Grandmaster Joon Pyo Choi Biography: Traveler, part 4

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     South Korea after the war was a dangerous place. The streets were wild and just walking down the street could lead to a fight. The war had affected the whole country, and those were the things that we had to endure.

     Because I was teaching Taekwondo in the park with the Boy Scouts, there were always a lot of people around, looking for a fight. Taking care of that was part of life. It was a part of daily life, dealing with the bullies. Fighting every day was a chore. The bullies were a problem, but they were worse when they were connected to the local gangs.

     I was in high school at this time, but studies were tough for me because my attention was on the martial arts. I wanted to train all the time. I had a lot of chores, so there wasn't a whole lot of time for school. I didn't pay too much attention, and I was easily distracted.

     One thing I did at that time was to travel the country as a penniless wanderer. I wanted to explore what was interesting to me, what was in my mind: the things that sparked my curiosity. Even during elementary school, when I lived in Chinhai, I would take off, riding the train or the bus. The habit carried on into middle school and high school, after we moved to Seoul. During the summer vacation, we had about one month, maybe 35 to 40 days of vacation. I traveled most of that time. Though being 13 and traveling the country alone and without money was not always a safe thing!

     I told my mom that I wanted to take a trip, to travel, to see the country, but she didn't take it seriously. I told her I really did want to travel. She said flat out, "No way!" But that didn't stop me. I had told her out of minimal courtesy.

     I had a rabbit at that time. He was white and lived in a cage, of course, but sometimes I took him out to the field to eat clover and grass. He had no name; most animals didn't have names in Korea at that time, only dogs.

     On the day I was to leave, I took the rabbit to the field, and I let him go. Then I left! Though I was young and naïve, I already had good fighting and survival skills.

     My companion was Joong Wan Kim, who later became a teacher and a Taekwondo practitioner. We would take the train without paying. Sometimes we would be caught. The conductor would demand the fare money. We would explain what we were doing, that we were traveling to find out what the truth was, to find out about the world. Often the conductors would let us go without having to pay.

     What we were doing was unique at that time. Very few people traveled like that, and certainly not boys like us. The conductors and the people we met saw that we were on the adventure of young minds. They saw we were seeking truth, and the sensible adults were accepting of what we were doing. We were boys on an adventure to explore life beyond school.

     The most common place that we slept was in the bus station or the train station. Other times, we sought out the nearest police station, especially if things were dangerous. A police station was always warm or with air conditioning. We could sleep on a bench or in a chair, and because the duty officer was always there to guard the station at night it was usually open to us.

     Sometimes we were able to talk ourselves into a private home. If it was a farm, we would tell the owner what we were doing, and then ask if they would feed us. We asked for food, a place to sleep, and then we would move on in the morning. Most of the time, the farmer would allow it.

     At times, we were very hungry. In the fields was corn, sweet potatoes, sometimes cantaloupe or watermelon. We had a temptation to eat without asking. But I wouldn't do that. We waited for the owner to arrive, and then we would explain our adventure, our goal. We would offer to work for food. Often, we would get food in this way.

     I learned in this way how to speak. I had to be clear in my words. I had to convey what I wanted to do, what I needed, what my goal was. The only way to do that was with an honest mind and a sincere manner.

     Being shy, I had to learn to do this. Asking for a favor, a person must be sincere. You cannot lie. When the person to whom you speak sees the sincerity of your request, they have a tendency to support what you are doing. This is a lesson I learned early. Sincerity and honesty are the best course.

# # #

     From Seoul to the end of South Korea is maybe 400 kilometers, or about 250 miles. We traveled as far as we could, to as many historical and famous cities as possible. We searched for the monasteries and temples, so that I could find the people I wanted to talk to. My questions were about life, about the struggles the people I had seen were going through. Furthermore, because I had read so many books, their contents were lingering in my mind, increasing my curiosity. It was the monks who I hoped would answer my questions.

     My spiritual side was growing at that time. Up until then my understanding of the spirit was very basic. I had an understanding somewhat of the mind through my study of hypnotism. I had always been interested in hypnotism, ever since I had read the book by Mesmer. This had given me the ability to hypnotize my friends, even at a young age. I had the ability naturally. And this knowledge of human mental abilities led me to ask questions in the area of religion, science, and the spirituality.

     Why was there sickness? Why did people struggle? What should we do? Where should we go? What was the moon like? What was nature all about? These were the questions I sought to answer when I visited the monasteries and temples.

     We visited Jick Ji Sa at Kim Cheon. It is a well-known temple where 1000 small Buddhas sit in various places around the shrine. People would visit Jick Ji Sa and pray to the statues for peace and wishes. I prayed there to become a good human being, to save the world, and to have wisdom to understand life and nature. I am still waiting to save the world!

     At Yo Soo, as we ran the mountain, we fell in the toilet ditch. That was not fun at all. We had to clean up, so that night we slept in the police precinct.

     We also visited Hap Cheon Sa, and this temple was famous for a copy of the Thripitaka, the Buddhist holy book, made from 80,000 wood panel carvings. It was made 1500 years ago, during the Koryo dynasty. Monks carved the panels over hundreds of years.

     The people in these temples that I visited were well-known monks. Some were novices, some higher level. I wasn't able to identify who was high and low, so I asked my questions of any of the monks I met. In the way I asked my questions, I was challenging them rather than learning from them. I did not know the proper protocol of questions. But since I was so young, most of the monks responded to me kindly. Some gave me arrogant answers, some answers were vague. Some monks avoided me, but most gave me very kind answers.

     One answer I remember well. At this time, Kennedy was president and the world was facing the Cuban Missile Crisis. Also NASA was working to send the Apollo spacecraft to the moon. My question was very important to me as a boy at the time. What would we find when we arrived on the moon? I asked it of one particular young monk that I met at the time. His name was Jee Ho, and he would go on to become the top monk of the nation. He was studying then under one of the highest ranking Zen masters of the time. He was a very curious monk, and wise even at a young age.

     I asked him, "What do you think people will find on the moon?"

     He smiled at me, and said, "You don't have to go to moon to know what is there."

     I was confused, and I didn't understand the answer. He saw this and kindly explained. "When you are in deep meditation and in an enlightened state, there is no need to travel to the moon. You become one with nature. You do not have to fly to the moon to find out what is there. We can see the origin of nature and the origin of the universe. We all started from the One."

     Even though he explained it to me simply, I still wasn't clear at the time on the answer. Even so, it gave me great curiosity about the answer, about enlightenment. It started me thinking, which is always good for a young person.

# # #

     The street environment at that time – the bus stations and the train stations – was very dangerous. Everywhere that we went, there were the street gangs and homeless people. Sometimes we were forced to deal with them, and that meant we sometimes got into fights. The common weapons were the bike chain and the military belt. There were many of these belts left over from the war, and they were heavy enough that swinging one at your opponent could hurt him badly. I was very good with the throwing stick.

     So we would get in fights. Sometimes we won and we could go on our way. Sometimes, we lost and we had to run. Luckily, we didn't get any critical injuries. Always minor injuries were evident on our bodies. When that happened, we would seek a temple immediately. The monks would very kindly feed us and give us a place to sleep. Then we would join in the ceremonies, the meditating and chanting. And of course that gave us the chance to ask our questions!

     When there were no temples and there were no farms, we went without food, sometimes for days at a time. I remember one house I went to in the Tagoo area. We had not eaten for three days, but the owners of the house let us in and gave us a huge bowl of rice. We ate it like crazy people! And then we slept for twelve hours because we were so fatigued. Though there was danger, we also found much kindness and generosity.

     Sometimes when we could not pay our bus fare or train fare, the conductor called the police. The bill would go to my home, and they would notify my parents. But the police didn't send me back, so my parents had to wait until I came back home. The first time I came back, they were very upset. They yelled at me, punished me in all kinds of ways. By the time I left for the second and third time, they didn't even care. "He'll come back," they said. They were afraid for me of course! But they had confidence in me. They knew I would succeed in what I wanted to do, and they knew they could not stop me.

     My younger brother, Young Pyo, didn't travel with me. He was a gentleman, always neat and trim. He studied Taekwondo, of course, but he also played tennis and became a highly-ranked tennis player in Korea. We were both physically fit, having inherited coordination and physical talent. Throwing things came easily to us, as did hitting things in the air! My brother took more after my father in his manner, while I took more after my grandfather, who was an explorer and a priest.

     Young Pyo was always worried about his clothing and how he looked. He'd never hop a train! My pants however were always sewn up: double and triple sewn from where they ripped from when I kicked. I was a fighter! I had to be able to kick. If my pants were too tight or too constrictive, I ripped the seams out or threw them away.

     Tennis was a sport for the higher levels of Korean society. A tennis player was well established. Young Pyo played in middle school and high school, and then went on to win the national championship. Taekwondo was always secondary to his tennis.

     He was the good son at home. I was the trouble maker. My parents never knew what I was doing, since I was so unpredictable. My coming home safely was the best they could hope for!

     If my own children did that, I would be scared for them, but I would not discard the idea. "Be safe," I would say, and I would try to teach them the proper way to do things. I would buy them tools and supplies. I would ask that they not just disappear, that they write or call every so often. But I would let them go. Life adventure is important. I would be smiling on the inside that some of my adventuring spirit lived on in my children.

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