American Moo-Do Kwan: History, Path, and Vision
by Jack L Amsell, founder
The Beginning (1960-1966)
People have wondered what the genesis of the American Moo-Do Kwan (AMK) was, why our school has its name, and my background in the oriental martial arts. This is my/our story. It has been a journey of nearly a half-century, with high and low points. However, in the world of martial arts, it just might be a tale of meaning and purpose.
My childhood and youth, in Venice, California, were challenging; I lived in a very rough environment. I did poorly at school and was not socially active. I was often the victim of bullies and lacked the self-confidence to stand up in my own defense. I associated with a tough crowd and was accepted and protected by them, but my future was not very promising. That life required that I learn to fight. It was that way of life that inspired me to learn effective self-defense skills.
In my younger days, my parents owned some concessions at the old Ocean Park Pier (OPP) in the Santa Monica beach area. Later, the OPP was rebuilt into Pacific Ocean Park (POP) in the early ‘60s. I was in my teen years, and so I had to work to help support the family, and in my last job there, I worked with a group of Japanese-Americans. We used to get together after work each night and practice a rough form of Kendo using bamboo canes instead of the official shinai and we wore no protective armor. They allowed me to train with them if I could handle the physical rigors without complaining. That participation eventually led me to the oriental martial arts.
It was interesting that I was accepted by Japanese-American youths. Most of them were second or third generation Americans. That meant that they still followed many traditions from their parents’ homeland. This environment, plus the fact that I was an outsider from a typical American youth society, allowed me to develop as an occidental with oriental insights and values. As time went on, my friends suggested that I take real Kendo training at the Sawtelle Dojo in West Los Angeles, so I joined in 1962 and loved it. I learned some valuable lessons from those traditional practitioners that have remained with me ever since.
In parallel with my Kendo training, I expanded my interest to include Shotokan Karate in one of Sensei Hidetaka Nishiyama’s dojos (schools). That experience spurred me to pursue other oriental martial arts and provided the motivation to improve my life. I studied Kendo, Shotokan Karate, and Aikido. Along with my martial art study, I attended Santa Monica College for about a year; however, I lost my deferment and was drafted and, in 1966, after finishing advanced radar schooling, sent to Vietnam. That ended my life as a civilian and my opportunity to advance very far in any of those martial art systems.
Training Continued in Vietnam (1966-1972)
After being drafted in the Army and then sent to Vietnam, I had a hard time finding any fellow soldiers who knew how to practice the martial arts, or even had any desire to learn them. Eventually, I found a couple soldiers who had a background, and so I tried a bit of Kempo Karate and Okinawa-te, but neither was the perfect fit for me. However, while I was stationed in Qui Nhon, I discovered that the Korean Army was conducting classes in military Taekwondo (TKD) in the adjacent compound, and, even though it was not the same as Karate, I became interested in learning the style. My duty station changed to Pleiku in the Central Highlands, and I found another TKD class and began an intensive training regimen there, after hours. The Korean Army’s way of training influenced my subsequent method of training and teaching.
I completed my military service in 1969 and returned home to continue my TKD training at the same time as returning to college in Santa Monica. The TKD class was a small but great class. I was promoted to Blue Belt. Because of my experiences in Vietnam, I felt that I needed to return to contribute more to the mission. In 1970, I found a job as a civilian advisor participating in the military’s Vietnamization program which brought me back to Vietnam as a radar instructor for the Vietnamese Army (ARVN). As as civilian contractor for Sylvania Technical Systems (Syltec), I taught classes for the Vietnamese military during the day, and, at night, continued my TKD training in a local military hospital site. Our Syltec contract ended in 1972, and I returned to the USA. However, before leaving Vietnam, my last instructor gave me a list of instructors in California so that I could search for a new training home when I returned to the States.
Hewlett-Packard Martial Art Club Creation (1972-1993)
After returning home, I was hired by the Hewlett-Packard Company (HP) in North Hollywood. I didn’t want to forget my TKD training, so I practiced alone every noon, barefoot, on the hot parking lot asphalt. Eventually, several other employees wanted to train with me, beginning with Don Maxwell, who was the first HP Taekwondo Club member. We ended up with five members who trained in that demanding environment. However, I recognized the need to be trained by an expert. Using the previous instructors list of Southern California TKD instructors, I contacted some of them. Finally, the perfect fit was found in Chan-Yong Kim.
Grandmaster Chan-Yong Kim and the Oriental Moo-Do School (1972-1988)
I checked out several well-known schools, but I finally discovered the dojang (school) of Chan-Yong Kim Kwanjangnim (KJN) in Gardena. In those days, he was called Champion Kim. At that time, his dojang shared the name of one of his classmates from the Korea Yudo College, Dae-Myung Judo-TKD Academy USA. Master Kim, a very charismatic instructor, taught his TKD classes in the Ohdokwan style. That system was developed by General Choi Hong Hi and was the same as taught by the military in Vietnam. Even though I worked in North Hollywood, I lived in Venice, yet opted to travel to Master Kim’s school. In time, my work location changed from North Hollywood to Westchester and then again to Lawndale. Nevertheless, I continued training at the Gardena dojang.
Master Kim advocated a system that accepted all traditional oriental martial arts as worthy of study. Consequently, students in that economically depressed area of Los Angeles were treated to an eclectic diet of Taekwondo, Judo (Yudo, in Korean) and Hapkido. The early ‘70s was a time of very hard physical and psychological training, and I trained with some of the toughest and most dedicated practitioners in the U.S. oriental martial arts. In 1973, I was awarded a 1st Degree Black Belt. It was Master Kim’s second one given after promoting Ron Peckham Sabomnim (SBN).
Master Kim felt the need to improve his family’s life in America, and he found a new location for his school in Artesia. Master Kim changed the name of his school to the Oriental Moo-Do School (OMS), and his membership grew many fold. As he was moving far away, Ron SBN and I decided to be partners and created a dojang in Hawthorne. That did not work out, so I decided to train with Master Kim’s former colleague, Master Yong Tae Lee, in nearby Culver City; however, Master Lee was not the same kind of instructor as Master Kim, so I felt the need to reconnect with Master Kim in the new Artesia dojang even though it was quite some distance from my home in Venice.
After rejoining the new OMS in Artesia, Master Kim was elevated to Grandmaster, and I became his senior instructor. He continued to promote me as I took on more responsibilities in the classes, first to 2nd Dan in 1977, and then to 3rd Dan in 1982. During this same period, my work location changed from North Hollywood to Hawthorne and then to Fullerton. Continuing on from before, I had employee martial art clubs as I changed locations; however, when I went to Fullerton, I decided to change the name of the work-based martial arts club to the Hewlett-Packard Moo-Do Club. That way, there was a better indication of the linkage between the two classes.
Additionally, Grandmaster Kim was beginning to become a significant influence in the Korean martial arts community. Grandmaster Kim and his son Jimmy SBN became very active in the amateur sports program for TKD. Jimmy SBN became a very successful competitor. Grandmaster Kim was very active in officiating and I undertook the task of administering the amateur sports program in California and assisting him in several roles throughout his years of TKD politics in the National AAU TKD Union (NAAUTU) and United States TKD Union (USTU), the representative organization for TKD in the United States Olympic Committee (USOC). He was elected president of the California State TKD Association (CSTA), the state governing body, and I was his Secretary General throughout his tenure. It a became a great opportunity for me to interface with a great many senior instructors and masters. Key among those was Grandmaster Nam-Ku Yun. He was a specialist in poomsae which was always a subject of great passion to me.
Grandmaster Kim became an Olympic Referee and a member of the World Taekwondo Federation (WTF) Technical Committee. In 1985, I accompanied Grandmaster Kim to Seoul, Korea, where he served as Referee Chairman for the 7th TKD World Championships. I served as the event reporter for the USTU Taekwondo Journal to report on the games, and I also supported Jimmy SBN as he competed for the US national team. With Grandmaster Kim as president of the CSTA, those of us who were involved in the activities of USOC enhanced his or her administrative skills to a very high level. Due to my growth in the political aspects of TKD, I was awarded the Kukkiwon Instructor level rank of 4th Dan in 1985. CSTA President Kim and our organization earned enough national recognition that we were selected to host the next USTU National Championship.
In 1987, the CSTA hosted the 13th National Taekwondo Championships, and I was appointed as the Administrative Manager and introduced computer management of the event for the first time. That National Championship was the most financially successful event up to that time, and was the lead in to the 1988 Seoul Summer Games. Jimmy SBN became the heavyweight Gold Medalist in the first TKD Olympic event, and several other members of the US team medaled as well. Competitively and politically, the CSTA was very successful in the domestic and international world of TKD sport. I was honored to be involved with the American effort to establish TKD as an Olympic sport.
Fullerton YMCA and Formation of AMK (1986-1993)
Even during my involvement with the CSTA, I still conducted classes at both the OMS and at the HP Moo-Do Club. In 1986, our employees’ club did a demo, along with other groups who offered services to employees. One of the presenters was the director of the local YMCA. She asked if we were interested in teaching classes at the YMCA, and we accepted. Coinciding with the activities at the OMS, a new martial arts class was established at the North Orange County YMCA in Fullerton. Classes began in March 1987. Grandmaster Kim was supportive of that effort and initially he offered the participation of Jimmy SBN. Jimmy SBN took on the role of co-instructor of the new class.
I combined the regular HP Moo-Do Club students with the YMCA regular members. Partnering with Jimmy SBN enabled us to handle the workload of the YMCA and the Oriental Moo-Do School. By the end of 1987, the ten miles from his dojang during rush hour was too far for Jimmy SBN to continue teaching as he needed to dedicate his full efforts to the preparations for the 1988 Seoul Olympics. In addition, my five-year term as CSTA Secretary General was reaching completion. I could fully dedicate my time to teaching at the YMCA. In 1990, my article was published in Black Belt Magazine, based on my proposed 5th Dan thesis on “The Training Dangers in Traditional Martial Arts.” It addressed the common problem in martial art training of training in non-scientific, dangerous methods. In 1992, I was certified as an official Kukkiwon Master level of 5th Dan.
Beginning in 1988, I assumed complete responsibility for the class at the Fullerton YMCA. Also, at the request of the members, we began training junior students. It became our most popular activity. As our program grew in popularity, our members felt that it was important to give the YMCA class its own identity. The students were asked to devise a name for the new school and to design an emblem. They were asked to reflect the school’s philosophy in the name and emblem. In 1988, we officially established ourselves as the American Moo-Do Kwan. For the first time, the AMK became a sole proprietor, independent business, and we registered our name with the State.
American Moo-Do Kwan – Fullerton/La Habra (1993-1996)
As the AMK, we embarked on a process to define ourselves. To reflect on our legacy, we borrowed the name Moo-Do, meaning martial art in Korean, from the Oriental Moo-Do School. This was to symbolize the philosophical heritage of our school and its deferential debt to Grandmaster Chan-Yong Kim. Also, it indicated that we studied traditional oriental martial arts. American in the name refers to those unique and valuable qualities brought to the training by Americans. In Korean, Kwan means system or style. Considered together, the name is a perfect representation of the school’s philosophical foundation. Our mission statement, created in 1988, has been our guide ever since. We did our best to keep our evolving vision alive through joys and hardships. In 1992, Grandmaster Nam-Ku Yun became my mentor. His strong ethics significantly influenced my growing independence in the world of modern TKD teaching and leadership.
As stated above, our first AMK dojang was the Fullerton YMCA. As our class was growing, in 1993, it seemed opportune to create our first commercial location, also in the Anaheim/Fullerton area. This Anaheim school was a dream venture. It had a great training area with high quality mats that handle both TKD training Kendo and grappling arts. It had separate areas for training and spectators. It allowed me an opportunity to pursue efforts in TKD sports and political activism. I also took on the role of mentor and international Kukkiwon certification authority for California instructors. The site proved to be unprofitable enough to cover its expenses and, we were forced to close it in 1995. Fortunately, we were able to relocate to La Habra, but we could not retain our student base because the new location was too far for most who had no transportation.
The new location in a La Habra shopping center close to home, was nice, and well equipped. In this new commercial school, I wanted to enrich the experience of the students and cover more than just physical exercise. Therefore, I invested in a large screen TV to show movies related to our martial art training. We showed a variety of interesting and exciting films like The Karate Kid and then held post viewing discussions. It was an extremely popular activity. We also had other shared activities like sleep-ins. As we were studying TKD, which was an Olympic sport, we once again returned to participating in sporting activities.
Our dedicated client base allowed us to continue with sport activities and become reinvolved in organizational leadership. During this time, I worked closely with my colleagues: Professor Robert Zambetti, Coach Tim Ghormley, Martin Marcus KJN, and several other senior instructors in Califirnia to create the United TKD Fellowship (UTF), which was succeeded by the Anasazi Martial Arts Council (AMAC). Our focus was to counter the corruption that we saw growing in the American TKD sport community. I joined with other senior instructors to support the TKD venue of the California State Games and the AMAC had its own independent events. Our own students and instructors took on key roles in these events.
Hughes/Boeing/Raytheon Employees Martial Art Club (1997-2015)
Running a commercial school as the sole source of income was not a solid solution for supporting a growing family, so in 1997 I closed the school and focused on returning to my previous occupation in the test engineering field at the Hughes Space and Communication in El Segundo in the South Bay area. Just as I had done before when I joined HP in 1972, I started training myself during the lunch breaks. Eventually, someone noticed and suggested that I join in with the Hughes Karate Club. I accepted the invitation, but the instructor decided to quit teaching and asked me to take over the class. I accepted, and that became the start of the Hughes Martial Art Club. During the time that I was creating tis new club, I continued to train with Grandmaster Yun. In 1997, he promoted me to 6th Dan.
Eventually, I joined the other clubs, like crafts, chess, or other interests, to form a collection of employee-based clubs housed in the company’s clubhouse. Our club did very well and grew in size. In time, the building was sold off, so we had no location to train. Hughes was sold to Boeing and Raytheon, so we had a joint activity with both companies, and, in time, we were able to negotiate with Boeing management to establish a new clubhouse for our club. I equipped it with material from our previous commercial school. It was a very nice arrangement until it was converted into another work facility. Fortunately, one of our members found a new location for us in a local park, and we invited employees from Raytheon to join us. It was a great group, but a training area was not always available.
Without a training location available at the work site in El Segundo, I decided to offer training at my home. That meant that students had to travel from the South Bay area to Orange County, and several agreed to make the trek. Other students, who trained with me before, traveled from other surrounding areas. It was a nice, collaborative environment. Unfortunately, training was destroying our lawn in the backyard, so I looked around to find a training location for our members. We found a potential one at the La Palma Community Center. Unfortunately, it would be very expensive for us to rent a room. Therefore, we negotiated a deal for the Center to collect all the fees in lieu of rent as long as it would be available to local residents—a perfect arrangement. In 2001, we had a new home.
American Moo-Do Kwan – La Palma (2001-2022)
In 2001, we had our first classes at the La Palma Community Center. It was comprised of students from Boeing, Raytheon, DirecTV, and La Palma. Our first two La Palma members were juniors. All other students were adults. As it turned out, just as we experienced before, a combined class demonstrated highly motivated members of all ages. Just as before, we attracted a good distribution of students of all ages. We had very good students, and we were able to present several innovative activities. I resurrected a concept from my earlier schools—showing movies to address philosophical concepts. That turned out to be a very popular feature of our classes. Grandmaster Yun continued my training and became an active participant in all our special training and testing events. He was able to see exactly how I performed as a senior instructor, and, in 2003, he tested and promoted me to the Kukkiwon Grandmaster level of 7th Dan.
We began to figure out how to have other special activities, many borrowed from earlier classes. We had picnics, beach training, and mini tournaments. I worked with friends and colleagues to have guest instructors. Testing became an event. Following testing, we always had a get together at a nice local restaurant. We offered special polo shirts for long-term parent-supporters and instructors. We invited other schools to train with us, or visited other schools to train with them, to enhance interschool relationships. It was a rich training environment. Beginning in 2006, I began teaching a course for AMK instructors. The intention was to create alignment and consistency among all instructors. It was well received and repeated several times since.
From 2006 to 2009, we were actively involved with the Pacific West Collegiate Conference (Pac-West). Again, I worked closely with several key senior instructors like Professor Zambetti and Stanford Coach Tim Ghormley to create, administer, and run events for west coast colleges. Our school led the effort to train and provide referees for events and run events. It was a great achievement and set a very high standard for tournament activity in Olympic style TKD at the college level. Our members were very dedicated supporters of this noteworthy activity.
I was very proud of the caliber of instructors and students that we produced in the early years of training in La Palma. As many are well aware, over time, culture began to change. We found that it was harder to cultivate significant discipline, especially in younger students. Often, their parent brought young people to our program to improve their discipline. That often required easing up on the demands of traditional training to get the students to remain committed. We tried many methods to bring back legacy training, but it was very difficult to do so. There were ups and downs throughout our two decades at La Palma. In fact, classes remained at a fairly constant single digit level for about eight years and then rose to a high point of twenty-two at the end of our first decade.
During our second decade at La Palma, we implemented several innovative strategies to keep the classes at a high level and, at the same time, return to a more traditional level of discipline from earlier years when the culture was more receptive to it. One of the hallmarks of our program was an innovative Women’s Self-Defense Program. It was originally started during our later years at the Fullerton YMCA. Over time, the training became more sophisticated and taught in several venues. In March 2009, our program was featured in an article, “Fighting for Your Life,” that I prepared for the Taekwondo Times, thanks to the recommendation of womens’ advocate, Master Ronda Sweet. Finally, in 2020, we began to see our classes rebound, just like before, but everything came to an abrupt halt due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Of course, at first, no one know what was about to rear its nasty head. Soon enough, it became clear, and we were impacted significantly.
American Moo-Do Kwan – Virtual Training (2021-current)
The pandemic was fatal to many programs in our Center. In fact, the entire fitness community, including martial art schools, failed. To save ours, I invested in the Zoom application, and we began conducting virtual classes, free of charge. The Center thought that classes would return in a couple of months, but, as we now know, no one returned for over two years. During that entire time, we kept the classes fully enrolled. It was felt to be critical to keep everyone training to help preserve a sense of discipline and resilience. By the end of 2021, the pandemic was being better controlled, so we could begin to return to normal training. Unfortunately, we were no longer able to conduct our classes in a the manner desired by our members because we were not allowed to conduct training at the Center. As a result, we were forced to continue training virtually throughout 2022 and into 2023. Through unwavering dedication, all our members continue to support our program over Zoom as we had throughout the pandemic. Clearly, a change was needed.
Throughout the past thirty years, our class had been a hybrid of young and adult students. That was based on the change noted earlier in this article that encouraged the mixing of ages to form a more collaborative training environment. I felt that junior members would see adults as role models and adults would be inspired to be more energetic by the presence of juniors. As long as the juniors were held accountable for a more disciplined mature behavior, this worked well. However, as the Millennial and Gen-Z cultures came into prominence, that integration of age-oriented castes became problematic. The younger generations became more self-focused. Consequently, legacy martial art discipline fell into disrepair. It became very clear that the time for a major paradigm shift was at hand. Therefore, a new direction was warranted.
AMK’s mission statement has always focused on the balance between the physical, mental, and spiritual growth of our members. As our country went through the pandemic, I recognized the impact of the changes in our American culture. It became clear to me that the AMK had lost that mission focus, and therefore, its vision. It seemed essential to have an important new direction—a paradigm shift. It seemed that the AMK’s vision was being compromised by divergent points-of-view by a few members within our AMK organization. The oriental martial art mindset was replaced by one senior leader of our group who had more focus on personality and populism than on unity, discipline, and service. It was critical to reassert the legacy vision that inspired our system’s creation a half century ago and serve older students.
I noted that it was becoming more difficult to attract adults to classes that were heavily focused on younger students. There were a couple of reasons for this. Many adults felt uncomfortable being able to perform at the same physical level as younger students, and adults often wanted to examine the more esoteric aspects of the training that just did not seem to interest younger students. I decided to create a class focused only on adults, and I eventually discovered that many mature adults were interested in overcoming issues of aging and disabilities. Consequently, the adult class took on a new flavor. It was not just about learning traditional martial arts. Instead, it focused on using martial art training methods to help adults overcome personal challenges. Eventually, the members suggested changing the name and description to focus on adult wellness through martial art training.
Since 2022, our dedicated adult members have worked diligently to balance our training to address those three critical areas of focus—physical, mental, and spiritual. While most who practice the martial arts do not focus on spiritual attainment, it is the cornerstone of the oriental conceptual paradigm. For far too long, we did not focus on that important distinction that made the AMK unique and admired within the martial art community. In recent years, our Instructor Training program began to address those points for our senior members.
The oriental mindsets of Confucianism, Taoism, Zen Buddhism, and Bushido all point toward personal spiritual growth through martial training. Particularly in Bushido (the way of the warrior), several tenets, or virtues, are advocated—integrity, respect, heroic courage, honor, compassion, honesty/sincerity, and duty/loyalty. The study of the evolution of the Samurai, Japan’s version of the knight, makes it clear that there was a conversion from combat soldier to spiritually-oriented servant and role model of the country.
American Moo-Do Kwan – The Path Forward
Even though we have faced challenges over time, we can use them as an inspiration to change. Throughout the creation of this history, the next steps for the AMK became much clearer. We have enjoyed a great many adventures in the martial art world. We have also made some lifelong friendships. We have contributed to the growth of many members, our local community, and worldwide acceptance of martial arts values. Nevertheless, there is still room for a paradigm shift in our program. The Phoenix rises from its ashes.
Miyamoto Musashi, Japan’s greatest swordsman, spent the first thirty years of his life honing his fighting skills. In his world, failure could spell certain death. He never lost a battle and became a legend in Japanese Samurai history. However, he stopped fighting and, for the next twenty years, he dedicated his life to more spiritual quests. In 1643, he created a world renowned book, Gorin No Sho, or The Book of Five Rings. Musashi was a Zen Buddhist. It is very much a process-oriented belief system, which has strongly influenced the oriental martial arts. The AMK surely has been guided by its principles, and it will continue to help us define our path forward.
As noted before, the physical training aspect of martial art training is like an doorway to a room. At first, the exercises help the practitioner to be fit enough to learn more demanding, complex techniques. The physical training is supplemented by mental discipline to develop sophisticated techniques characterized as fighting or self-defense skills. This combination of physical and mental training opens the door to more spiritual insights. As I see it, many martial art schools have lost the ability or desire to focus on the more intellectual aspects of of the oriental martial arts. They need to be returned to the training and emphasized for advanced personal growth.
Consequently, the AMK going forward is more holistic, covering all the aspects of the physical and mental training, but also emphasizing the intellectual aspects. We are expanding our efforts to share the valuable training developed as part of our Instructor Training Certification program with dedicated, service-oriented colleagues. As noted earlier, that seems to be a keen interest of adults. We certainly continue to welcome juniors to join us, and they either train in a separate class, or they are expected to align with adult attitudes and behaviors. Many parents have told me that junior members are in need of a new type of disciplined training. It is not really new. In fact, it would mark a return to some of the attitudes of years past, now missing.
It is clear that the AMK of today has become one of dedication, unity, and service. We are seeing that regardless of age. Each student sets an example for the others. We are seeing remarkable demonstrations of personal growth. More than anything, we have returned to an attitude of the warrior—indomitable spirit. That is just as it should be! Just as the students and instructors, active or inactive, have shown, we have the essential elements to return to a more active and involved program. Especially, I look forward to the continued support and guidance from our Senior Instructor, Terry Owens SBN, and our new Assistant Instructor, Vicky Tanner SBN. Clearly, they have both been a key element to our new vision, and I look forward to their continued advice and counsel. My commitment to those goals is well aligned with their efforts. What will the new AMK look like? It will return to the vision of earlier day, but it will also embrace the lessons learned along the way. The Force will be with us, always!