The Mystery of Hwa Rang Do
When we are young life is new to us and can be both fascinating and terrifying. It takes time to accumulate experience and develop our understanding of the world that surrounds us, and even as adults we can count ourselves fortunate to have a clear perception of the world, and nature as well as a balanced and healthy character that is able to thrive even under trying circumstances.
I’m sure we can all agree without too much debate that the past two, going on three years have filled our minds to the maximum with negative messaging and exacerbated the vertiginous, chaotic state we find our world today. Even for adults who have somewhat of a callus or buffer to all the turmoil built up, it has been a trying time, like no other we ourselves have known. But what about the children?
We are a lot like plants when we are young, given the right soil, sun, nourishment, and fresh air we grow and thrive, expressing and magnifying all the beauty that lay hidden within us. Under the wrong conditions, the unique being that we have the potential to become, withers and dies, and we ourselves turn into a poisonous, invasive weed that serves to corrupt the garden of life.
It is with this image in mind that I would like to introduce you to the Soen Saunoi-Sandgren, the Hwa Rang Do Minneapolis Academy Featured Student Highlight. When Soen’s Parents Emily and Sebastian first moved to their South Minneapolis home, they came across the Hwa Rang Do Academy one evening while out for a walk. Both said they had an intuitive perception that this would be something Soen who at that time was only three years old, would be interested in. Unfortunately, he was too young to join the Little Tigers program, but they were told with confident assurance by Master Dylan Sirny to return him to the school when he was of age, almost as though he was expecting them, but that they had arrived a bit too early. (Master Sirny has always been known to have a “sense” about certain things)
As time passed the Saunoi-Sandgrens got busy with life in their new neighborhood and forgot about martial arts training. As Soen began his schooling at Hale Elementary during his Kindergarten year, his parents noticed a radical shift in his behavior. The loving child they knew so well, while in this new environment began to take on the characteristics of a caged animal. Soen began to withdraw and regress, he refused to listen to teachers but instead would simply shutdown and retreat from the outer world.
While relaying this account to me, both of Soen’s parents while happy with how far he has progressed, seemed to still bear a pang of sadness in their hearts at the memory of his earlier life. They recounted a vivid memory of picking him up from a former afterschool program in which they had to create a special corner for him to sit and wait alone instead of interacting with the other children. At that time Soen had an inflexible attitude that caused him to systematically avoid group interaction, be fearful of new activities and an oversensitivity to noise. His interactions with others his age was unpredictable, he would go from playing and having fun to sudden, and violent outbursts.
Soen started in the Hwa Rang Do Minneapolis, Tomorrow’s Leading Knights after school program when he was in first grade. Sebastian and Emily’s intuitive perception had come to fruition, and his journey had finally begun. From what I am told it was not an easy transition, there were many issues to work on and changes to be made. What stuck out in their minds was that the TLK staff NEVER gave up on him, if something did not work, they tried something new in a near endless evolution of progress that stands as a testament to the inexhaustible creativity of the former TLK coordinator Chad Schrandt and Kristina Van Overbeke. Slowly, over time, like metal under the influence of a white-hot furnace, Soen began to change.
From his parent’s perspective, it was as though Soen was being shepherded through this dark time not only by the TLK staff but most importantly by Master Sirny and his unrelenting belief in Soen, that inside of him their lived something greater.
As a student he learned good comportment, how to be enthusiastic, he was excited by the training and began to absorb the Hwa Rang Do® principles and live by them. The structure, meditation, discipline, and comradery of the training process took hold, and Soen began to live up to his true potential. All of his former behaviors and norms began to fade into what seemed like a distant past as he walked into a brighter future.
As this pinnacle was being reached something drastic and unexpected took place, The Worldwide Covid-19 Pandemic. As we all remember, life as we knew it came to a grinding halt, all that we thought we knew, or where we thought we were going, for a time vanished, and our world became shrouded in a blanket of fear on an inescapable global scale. The psychological effect this exerted was massive, on all ages young and old. Many became lost, many lost their way, and many gave up and were lost all together: A wound in our hearts perhaps only God the Most High can heal.
The whole world had to pivot and began to function online, the Minneapolis Academy was no exception, and the task of online classes was dutifully captained by Instructor Logan Carlson. The online training was for Soen a silver lining in a gray and cloudy world, but by August of 2020 his motivation had faltered, he became depressed, and his parents could hardly move him from the couch where he spent most of his day in a saddened slump. After so much effort and growth Soen had regressed into his shell again, buffeted by the fear, and uncertainty of the outer world.
I had returned to Hwa Rang Do® Minneapolis in the summer of 2020, and this is when Soen and I had first met. I was warned about his behavior by the other staff members but told that although he was far better than when he started, he still had the propensity for unpredictable outbursts, and needed to be watched out for. For my first year back, I was Soen’s Instructor, he struck me as a somewhat sad, highly intelligent, and a seemingly cold individual who needed constant prompting to keep him engaged. He had one friend only that I saw him interact with and avoided all others.
During one of our summer camps the following year (2021), he had an outburst that amounted to him attacking another child without provocation. I brought him into the office and instead of reprimanding him, I told him some stories about myself when I was younger and the trouble I use to cause. He broke down in tears, telling me he didn’t know why he did the things he did, that he was evil, and he wished he had never been born. I told him the nearest thing I could about the truth, we all have this conflict within ourselves, some more than others and that he indeed had goodness within him as well. While interviewing his parents, they attested that this was a reoccurring theme in their dialogue with him.
During any period of free time at the summer camps Soen could be found doing one thing, training. We watched him pour every free moment into his Tae Soo Do® material, while other children played games Soen practiced, asked questions, and continuously improved his skills. Something inside of him activated and he became a “boy on a mission”. This desire for growth was aided also by Soen’s neighborhood friend and fellow student Alex Kimball. Alex is a few years older than Soen and had received his Black belt in Tae Soo Do® the previous year. According to Saunoi-Sandgrens Alex has played the role as a friend, training partner and mentor for Soen, helping to inspire and motivate him both inside and outside of the Dojang.
I don’t exactly recall how or when the changes that are so visible now took place, but at some point the light inside him just turned on, brighter than ever. In our discourse together his parents have stated that they finally have the son that they knew before the pandemic back. Soen has transformed and in many ways become an exemplar of the power of Hwa Rang Do®, after a long-fought struggle he is now excelling in many areas that he struggled with before. I remember first meeting him, he was gray, sad and for the most part wore a perpetual frown. While interviewing him for this article I was really awakened to acknowledge the difference, he’s bright, smiling and his whole character displays an undertone of happiness. He is kind to others, he helps children younger than himself, he’s friendly and interacts with everyone, he listens well, in class he is always training hard and striving to grow.
The mystery inherent in Hwa Rang Do® is difficult in some ways to apprehend, it's not the kicks and punches, takedowns, and techniques that make Hwa Rang Do® what it is. You can find many similar movements in other styles. It is the essence of the heart that is brought forward through the vehicle of the training process, the “Who, that we become” is also the “Why we become it”. A brotherhood and sisterhood, a thousand hands reaching out to uplift one another from the shadows of darkness into the light of Love. The Way of the Warrior and the Path of the Heart.
Hwarang forever and God Bless!
Instructor Daniel J. LaFave