When I was a boy, I read with great interest Bruce Lee’s Tao of Jeet Kune Do. Right after I read that, I read Dan Inosanto’s Absorb What Is Useful and Guide to Martial Arts Training Equipment. Being young and easily influenced, I was immediately drawn in and sold on the philosophy. As I matured, I slowly removed myself from many of Bruce Lee’s ideas until I nearly rejected all of them. Today, I am a combination of admirer and critic of Lee’s JKD. My methodology was born of my experiences and observations as well as tested theories.
My philosophy is all over the internet, and hopefully we can bring all of those writings to this blog. I am not interested in arguing point-for-point every detail, because much of what I wrote 10 years ago is no longer my position today. This is a vast subject, and being a “nobody” (since Jeet Kune Do people like to point out that I am a nobody) my martial arts career will neither be broken nor made because of this position. I would like to share some of these things in this article, and I hope that at least some of you will find what is in this article helpful.
The Paradox of Bruce Lee’s Philosophy
Bruce Lee’s JKD is a style that claims not to be a style. It has a curriculum, a philosophy, teachers, schools, a TRADEMARK, students arguing about lineage and authenticity (just like every traditional legacy I’ve seen) and even “forms”. Although these “forms” are combinations and drills, what is a form but a series of blocks, attacks and counters that have been prearranged? Do JKD practitioners not do the same thing? You strike me here, and then I do this and that? One person holds out an arm while the defender blocks and counters with X, Y, and Z? Looks like Kenpo from here. Bruce Lee himself came from the traditional system (Wing Chun), which is apparent in his system. Yeah, call it Jun Fan Kickboxing, whatever… but his system of no systems sure looks like a system to me. From what I hear, he even tried to dismantle the art shortly before he died because he saw it going down the same road the traditional styles travelled. Did Lee practice forms? Sure. Those of you who know Ying Jow Pai may recognize the first few moves of “Jeet Kune” an Eagle Claw FORM, being performed by Lee in “Return of the Dragon” in the alley before he whips up the Italian guy–and in the Game of Death, he does the end of the form while in his room the first day on Han’s Island (ironically, Shek Kin is an Eagle Claw Sifu–he is my kung fu Uncle). Surely, he practiced the 4 forms of Wing Chun: Siu Lum Tao, Chum Kiu, Biu Jee, and the Mook Yan Jong form. But he didn’t teach them to his students… or did he? Ever seen any of the students from his early days? They do those forms. In my opinion, they seemed to be more fighters than the ones who came along in later years. The truth is, Bruce Lee benefitted from traditional martial arts training, but he preached against it. It was his traditional training that encouraged his search for “non-traditional” martial arts. I believe in fighters with a strong foundation creating their own methods–but only after they have a base of knowledge to grow from. Bruce Lee’s ideas were good, but in my opinion not well thought out and tested. We love him because of his movies and his profoundness as a martial arts philosopher. But keep in mind that he was a young man without a master, without a lot of actual learning (he learned mostly by books, except for limited exchanges with others and his short time with Yip Man). He was a talented specimen who trained full time in a young martial arts community without a lot of exposure to martial arts masters. Was he in great shape? Yes. Was he a skilled fighter? I don’t know, no one really questioned or tested him. And that was the problem.
The Process of Development
Where was Bruce Lee’s laboratory? Who did he test his theories on? How long did he test those theories? How was his art tempered?
Let me answer those questions with a question: Who taught Bruce Lee how to box?
The answer: no one. Create your own path, remember? Bruce Lee studied boxing the same way most of you do. Not by going into the gym and boxing, but by looking at youtube clips and HBO. Oh, he didn’t have youtube and HBO, so he really had less exposure than many of you have. Bruce Lee learned to box by observation, and came up with his own theories. This is the common method of young men who thought they knew everything. Hey, I was the same way myself at one time… but I was given the opportunity to get older and I had the humility to go and learn from those who know more than me. Imagine where his JKD had been if Lee had walked into a boxing gym instead of looking at Muhammad Ali fights. (By the way, Ali was one of the worst people to learn how to fight by observing. He only used a portion of boxing basics, and relied more on his natural talents and hard work than by boxing basics)
Bottom line, Bruce Lee was a fine physical specimen among a community of martial artists who were in awe of him. I believe many men who admired him could actually have beaten him–Jim Kelly, Joe Lewis, Chuck Norris, among others. This was one of Bruce Lee’s main flaws (keep in mind, he was young and human): that he believed he was not in need of a master and that he could teach himself better than if he had gone to the masters personally. Mostly everything he incorporated was self-taught…. Fencing, boxing, wrestling, judo. What would you say if a man appeared today and announced that this was how he learned, and today he is introducing his own art? Be honest! His celebrity status and his strength and prowess prevented him from improving his art because he lacked the two things that every master needs to forge his art: doubters and humility. He needs the doubters to fine tune his art and prove his theories on. And he needs the humility to seek the information and foundation that his art would be built on.
The Double Standard
Bruce Lee said you cannot swim on dry land; that a fighter needed to fight to test himself out. But Lee tested himself out on students and friends, if at all. He did not meet Jim Kelly and fight him to see where he stood. He trained alone, and showcased his abilities before a camera and his students. He did not care for fighting with rules, but he did not fight without rules. Every fight has rules. If this was the case, when he sparred with Chuck Norris, one of them would be dead, now wouldn’t they?
I am going to end this article here, but would like to close with a few statements. Bruce Lee did revolutionize the martia arts generation he lived in and the one that followed because he made them think. Yet his ideas were not the absolute truth, and included many inaccuracies. We admired the man and his encouragement to test and question, but no one wanted to test and question his art. Today, nearly 40 years after his death, martial artists quote Bruce Lee sayings as one quotes the Bible. His theories are considered to be the most valid of philosophies and anything contrary to be foolish. Despite that in his last years, Bruce Lee wished to alter his art and ideas. His followers are stuck in the “Original JKD” vs. “Concepts” and Seattle vs. Oakland vs. LA feuds, as if the version they received was better than another.
I would like to suggest several things to consider:
- Making one’s own path is useless with no sense of direction. You need a structure and foundation to build from; otherwise you are guilty of building a home on sand
- Every style or system is one man’s “path”. If he has tested his art, proven it on opponents and fine-tuned it, the art is valid. You cannot skip the testing of an art by saying he chose his own “path”. Contrary to popular belief, there is a such thing as “bad” or “weak” martial arts styles–regardless of how tough the student of that style is
- Teachers who point students down a path that he did not travel is either not confident in the path he took, or sending his student down an unfamiliar road
- You cannot confuse admiration, respect, or love with confirmation of your teacher’s theory. You must prove everything, and to accept a dogma without testing is nothing more than “blindly following”. Failing to question a man’s theories because you like his movies, his ideas or his body is foolish
- An inexperienced martial artist teaching himself is always foolish. Just as a 6 year old cannot raise himself, a man cannot teach himself an art and expect to be taken seriously. It doesn’t matter how ripped his abs are, how good his movies are, or how many thumb-push-ups he can do
- I am a great admirer of both Bruce Lee and Dan Inosanto. They are heroes and highly significant characters in martial arts history. However, no man is above reproach or criticism
Thank you for reading my blog… please come back and visit again!