Master Byung In Lee, The Korean Cowboy
By Mark K. Anderson
Tae Kwon Do Times - December 2002
As I assisted Master Byung In Lee, an 8th degree black belt in the Traditional Korean Martial Art of Kuk Sool Won, prepare for his demonstration at the 2000 Kuk Sool Won Masters Exhibition I realized that I was watching one of the best in the world as both a martial artist and as a person. Here was a man who has accomplished nearly every dream in his personal and professional life and was still pushing for more. If you spend just a few minutes with him you will quickly realize what it is about this man that makes him so successful. It is never ending supply of enthusiasm for life and the martial art he loves so much, Kuk Sool Won.
As an 8th degree black belt in the Traditional Korean Martial Art of Kuk Sool Won, Master Lee is a world-renowned martial artist with one of the most successful schools in the United States and over 400 demonstrations around the world to his credit He richly deserves his reputation as a major attraction at Kuk Sool Won and other martial arts tournaments and festivals. He has appeared with such martial arts legends as Bill Wallace, Hee Il Cho, Eric Lee, Carter Wong, and Tadashi Yamashita and Kuk Sool masters from all over the world. A favorite with students and non-practitioners alike his high-energy techniques and breaking demonstrations have made him a favorite with audiences around the world. Master Lee has also appeared on the covers of numerous martial arts magazines in both the US and the UK , where he explains the benefits of Kuk Sool Won as well as his special blend of family martial arts
As a martial arts instructor, he owns an extremely successful school, located in the beautiful city of Austin, Texas is among the largest both in terms of size and student population. At his school he teaches his students a great deal more than simply how to kick and punch. He also teaches them how to be good people. With hundreds of students training at his school each month, Master Lee has taken a lifetime of experience and created a family martial art that teaches everyone and excludes no one. The goal at his school is to create better people, not just better kicks and punches.
If professional success were not enough, Master Lee shares his success with his wonderful wife Tina Lee (Her Korean title is Sa Mo Nim – Wife of the Master) and their four children who not only are successful academically, but are an integral part of the family martial arts business. Master Lee seems to have achieved great things in his life, especially considering his humble beginnings. However, to reach this level in his life has been a long and difficult road.
Master Lee was born and raised in Pusan, Korea in the late 1950’s. It seems that the growth of Kuk Sool Won, Korea and Master Lee were tied together. Pusan, Korea in the late 50’s and early 60’s was a very turbulent and dangerous place. As Master Lee was growing up The Korean Conflict had just recently ended and Korea was going through very difficult times as it sought to become one of the industrial giants of Asia. Korea at this time seemed to have an identity crisis in coming to terms with the split of North and South Korea. South Korea was just beginning to struggle out of the ruins of war and getting on its feet economically. The country as a whole was struggling and so were its people. This struggle made its way onto the streets so the young men who survived in Pusan were generally the toughest in the neighborhood. Master Lee was constantly being tormented by bullies who wanted what ever it was he had. It was after a scuffle with one of these neighborhood bullies that Master Lee began his training as a martial artist.
Kuk Sool Won was also in its early stages at this time. Kuk Sa Nim, Suh, In Hyuk, was taking his martial art almost door to door doing street demonstrations to build interest in his new martial art. Master Lee joined Kuk Sool during this time and both have grown and matured over the years. Although he would have to put his skills to work from time to time, Master Lee learned quickly that perseverance and hard work were far more important than who was the toughest bully in the neighborhood.
Prior to beginning his training Master Lee had to overcome another obstacle. As a youngster he had developed such terrible joint pain that he considered having his legs amputated below the knee simply to avoid the pain. Shortly after beginning his Kuk Sool Won training the leg pain vanished. He credits his training in Kuk Sool and his willingness to work hard with saving his legs. Because of his experience with his joints, Master Lee devoted his life to the study of Kuk Sool Won and spent countless hours perfecting his techniques.
Even as a young man, you could see the drive and determination that would make him a top martial artist. He lived and worked at the Do Jang (martial arts studio) where he would spend time after classes were over kicking and punching until he was bleeding. He would also spend his time perfecting his forms and techniques. It was during this period that he began to understand that hard work and the determination to stick to his task would allow him to go very far, not only in Kuk Sool Won, but in his life as well.
His drive and determination paid off well. By 1975 he was the chief instructor at the Kuk Sool Won Korean headquarters school in Pusan. He was also an instructor for the Korean Police Academy. It was during his time that he became one of the best in the world at breaking techniques and earned the title of “World Kuk Sool Won Breaking Champion.”
Coming to America
In the early 70’s, Grand Master In Hyuk Suh began preparations to move the world headquarters for Kuk Sool Won to the United States. He realized that this move would open up a large market for his martial art and help him bring it to the world. When the world headquarters moved to California in 1982 the Grand Master asked Master Lee to accompany him and establish a school in the United States. Master Lee had little money and even less idea how to succeed in America, but with a burning desire to succeed. And succeed he did.
Master Lee, with little or no skills in English, established a school in Berkley, California. The school and his time in California brought many changes to Master Lee’s life. During this time he met his future wife, Tina Shim. From their first date, Tina was very impressed with Byung In Lee and they were later married. Master Lee was impressed with her devotion to her family and how important it was to her to maintain family relationships. Master Lee has often explained the importance of family to his students this way. “You will have many friends, but its Gods making that you have one mother and one father, this will never change.” He knew that he wanted to marry her right away. This was a Kuk Sool Marriage from the beginning. They even exited the chapel beneath a line of Kuk Sool Swords. She now runs all the business affairs of the school as the Sa Mo Nim.
This period Master Lee became the first Kuk Sool master (5th Dan) promoted in the United States as well as the youngest person ever to be promoted to 7th Dan. Master Lee also began to develop more fully his own teaching style as a “family oriented martial art.” As he has often said, “Without etiquette a marital artist is just a gangster.” Master Lee’s style is focused on being more family oriented and emphasizes building good character traits (responsibility, self control, respect for others, etc.) of the martial arts integrated with the devastating nature of the Kuk Sool Won techniques.
The Move to Texas
The 80’s, saw Kuk Sool Won grew exceptionally with new schools opening up all over the United States, UK, Canada, Venezuela, across Europe and Korea. To make his regular visits to the schools for seminars easier Kuk Sa Nim decided to move the world headquarters to Houston, Texas. Again, Master Lee was invited to move with him and open up a school in nearby Austin, TX. He moved his wife and then two children in 1992 and opened a brand new school. Soon he once again had one of Kuk Sool’s most successful schools. By now his idea of a family martial arts school was fully developed and he opened with the idea of helping students become not only excellent martial artists, but the best people they could be. His idea of a family martial arts school has paid off well. With close to 400 students Master Lee has one of the largest Kuk Sool Won schools. The large school combined with his insistence on teaching all the classes keeps him and his entire family very busy. His concept of a family marital art means that the whole family is involved, Sa Mo Nim running the business, Master Lee teaching the classes and his oldest daughters Rose and Julie assisting.
Family Martial Art
A family marital art is not just clever a marketing idea. Master Lee’s style of teaching martial arts as a family affair is deeply rooted in the tenets of Kuk Sool Won, namely, Yu Won Hwa. Although founded in 1961 Kuk Sool Won is based on Korean martial arts traditions that date from antiquity. Kuk Sool Won’s three foundations are Family Martial Arts (Sado Moo Sool), the Buddhist martial arts (Bulkyo Moo Sool) and the royal court/military martial arts. (Koong Joong Moo Sool). Much of the devastating techniques and weapons come from the Buddhist and royal court traditions of Kuk Sool Won. But, Master Lee keeps the family traditions alive in his special brand of teaching.
He introduces his students to a cultural change, that of respect for everyone in the school. While many in the United States will look upon respect as a sign of weakness or simply a power game played by those in a position of authority in his school respect is a two way street. The respect flows down from Master to student and then back. Particularly in the U.S. respect is a concept that has to be taught. He develops the habits from the first day of training where each student is expected to address everyone in the school as “sir” or “ma’am.” When students begin to treat each other with this amount of respect their entire demeanor changes. They begin to learn more quickly and willingly. They even begin to act better at home. It is an infectious idea that the students, young and old alike respond to.
The idea or respect and etiquette help bring students to Master Lee’s school. Often he will have entire families train together. In addition to developing respect in his students, his method of teaching a complex martial art in a way that is easy to understand appeals to all types of persons regardless of age and ability. He can take someone with little or no natural ability and develop them into a true martial artist. His enthusiasm for his work is easy to see when he works with a new student or with a difficult student as he lovingly, yet firmly, instructs them.
To develop this approach to teaching the martial arts Master Lee relied heavily on the Kuk Sool Won concept of Yu Won Hwa (Soft, Circular, and Harmonious). He uses the discipline of Yu Won Hwa to give his students a sense of accomplishment and self worth that will translate into a better person. He has honed his concept to such a degree that it works with not only the model student but students of all levels. In fact, Master Lee has a number of students with emotional and physical limitations. Age, Dyslexia, Attention Deficit Disorder, Visual impairments, and Stroke victims have all been overcome by using Master Lee’s approach to martial arts.
At its basic level Yu Won Hwa is a description of the physical aspects of the martial art, that the body should not be stiff, but supple and relaxed. This will allow for greater speed and the circular motions will allow the both your energy and the energy of your opponent to flow in a series of connecting motions that are very powerful. But, the concept of Yu Won Hw is important in Kuk Sool at many levels, physical, philosophical and the complex relationship between mind, body and spirit. It is a continuing education process of the mind, body and spirit to work as a collective whole that can allow the martial artist to perform amazing feats and the student to achieve well beyond their own perceived capabilities.
With Master Lee his dedication, demand for respect for everyone and Yu Won Hwa combine in a love for his students that transcends the student – teacher relationship. This love for his students has set him apart both as a martial artist and as an instructor. If a student will listen and practice according to his instruction amazing things can happen, but not all at once. It takes time. He constantly reminds his students that “time is the great healer of all things. Time is good medicine, take it slow. You know your body best.” This philosophy has helped his students overcome the many challenges faced in day to day living and in the special circumstances that some students find themselves.
For one of his students a massive stroke while he was a Dan Bo Nim (black belt in training) left him with little or no feeling in the right side of his body. Master Lee went to the hospital and worked with the student there. Later as he began to recover the student came back to the school where Master Lee worked with him to overcome the difficulties that were left after the stroke. Now, almost two years later the student has received his black belt and is a regular fixture at the school. Although not completely recovered, he is much further along than any doctor can believe and is leading a near normal life.
One of Master Lee’s early students from California and a life-long friend has said it best, “Master Lee’s personal experience and enthusiasm, along with his ability inspire and persevere, make him one of the most outstanding martial artists of his age. Above all he preaches and puts his family first among all things.”
With his own rigorous personal training schedule and world wide demonstrations, he still devotes his time to teaching his students. In fact to this day you will find him at his school teaching all of his classes, not willing to turn over the thing he loves best, showing others the benefits of Kuk Sool Won. And when you see his demonstrations you will understand why he is considered not only the World Breaking Champion, but one of the best overall Kuk Sool Won practitioners in the world. \
He is known throughout the world for his Double Sword Techniques. The use of Double Swords is a Kuk Sool Won master’s technique with its roots in Korean antiquity where one sword defends while the other sword attacks. There are actually two varieties of the double sword form. The first is the Jung Ssang Gum or Straight double sword form. In this type the attacking sword will either poke or slice upward or downward and the defending blade will block upward and outward. The second variety of this weapons form is the Yuk Ssang Gum or reversed double sword form. In this case the swords are held with the blades along the arm with the sharp end outward. This method of using the sword which is unique to the Korean martial arts tradition is designed to be used in cramped spaces or when the swordsman is tired. The reverse sword form is an excellent example of Yu Won Hwa in action. The defensive motions of the blades use short circular motions to provide a defense while the offensive blades utilize the circular motions do develop speed and power. When Master Lee demonstrates this form it is a true thing of beauty with its whirling blades, kicks and rolls. When you see the flashing blades worked at incredible speed you know you are watching a true master of his profession.
He then demonstrates the lethal benefits of the Korean style sword and Ssang Gum when he defends himself against the attack of two of his partners simultaneously. Those partners are very glad that Master Lee is using non-edged demonstration weapons as he blocks their attack with the defending blade and slashes them with the attacking.
His demonstration is not however, limited to a single bit of brilliance using the in swords. He also typically demonstrates several other Kuk Sool Won weapons including the Rope (Po Bak Sool), the Fan (Bu Chae Sool) and the Cane (Je Pang E) as well as Kuk Sool’s devastating joint manipulation techniques.
The rope is a weapon from the early days of Korea that is used to subdue an attacking opponent using a 6-7 foot piece of rope. This particular weapon and it use to tie up a moving opponent is a favorite with Texans and has earned Master Lee the title of the “Korean Cowboy.”
The Fan is an elegant weapon of the Korean royal court. Court female guards would utilize the fan as a weapon for a variety of reasons. It was easily concealed as an ordinary piece of adornment. In use it can be used to both defend and attack. In defense it is used to disguise an attack and can be used to confuse the opponent. It is also used to strike pressure points that will easily disable an opponent. When Master Lee demonstrates this weapon you will see how easily it distracts the attacker enough to allow a lethal attack.
The Cane allows Master Lee to redefine the term differently abled. Normally a tool of the aged, in the hands of a Kuk Sool Won master the cane becomes an effective means of self defense. The cane can be used as a standard bong (staff) but the hooked end can be used to entangle an opponent or allow a variety of joint manipulations. In Master Lee’s hands it is used to destroy his partners as the use a variety of attacks with kicks, punches and swords.
After defending himself admirably with a series of weapons Master Lee will delight the audience with a demonstration of the devastating Kuk Sool Won Joint locks and joint manipulations. These defensive techniques are used to put a great deal of pressure on a small part of the opponents joint. This generally causes intense pain and if used with full force has been known to destroy the joint entirely. Kuk Sool has literally thousands of these techniques and at the master level they are indeed devastating.
While his weapons and technique demonstrations are among the best in the business, the crowd really comes to life when Master Lee performs his famous jumping back side kick that will have him going through numerous stacks of one inch pine boards. Often he will have as many as ten stacks of boards being held as he moves quickly and efficiently down the line of holders slashing through piles that are sometimes as much as four boards thick. It is an amazing feat and made especially so when he breaks his last set blindfolded.
We have come to know Master Lee as one of Kuk Sool’s top martial artists and instructors. This would normally be enough for any martial artist, but he is now moving towards an even more powerful legacy. Master Lee has now purchased a plot of land and is in the process of building a permanent school to replace the existing rented space. He wants to leave as his legacy a permanent school in Austin for the study and practice of Kuk Sool Won. Master Lee is creating a training hall that will serve as a school dedicated to creating the next generation of students but also the next generation of great people. His concept of a martial art with a family orientation will live well beyond his own lifetime. I cannot think of a more powerful statement from one of the finest men, let alone martial artists I have ever had the pleasure to know.