If there is such a thing as fate, then it cast a fortuitous shadow on Choon Ok and Barry Harmon. Born thousands of miles apart, the odds of them meeting were more than one in a million. Now they share a family, a professional life and a passion for their art of Kuk Sool Won™.
Picture a young American male beginning a career in martial arts. He has many options. His experience might be limited to training a couple of days a week for the rest of his life, enjoying the camaraderie of the dojang while gaining the benefits of exercise and self-defense. He might even begin a tournament and teaching career, and eventually, end up as the owner of a chain of martial art schools. In this case, a young man chose a different path.
Like the fabled seeker of truth, he searches for the ultimate martial art experience, first for the challenge of finding skill and knowledge, and later for a woman's love.
On the other side of the world a Korean girl, born on the tiny island of Ku Jae Do, in the busy port city of Pusan, Korea, and training in martial arts. At a time when women did not practice martial arts, she was faced by hard, arduous training and by tests of her commitment. Humble, tough beginnings for this unusual woman led to a certain amount of notoriety and fame. In a two year period, she performed more than 300 demonstrations throughout Korea.
These two lives, evolving separately, converge years later into a marriage, a shared professional martial art career and a family. How they met and what they have done with their lives in a unique story in the often fantasy filled world of the martial arts. This is the story of Barry and Choon Ok Harmon.
As a small boy in Florida, Barry began training in judo at the age of 13. In the 1960's, judo was quite popular and often was the only martial art available in an area. Being slightly built, Barry had to work very hard to compete against larger boys, but after a couple of years, he won a few tournament trophies. Later, when his family moved to South Carolina, he studied karate. His experience in martial arts proved something to the teenager. Martial art instructors had something special. They obviously had special knowledge, but there was something more. He was impressed by their presence, the confident way they carried themselves and the kind and positive influence they could have on others. Barry trained hard and by the time he graduated from high school he had earned a second degree black belt in karate and was actively teaching at a club.
Intent on traveling to the Orient and learning more about martial arts, he joined the U.S. Air Force. As a military policeman, he could study many different styles of martial arts. He gained valuable experience from the different instructors and styles--experience that served to open his eyes further and fed his wanderlust. He applied and was accepted to assignment in Korea. Like most American servicemen stationed in Korea, he began to study Tae Kwon Do.
Barry enjoyed the hard training, especially the kicking and eventually, was promoted to a black belt. At this time, most martial arts styles in Korea were pure, as far as the mixing of styles. In the 1970's in Korea, the Tae Kwon Do students all wore white uniforms, and the Hapkido students wore white tops with the traditional Japanese style skirts (hakama). The mixing of Hapkido techniques and Tae Kwon Do was just beginning. One day while walking in the downtown area, Barry saw a martial art school where everyone wore black uniforms. The movements were different from anything he had ever seen. Barry was ranked in several styles including judo, karate, Tae Kwon Do, and kung fu and was fascinated by this discovery. He began training as a white belt for the fifth time in his career. He says now, "It was the best decision I ever made concerning my martial art career and was a decision that would change the course of my life."
Barry Harmon began training in Kuk Sool (Korean Martial Art). Master Oh, Yi Kuen, and his brother, Master Oh, Man Rok, required practicing two tsix hours a day, six days a week, for two years. 0 , Yi Kuen, known affectionately as Old Master Oh (versus the younger brother, Young Master Oh,) later introduced Barry to the Grandmaster of Kuk Sool Won™. Barry knows and respects Master Oh, Yi Kuen as his first Kuk Sool master and the man who unselfishly helped him to be accepted as a student directly under the Grandmaster.
After an honorable discharge in 1974, Barry opened a Kuk Sool Won™ dojang in the United States. This action enabled him to continue his own study of the art and was the primary reason for opening his school. Grandmaster Suh, the founder of Kuk Sool Won™, moved to the United States in 1974 and opened the world headquarters in 1975 in San Francisco, California. (The correct title for Grandmaster In Hyuk Suh is KukSa Nym. This avoids confusion with the proliferation of "grandmasters" in the last 15 years.) Kuk Sa Nym was aided in his move by Ken Duncan, his first American student. Immediately applying to Kuk Sa Nym in 1975, Barry Harmon became his second American student and moved to San Francisco. Kuk Sa Nym gave Barry three rules: eat, sleep, train. Barry jumped at this opportunity without realizing the profound effect of his decision. He moved into the dojang with the single minded purpose of learning. Although all basic necessities were provided, Barry could not come and go as he pleased. He always had the choice of packing his bags and leaving, but if he left in that manner, he could never return. Barry had met Kuk Sa Nym in Korea and knew that to receive instruction from Kuk Sa Nym, a student had to be at least a fourth degree black belt. For five years he did nothing but eat, sleep, and train. Imagine all the people that felt he was crazy for living under such restrictive conditions: no pay, and no foreseeable future. Barry felt only lucky.
Lee, Choon Ok began training in Kuk Sool Won™ in 1969. Her older sister married the Chieftnaster of Kuk Sool, Seo, In Sun. While visiting her sister, she would sit and watch the martial art classes training. She found the movements intriguing and was drawn like a magnet to make it her life's work.
Before she was allowed to begin training she had to promise Chiefmaster Seo that she would never quit. Choon Ok did not really understand the promise, because she could not imagine ever wanting to stop practicing. Due to her commitment and family connection, she trained directly under Chiefmaster Seo and occasionally under Kuk Sa Nym. After a long training period she eventually earned a black belt.
Since few Korean women trained in martial arts, Choon Ok was very popular in demonstrations. In a two year period she performed more than 300 demonstrations at Korean public schools, indoors, outdoors, and in all kinds of weather. The experience of performing so many demonstrations in a variety of situations was a tremendous boost to her confidence. In addition to regular training, the same as the men's, Choon Ok began to train even harder. Her program was expanded to include special training to develop hitting power. It was during this time that Choon Ok had the opportunity to use her martial art training in self-defense situations. Before her marriage in 1980, she was involved in several "street fights." This is not something she places a tremendous importance on, but reflects her experience, background, and environment.
In the late 1970's, Barry heard about Choon Ok in Korea,and had an opportunity to see her demonstration. He immediately fell in love, and fell hard. He asked Kuk Sa Nym to arrange a marriage with Choon Ok. Since Chiefmaster Seo is Kuk Sa Nym's brother, an introduction through Barry and Choon Ok's teachers was allowed. Eventually, the two began to communicate by mail. This presented a bit of a problem because Barry could not at that time read Korean and Choon Ok couldn't read English. Kuk Sa Nym and Chiefmaster Seo translated the letter. Although there was no privacy, the two did not care because they were convinced that they were meant for each other. They were married in a traditional ceremony on July 13, 1980. U.S. Immigration had difficulty accepting the fact that it was a legitimate marriage. The officials could not believe that Barry was not being paid by Choon Ok to illegally obtain a green card. It's now 13 years later and they are going stronger than ever.
In 1980, both Choon Ok and Barry were third degree black belts and immediately began their lifelong training together. By 1981, they opened their first school together in San Mateo, California, just outside San Francisco. This enabled them to stay near Kuk Sa Nym and continue their training. After winning several tournaments, the Harmons concentrated on demonstrations and exhibitions of Kuk Sool. Kuk Sa Nym frequently asked them to travel with him, and they have performed in most of North and South America, Europe, Great Britain, and Korea. They also appeared in the commercial Kuk Sool videotapes.
A Lifetime of Martial Arts
The Harmon's life is a unique mixture of age-old martial art heritage and twentieth century pragmatism. They believe that teaching martial arts is different from as any other activity or sport. The teaching involves the interplay of mental, physical, emotional and spiritual (non-religious), strengths, weaknesses, and personal baggage of each student. Being an outstanding instructor means interaction with each person on an a personal level. This task is difficult at best and sometimes impossible. To transcend the personal baggage, a good instructor helps and guides the student to overcome the walls that we all place around ourselves. Training of this type makes us more transparent to others and to ourselves. The Harmons believe that to some martial art practitioners, that's a road of self-discovery too frightening to follow. To other students it is the road they've been searching for. It is the teacher's job to help ease the fear for those who are to afraid to open up and to guide those who are searching.
Barry and Choon Ok were taught that Ki (universal energy) is the foundation of Kuk Sool. Learning how to use and develop this internal energy is of key importance and begins the very first day of training in Kuk Sool. Ki is the life force in everyone. They believe that death is the absence of Ki in the body. The use and development of this universal force or energy is what Kuk Sool is all about. The use of Ki is an interesting subject and is somewhat separate from the development of Ki. Many people confuse the two subjects of use and development. For example, just as strength development is specific to training and purpose, so is Ki. Choon Ok says that when we want to develop a strong punch we should focus most of our training on actual punching activities. The involvement of the mind on the activity directs Ki to move properly in the body and this increases the development of the skill more than supplemental exercises. A student should use weights to develop strength, punching to develop punching. To use Ki one would not focus on development, but emphasize using specific techniques to bring out the Ki that is already present. The two master instructors state, Ki is specific to purpose and there are specific techniques to help a person learn how to use Ki for various tasks, including power, stability, strength. Also, there are specific techniques to help a person develop a stronger Ki. Volumes of books have been written on the subject by many academic Ki experts. Barry then flatly says, "If you put the books and the academic Ki experts into a mathematical formula it would look something like this: (any number x 0=0)." This means that the theories and techniques of use and development of Ki are something that must be taught by a teacher who has been through the process and has attained the ability to relate those theories and techniques to students.
Many people believe that all monks are powerful martial artists because they focus on meditation and Ki training many hours a day. No doubt, this image was formed by stories and television shows. As a martial art master, Barry finds it incredible that so many people believe the martial arts they see on television and in the movies as the real thing. Most monks don't know anything about martial arts. Those that do practice martial arts are no better or worse than any other martial art student or instructor. These distorted beliefs are examples of mental baggage that the Harmons constantly have to address with almost every new student. Martial art reality is more profound than what is portrayed for entertainment. Barry and Choon Ok say that the reality of martial arts is based in self-discovery, and students of martial arts should consider themselves lucky to find an instructor who can help in self-discovery.
After years of experience, travel and study, the pair came to recognize different types of Ki within each martial artist.
The first is called Il Bahn Ki which loosely translates to "first Ki" or regular Ki. This is the basic energy that every person has to stay alive and the Ki that our bodies first learn to use when we begin training in Kuk Sool.
The second is called Teuk Soo Bahn Ki which means "special Ki." This is the Ki that is developed through special breathing and training exercises. Teuk Soo Bahn Ki is the type of Ki most famous in stories and legends of great strength, and speed.
The third is called So Buhm Bahn Ki which is the "coaches' Ki" or teachers' Ki that is developed over time and experience. This is the Ki that can only be developed through the time and experience of teaching many, many students over many years.
The fourth type of Ki is Yuhn Goo Bahn Ki which alludes to lifelong training Ki. This is the Ki training that is oriented towards helping us live a longer and healthier life. Many martial artists practice this type of Ki as the primary type and many people begin martial art training with the specific purpose of living a longer healthier life.
There are many correct ways to explain Ki. There is more than one correct way, but not all ways are correct. There is no short cut or easy way. The pursuit of martial arts requires a lifetime of study and dedication. When asked for final advice, the two martial art masters said together, "Never stop practicing."