seems Master Lee learned this lesson early in his training.  In 1965 he was a shy boy who got beaten up by the bully in Korea.  Although he lost that scuffle, the shy teenager from Pusan learned that determination and perseverance are more important than the single fights in making true winners.  He became a student instructor in 1972, and by 1975 had become Chief Instructor at the Kuk Sool Won Korean Headquarters School in Pusan.  But his road to success was not an easy one, for while training as a teenager Master Lee was plagued by pain in his knees so much that he considered having his lower legs amputated.  When he reached black belt, however, the pain disappeared.  He credits his training in Kuk Sool with having saved his legs and when one sees the way he kicks now, at age 35, one wonders how he ever could have considered becoming an amputee.

Four years later in 1982, Master Lee was invited to the United States by Kuk Sool's founder and grandmaster, In Hyuk Suh.  Grandmaster Suh had established Kuk Sool Won headquarters in San Francisco and Master lee was to open a school in Berkeley.  After establishing a successful school, Master Lee met Tina Shim, who so impressed him on their first date by talking about the importance of her mother that later, Master Lee would ask her to marry him.  For Master Lee, such loyalty and love for one's family is the prime virtue for people.  "you will have many friends," he says "but it's God's making that you have only one mother and one father.  This will never change."

His life in California was also marked with other special accomplishments.  At age 33 he was the youngest person ever in Kuk Sool to be promoted to Seventh Dan and the first Kuk Sool master (above 5th Dan) to be promoted in the United States.  He was promoted to Seventh Dan on February 26, 1989.

In 1991, Grandmaster Suh moved Kuk Sool Won headquarters to Houston, Texas, to be more centrally located for his annual tour of all North American dojangs.  Grandmaster Suh soon invited Master Lee to Austin to strengthen Kuk Sool's presence in the state.  Master Lee held his grand opening on February 25, 1992, and celebrates it annually with a demonstration by Kuk Sool black belts.

And this year, 1994, is no exception: Master Lee's school is marking its second year with nearly 300 students.  Fortunately, for Master Lee, several of his seniors were able to make the celebration this year.  Grandmaster In Hyuk Suh, Chief master In Suk Suh, Senior Master Jung Oh Lee, and Master Lee's teacher, Master In Joo Suh from San Antonio, Texas presided over the anniversary festivities.

Kuk Sool Won Foundation

Such reunions mark the extended family that is the World Kuk Sool Association, founded in 1961 by Grandmaster In Hyuk Suh.  Kuk Sool is not a new art, but a systematic study of the foundational martial arts of Korea.  All traditional Korean martial arts came in one way or another from the three branches of Korean martial art history, and the Kuk Sool curriculum draws from all three;  the tribal or family martial arts (Sado Moo Sool), the Buddhist martial arts (Bulkyo Moo Sool), and the royal court/military martial arts (Koong Joong Moo Sool).  

Modern martial arts techniques rely heavily on the military and Buddhist martial arts, but Master Lee keeps alive the family spirit of Sado Moo Sool which were the first martial arts of Korea's pre-history.  In Sado Moo Sool, the techniques were developed to protect families and villages from animals and raiding tribes, and this defense depended on a close-knit community which cold depend on each other.  

While we may not need such defense-based communities in the present, teaching martial arts from a family perspective can teach many things to the modern student.  As a family man himself, Master Lee teaches the classes in his dojang while his wife manages the business, and his two daughters, Rose and Julie, six and seven-years-old, help keep the children's classes going.  At Austin Kuk Sool Won, martial arts are taught from the Lee family to the student family which learns how to develop the strength of closer bonds in an extended family.

And here is where the value of respect ca be beneficial.  While many Westerners look at respect in terms of a power game to feed the pride and supervisors, Master Lee teaches that everyone should give respect to get it.  I.e., a hierarchical system with an abusive tyrant on top yields no true respect while a teacher or parent who gives and encourages respect firmly but compassionately finds sincere respect given in return.

To learn respect, as in learning any technique, good habits must be developed and practiced.  School rules go a long way in developing the humble attitude that invites the respect of others.  Having to say "sir" or "Ma'am" to teachers is one method, but when students begin addressing each other as "sir" and "ma'am," the feel of the dojang changes entirely.  Students respond more quickly to each other and with more sincerity.  When a student is asked so politely by a classmate to practice, the student joins the practice so much more willingly.  by developing these respectful habits, master Lee rekindles what he believes to be the spirit of Sado Moo sool, modern training for a respectful and caring martial art family.

Levels of Yu Won Hwa

Through such simple rules of respect, one can come closer to a central tenet of training in Kuk Sool: Yu Won Hwa - "soft, circular, harmonious" - which Master Lee uses as the foundation for teaching a family style martial art.  Yu Won Hwa is important in Kuk Sool on many levels, from the physical movements of the art to the complex philosophical relationships between the body, mind, emotions and other people.

The simplest of these levels is in its description of the physical ideal for the movements of the martial art: the body should be soft and relaxed to allow greater speed and flow' motions should be circular to enhance this flow into connecting motions; and when one can make soft, circular motions, these connections give a togetherness and harmony which allows the martial artist to direct power into techniques.

In self-defense, you won hwa means that one should be soft, to roll with a punch and complete the circle for the counterattack.  And hwa in self-defense can approach something of a um-yang principle because here "harmonies" can be interpreted to give whatever component provides the opposite of the attack.  For example, if an attacker throws a circular attack, a linear counterattack can provide a good defense.

But for Master Lee, the most important level of you won hwa is in the behavior of a martial artist.  Students are familiar with the strength of character and self-confidence which comes from martial arts training.  Master Lee also teaches that to have a well-rounded character, students must also learn to have soft and tender characteristics as well.  He teaches senior belts to be less enforcers of the ideals of martial art than supportive examples.  A teacher who exerts a sincere effort will find that students give sincere effort in return, completing the circle.  In this way, beginning students are less likely to feel intimidated and the instructor is less likely to get an over-developed sense of pride from giving commands.

Master Lee also integrates this aspect of you won hwa into self-defense when he encourages patience and humility to avoid confrontation.  If a student is full of pride, then he becomes much like a board held stiffly for an attack; he is easy to break.  Whereas if one allows oneself to be humbler and patient in the face of heated confrontations, then like a board held softly, one can better survive a confrontation intact.  If someone is angry, why escalate things into a brawl?  Being "hard" (angry and impatient) is much easier but quickly leads to some sort of destructive actions.  The more beneficial and personally challenging course is to calm down and try to understand what would sooth the angry person.  The best way to avoid a punch is not to be there when it is thrown: the best way to avoid a fight is not to let it begin.

This philosophy is not self-defense of the hand-to-hand sort, but is part of the regular training Master Lee teaches in his extended view of self-defense against aging and disease.  In this more subtle battle, patience and hard work are the keys to better living and Master Lee often says, "Time is the best medicine."  This idea comes across especially in students having physical problems.  Master Lee understands their pain and frustration, and drawing from his own painful experience with his knees, he counsels patience and perseverance.  "Take it slow, slow," he often says, "Don't hurry." impatience and negligence lead to most injuries, and the first aspect of Master Lee's self-defense is to guard against these threats.  Not everyone can do jumping back kicks through five boards, but through martial arts, everyone can make their lives better.  And it is this holistic approach to the benefits of martial arts that for Master  Byung In Lee makes martial art more than a combative sport, but an art for a quality life.

Yu Won Hwa: The Family System

Taking this idea of self-improvement and adding it to the softness and togetherness encouraged by the principles of yu won hwa, Master Lee reveals what he calls you won hwa's "family system" for martial art.  On the family level, yu won hwa might be interpreted as patience and a softness of approach to avoid painful confrontations and circular actions to return affection and respect.  Together, these principles yield harmony by keeping the entire family together and agreeable.  In the Austin dojang, one can see this principle at work in the Lee family, as in the way Julie and Rose are discouraged from doing things they shouldn't , but always supported and cared about as members of the family.  The warmth even comes across in the Lee's play as master Lee answers a hearty, "yes, ma'am" to his wife who he calls his "boss."

Though his stellar martial arts career has carried him a long way from his original home in Pusan, Korea, Master Byung In Lee has managed through Kuk Sool Won to establish a home in the heart of his family.  And luckily for his students in Austin, Texas, his teaching of Kuk Sool as a family martial art under the principles of yu won hwa can show many more how to build a better family and a better life through martial art for years to come.