This is GrandMaster (Kwanjangnim ) Ye Bong Choi. GM Choi trained under General Choi (no relation), the founder of TKD. I found out about him from one of my classmates who was a student at his school.
I met GM Choi in when I was fifteen years old. He was a seventh dan master at the time and ran several schools with the headquarters at 241 Hamilton St in New Brunswick. I still remember going to see him with my parents and starting training that spring.
I have known him for over 40 years. He is a ninth degree black belt with over 300 black belts over countless countries. He is a Master.
He recently retired from active teaching and training black belts in 2020.
GrandMaster Robert Zuczek is now a seventh degree black belt with over 100 black belt students that he has trained. GM Zuczek also trained under GM Choi and is his most senior black belt. He is the most senior black belt in the Choi Taekwondo school. He has trained for over 50 years.
He is a Master.
I met GM Zuczek after starting in the New Brunswick school. I found out that GM Choi had a school closer to my house in South River where GM Zuczek was teaching. He was a second dan black belt at that time. He was young, energetic, and a tournament champion. I wanted to be fast, strong, and powerful like him.
I started taking classes there regularly, at least three times a week. It was wonderful! I grew stronger and faster and learned weapons, breaking, sparring, and how to be a black belt. I learned so much from Grandmaster and my fellow students.
When I received my first dan in 1983 from GM Choi, GM Zuzcek presented me with his very own black belt that he wore in training. That black belt is one of my cherished treasures.
When I went away to college, medical school, residency, and fellowship, GM Zuczek continued to teach me and helped me start my first school in medical school. He guided my training and prepared me for all my black belt tests including the sixth dan. He continues to advise me. Who knows? Maybe someday I will test for the seventh dan.
He has also most recently closed his South River school in 2020, however, still continues to teach new students in the parks and homes.
This is Master Khanh Nguyen. He is a fourth dan black belt who has trained in our class for over fifteen years. He had a black belt from his former school. When he started training in Bhattacharya TKD, he asked if he could start over again as a white belt. Who else do you know who is so humble? He understood that training is a lifetime activity and chose to train all the way to his master dan rank.
Master Nguyen continues to train and instruct at our school.
This is me with my most recent second degree black belt graduates. I am a sixth degree black belt. I have been a Master instructor since 1995 when I earned my fourth dan.
But what it is really? Does a master have to have disciples? Does a master have to be called, "Master"? Does it require a piece of paper? What does it mean to be a master?
In our style, we train for at least five years in the gup levels working through white, yellow, blue, red and red stripes to finally arrive at the first degree (1 dan) black belt. It feels like summiting the mountain, finally achieving the dream. And then we discover there is much more.
First through third degree are considered "beginner" or masters in training. A black belt does not gain you magical superiority in combat nor a sudden acquisition of skill. It is simply a marker in the infinite path in discovery and development of physical skill, stamina and drive.
When we reach fourth through sixth degree black belt, we are then called "Master". But what is that?
Many years ago, I remember asking one of the senior instructors in our school who had just attained 4 dan, the first master level. I was concerned that if I did not have a devoted class of students, I could not consider myself a master. I studied and thought about this a lot back then, oh so many years ago. I was in surgical residency in Newark with a class of 100 students. I was soon going off to fellowship in Brooklyn. I was going to have to pass on my beloved NJMS TKD class to one of my junior black belts and had no way of maintaining the connection. Moreover, after my fellowship, I was going to start a solo private practice with little time available to teach or have a class.
So, was I going to have to relinquish my training and give up on my lifelong dream of becoming a master of the martial arts?
So when I left the NJMS class that I had built up over nine years, I decided that even if I did not have a class full of white, yellow, green, blue, and red belts, I would still have myself to teach. I found a space at the university in Brooklyn (a racket ball court) to train in twice a week. All I had was my drills, jump rope and desire. I worked out exactly 55 minutes before the next group came in to use the court. I practiced my forms in the small room of my floor through apartment that I shared with my wife, two young toddlers, dog and cat. I would do my routines in my head as I held retractors in the operating room. And I dreamed of becoming a master one day.
Slowly I realized that mastery did not mean being able to tell people commands and teaching them what to do. Mastery became more a daily challenge for me to prove that I deserved the rank and belt my instructors gave to me. It dawned on me that the real mastery begins in the mind and body of each person, and has nothing to do with command of a class or having bowing students.
I learned that I had much to maintain and even more to learn. The road to mastery began then for me as a way to find peace within myself. I learned to find the limits of my body in the techniques I could do and then set about finding ways to exceed them.
It was not easy. I had (and still have) setbacks and doubts. But the master in me wakes me each day to strive to be the better man, an example to my self in the past, my current state, and my future self.