Bruce Lee’s Application Of Taoist Philosophy In Jeet Kune Do

Bruce LeeBruce Lee was born on November 27, 1940 and died on July 20, 1973. Even though he was just 32 upon his death, he had achieved so much in his limited lifetime. He was recognized by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century.[1] He was a cha cha champion in Hong Kong at age 18, a world renowned martial artist and a Chinese actor who was not only immensely popular in Asia, but who also made his breakthrough in Hollywood at a time when oriental actors were barely accepted for lead roles. What is less known among the public is his keen interest in philosophy, a subject he studied at the University of Washington. Writing about where his interest in philosophy came from, he wrote:

My majoring in philosophy was closely related to the pugnacity of my childhood. I often asked myself these questions: What comes after victory? Why do people value victory so much? What is ‘glory’? What kind of ‘victory’ is ‘glorious’?[2]

In my previous post I discussed the similarities between the libertarian concept of Spontaneous Order and the Taoist concept of the Tao. In this post I will discuss the application of Taoist philosophy in Jeet Kune Do (‘the way of the intercepting fist’), the martial arts that Bruce Lee founded in his mid-20s, and its roots in Taoist philosophy. I will identify several Taoist aspects that form the basis of Jeet Kune Do. First however, I will give an anecdote of his wife Linda Cadwell on Bruce Lee’s initial motivation to develop Jeet Kune Do at all.

Bruce Lee’s initial motivation for Jeet Kune Do
Bruce Lee started teaching martial arts to Westerners in his newly founded Jun Fan Gung Fu Institute, a training gym in Oakland, California. Then by late 1964, Bruce Lee received a letter with the signatures of the most important elder Chinese martial arts masters in San Francisco who did not

look favourably on Bruce’s teaching martial art to Westerners, or actually to anyone who was not Chinese. So strongly did they harbour this historically bound belief, that a formal challenge was issued to Bruce, insisting that he participate in a confrontation, the result of which would decide whether he could continue to teach the ‘foreign devils’. (Cadwell, 1998, p. 8)

Without hesitation, Bruce Lee accepted the challenge. Linda Cadwell remembers the fight that followed as a pivotal point in Bruce Lee’s life:

Within moments of the initial clash, the Chinese gung fu man [Bruce Lee’s contender] had proceeded to run in a circle around the room, out a door that led to a small back room, then in through another door to the main room. He completed this circle several times, with Bruce in hot pursuit. Finally, Bruce brought the man to the floor, pinning him helplessly, and shouted (in Chinese), ‘Do you give up?’ After repeating this question two or three times, the man conceded, and the San Francisco party departed quickly. The entire fight lasted about three minutes, leaving James and me ecstatic that the decisive conquest was so quickly concluded. Not Bruce. Like it was yesterday, I remember Bruce sitting on the back steps of the gym, head in hands, despairing over his inability to finish off the opponent with efficient technique, and the failure of his stamina when he attempted to capture the running man. For what probably was the first time in his life, Bruce was winded and weakened. Instead of triumphing in his win, he was disappointed that his physical condition and gung fu training had not lived up to his expectations. This momentous event, then was the impetus for the evolution of Jeet Kune Do and the birth of his new training regime. (Cadwell, 1998, pp. 11-12)

Now that we know that Jeet Kune Do originated from Bruce Lee’s discontent with the physical condition he had achieved through traditional gung fu training, I will discuss how Bruce Lee was striving for a new martial arts that was superior to the already existent ones, and how this martial arts is ultimately rooted in Taoist philosophy.

Jeet Kune Do as a way of life
Bruce Lee had, throughout his whole life, always been intrigued by the question how to find his true potential, and how to express himself honestly. He wrote:

“Ever since I was a child I have had this instinctive urge for expansion and growth. To me, the function and duty of a quality human being is the sincere and honest development of one’s potential”.[3]

“When I look around, I always learn something, and that is to always be yourself, express yourself, to have faith in yourself. Do not go out and look for a successful personality and duplicate him. They always copy mannerism; they never start from the root of their being: that is, how can I be me?”[4]

Bruce Lee believed that the answers to both questions – how can I find my true potential and how can I be me so that I can express myself honestly – are ultimately related to one another.

1. Be one with the Tao; be formless like water, and be pliable
Bruce Lee believed that the person who is trained within a particular martial arts style and who clings to it indefinitely or a person who is only trained within a particular philosophical doctrine becomes self-delusional. He thought that the person who is incapable of exceeding his style or doctrine is stiff and narrow-minded. His narrow-mindedness makes him blind to observe objectively and to see the truth. He is what Bruce Lee calls, ‘the traditional man’. Bruce Lee wrote:

One can function freely and totally if he is ‘beyond system.’ The man who is really serious, with the urge to find out what truth is, has no style at all. He lives only in what is. (Bruce Lee, 1975, p. 17)

But in classical styles, system becomes more important than the man! The classical man functions with the pattern of a style! (Bruce Lee, 1975, p. 18)

How can there be methods and systems to arrive at something that is living? To that which is static, fixed, dead, there can be a way, a definite path, but not to that which is living. Do not reduce reality to a static thing and then invent methods to reach it. (Bruce Lee, 1975, p. 18)

Classical forms dull your creativity, condition and freeze your sense of freedom. You no longer ‘be,’ but merely ‘do,’ without sensitivity. (Bruce Lee, 1975, p. 19)

You cannot see a street fight in its totality, observing it from the viewpoint of a boxer, a kung-fu man, a karateka, a wrestler, a judo man and so forth. You can see clearly only when style does not interfere. You then see it without ‘like’ or ‘dislike;’ you simply see and what you see is the whole and not the partial. (Bruce Lee, 1975, p. 24)

He thought that committing himself to styles limits both his potential and his self-expression. This critique is however not only limited to martial arts. He extended this critique to Confucianism, a philosophy which he considered as too rigid, and too narrowly focused on set rules and traditions. According to Bruce Lee, man ceases being a human being and instead becomes a mechanical man, a product of mere tradition if he reveres and just follows rules and mannerisms. The philosophy that perfectly fits Bruce Lee’s vision of a self-expressive and ‘style-less’ martial arts is the epistemologically anarchistic Taoism. How can a person, according to Bruce Lee and Taoism, find his true potential and express himself honestly? The answer is to become formless, pliable, and forever adaptable just like the Tao is formless, pliable, and forever in flux.

The Tao Te Ching states the following beautiful metaphor of life (flexibility and softness) and death (rigidity and hardness):

A man is born gentle and weak.
At his death he is hard and stiff.
Green plants are tender and filled with sap.
At their death they are withered and dry.
Therefore the stiff and unbending is the disciple of death.
The gentle and yielding is the disciple of life.
Thus an army without flexibility never wins a battle.
A tree that is unbending is easily broken.
The hard and strong will fall.
The soft and weak will overcome. (Tao Te Ching, Chapter 76)

Both Lao Tze and Bruce Lee took water as the ultimate metaphor for that which is flexible and soft. Bruce Lee maintains that in order to fulfil your true potential and express yourself honestly you should become like water, formless. To be like water means to be an objective observant, relaxed and to be flowing with life – to be one with the Tao.

In the Tao Te Ching one can find the following lines:

Under heaven nothing is more soft and yielding than water.
Yet for attacking the solid and strong, nothing is better;
It has no equal.
The weak can overcome the strong;
The supple can overcome the stiff. (Tao Te Ching, Chapter 78)

There is a story about Bruce Lee’s discovery of what it means to be like water and to be united with the Tao. I am not sure about the authenticity of the story, but I will share it nonetheless as it helps to illustrate the significance of being formless in combat or in life:

Bruce, at the age of seventeen, had been training in gung fu for four years with Sifu Yip Man, yet had reached an impasse. When engaged in sparring Bruce found that his body would become tense, his mind perturbed. Such instability worked against his goal of efficiency in combat.

Sifu Yip Man sensed his trouble, and approached him. ‘Lee,’ he said, ‘relax and calm your mind. Forget about yourself and follow the opponent’s movements. Let your mind, the basic reality, do the counter-movement without any interfering deliberation. Above all, learn the art of detachment.’

Bruce Lee believed he had the answer to his problem. He must relax! Yet there was a paradox: the effort in trying to relax was inconsistent with the effortlessness in relaxing, and Bruce found himself back in the same situation.

Again Sifu Yip Man came to Bruce and said, ‘Lee, preserve yourself by following the natural bends of things and don’t interfere. Remember never to assert yourself: never be in frontal opposition to any problem, but control it by swinging with it.’

Sifu Yip Man told Bruce to go home for a week and think about his words. Bruce spent many hours in meditation and practice, with nothing coming of it. Finally, Bruce decided to go sailing in a junk (boat). Bruce would have a great epiphany. ‘On the sea, I thought of all my past training and got mad at myself and punched the water. Right then at that moment, a thought suddenly struck me. Wasn’t this water the essence of gung fu? I struck it, but it did not suffer hurt. I then tried to grasp a handful of it but it was impossible. This water, the softest substance, could fit into any container. Although it seemed weak, it could penetrate the hardest substance. That was it! I wanted to be like the nature of water.

Therefore in order to control myself I must accept myself by going with, and not against, my nature. I lay on the boat and felt that I had united with Tao; I had become one with nature.[5]

Bruce Lee emphasized the importance of ‘a style of no style’ that he later would regret the name Jeet Kune Do as a name implies limitations or specific parameters. Bruce Lee wanted it to resemble the Tao, nameless and of almost supernatural power. Chapter one of the Tao Te Ching states:

The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name. (Tao Te Ching, Chapter 1)

See this video in which Bruce Lee asserts that we should be like water:

2. Break rules and conventions and have no way as your way
Jeet Kune Do does not limit itself to styles. It takes from other styles what is useful, discards what is useless, and add what is uniquely our own. The slogan of the Jeet Kune Do logo reads two things: (a) take no way as your way, and (b) take no limitation as your limitation. As styles, rules, conventions, mannerisms limit us we should break them and go beyond them. Jeet Kune Do is therefore iconoclastic. Bruce Lee wrote:

Jeet Kune Do favors formlessness so that it can assume all forms and since Jeet Kune Do has no style, it can fit in with all styles. As a result, Jeet Kune Do utilizes all ways and is bound by none and, likewise, uses any techniques or means which serve its end. (Bruce Lee, 1975, p. 12)

What are the characteristics of a martial arts with no style? According to Bruce Lee, it becomes open-minded, non-traditional, simple, direct, and effective.

Bruce Lee contended that:

Jeet Kune Do does not beat around the bush. It does not take winding detours. It follows a straight line to the objective. Simplicity is the shortest distance between two points. (Bruce Lee, 1975, p. 12)

In Enter the Dragon, there is a scene in which an ostentatious man asks Bruce Lee what his style is. Bruce Lee answers: “You can call it the art of fighting without fighting”. Being challenged by the man to show this style, Bruce Lee cunningly proposes to take a boat to a nearby island where they can fight. When the man set foot on the boat, Bruce Lee let the boat drift away and pulls it on a line. The essence of the story is that (a) one should not be pretentious as that is not honest self-expression, and (b) a fight should be won in the most direct and easiest manner, preferably without the use of violence.[6]

You can find the videoclip here:

In order to break with traditions and conventions means that we should also get rid of our past attachments. This is what Bruce Lee meant when he metaphorically said that we should ‘empty our cup’.

3. Empty your cup and learn the art of dying
To empty your cup means to get rid of your self-delusion so that you can look at the world from a new and refreshed perspective. In order to find your true potential and your nature, you should first be self-conscious. You should know what you want, what you desire, what your strengths and weaknesses are, your pride, your fears, your accomplishments, your ambitions and eventually get rid of all that as they maintain an ego that interferes with who you truly are – a fluid personality who cannot be narrowly defined by your desires, fears, achievements etc.

In the Tao Te Ching one can read:

Empty yourself of everything.
Let the mind become still.
The ten thousand things rise and fall while the Self watches their return. (Tao Te Ching, Chapter 16)

This is frightening for most of us, because it confronts us with our own prejudices; we may find that our traditions that have previously given us a sense of security may be baseless. However, Bruce Lee did not only want us to break with the archaic, but he also showed us an alternative – a way of creating new values and skills to supersede the old. In this respect, Bruce Lee’s views of how to progress in life is very much in line with the iconoclastic Nietzschean übermensch: we must first break with traditions and try to rise above our culture so that a higher being can emerge from our renewed self-creation. This is how I personally interpret Bruce Lee’s saying that we should learn the “art of dying”.

In a famous scene in Longstreet, Bruce Lee taught us not to make a plan of fighting, he told us to empty our mind, and to be formless like water. The “art of dying” is the “art of being non-fixed” – the art of being a different person tomorrow than we are today by letting go our past attachments including our ambitions. I believe it is similar to the Nietzschean ideal of self-creation: continuously subjecting our current values to our personal judgements, breaking down ‘lower values’ and creating ‘higher values’. The art of dying is hence a metaphor for continuously breaking down our past selves, values, attachments, pride, desires (dying) and creating our new selves (being reborn) so that we can continuously improve. The “art of dying” is therefore also the “art of self-forgetfulness”, a skill that is characteristic of the ‘baby’ who is its self-propelling wheel in Nietzsche’s story of the ‘three metamorphoses’ from Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

See here the scene of Longstreet:

Bruce Lee wrote:

Empty your cup so that it may be filled; become devoid to gain totality. (Bruce Lee, 1975, p. 14)

Emptying our cup precedes our discovery of new truths or new values so that hopefully we can find ourselves and become our own standard. Bruce Lee told us not to despair when we cannot find solace within our past attachments as the creation of personal values is vastly more valuable.

See here a great explanation of ‘emptying our cup’:

The logical consequence of self-creation is that one becomes his own standard.

4. Be your own standard and accept life
According to Bruce Lee, we should not worry about what others think of us. He advised us not to look for a personality to duplicate as that would be a betrayal to our selves – one might call this practice ‘other-expression’ instead of ‘self-expression’. Being our own standard also encompasses the acceptance of disgrace and losses as much as accepting grace and victories. How else can we accept ourselves and grow into our own standard? From our own acceptance we can find our rightful place in the world.

The Tao Te Ching advises us the following:

Accept disgrace willingly.
Accept misfortune as the human condition.

What do you mean by “Accept disgrace willingly”?
Accept being unimportant.
Do not be concerned with loss or gain.
This is called “accepting disgrace willingly.”

What do you mean by “Accept misfortune as the human condition”?
Misfortune comes from having a body.
Without a body, how could there be misfortune?

Surrender yourself humbly; then you can be trusted to care for all things.
Love the world as your own self; then you can truly care for all things. (Tao Te Ching, Chapter 13)

5. Wei Wu Wei
Lastly, I would like to discuss another aspect of ‘having no way as your way’. To have ‘no way as your way’, is also Bruce Lee’s expression for following the Taoist doctrine of ‘wei wu wei’ (‘action without action’ or ‘effortless action’). Bruce Lee maintained that when a person is truly in control of himself, he experiences his action without consciously forcing his actions to happen. Self-consciousness is initially required for the understanding of ourselves, but to be truly expressing ourselves through our actions we must move into a state where we act unconsciously. I think it is best comparable with the English expression of ‘being in a state of flow’. Bruce Lee said:

I’m moving and not moving at all. I’m like the moon underneath the waves that ever go on rolling and rocking. It is not, ‘I am doing this,’ but rather, an inner realization that ‘this is happening through me,’ or ‘it is doing this for me.’ The consciousness of self is the greatest hindrance to the proper execution of all physical action. (Bruce Lee, 1975, p. 7)

This idea of Bruce Lee can also be found within the wisdom of the Tao Te Ching:

Tao abides in non-action (‘wu wei’),
Yet nothing is left undone. (Tao Te Ching, Chapter 37)

Footnotes
[1] See http://www.ranker.com/list/time-magazine-100-most-important-people-of-the-20th-century/theomanlenz?format=SLIDESHOW&page=55http://www.ranker.com/list/time-magazine-100-most-important-people-of-the-20th-century/theomanlenz?format=SLIDESHOW&page=55

[2] I do not remember where I have found this quote.

[3] Idem

[4] Idem

[5] From http://www.becoming.8m.net/bruce02.htm

[6] The scene is actually based on an old Japanese Samurai folk tale. The tale goes as follows:

“While travelling on a ferry, a young samurai began bullying and intimidating some of the other passengers, boasting of his fighting prowess and claiming to be the best in the country with a samurai sword. When the young warrior noticed how unmoved [Tsukahara] Bokuden [a legendary Japanese swordsman] was, he was enraged and not knowing who he was dealing with challenged the old master to a duel. Bokuden told him;

‘My art is different from yours. It consists not so much in defeating others but in not being defeated.’

He continued to inform him that his school was called The Mutekatsu Ryu meaning ‘to defeat an enemy without hands’. The young samurai saw this as cowardice and demanded satisfaction so he told the boats-man to stop at an island so they could do battle there.

However when he jumped into the shallow waters to make his way to the fight venue, Bokuden got hold of the boats-man’s pole and proceeded back to deeper waters minus a now irate young samurai. The wise old master laughed and shouted to his would be adversary; ‘Here is my no sword school!’” (See, http://www.historyoffighting.com/tsukahara-bokuden.php)

Bibliography
History Of Fighting. Retrieved from http://www.historyoffighting.com/tsukahara-bokuden.php

Lao Tze. Tao Te Ching. Retrieved from http://www.schrades.com/tao/taotext.cfm?TaoID=1

Lee, B. (1975). Tao Of Jeet Kune Do. Santa Clarita: Ohara Publications.

Little, J. (1998). Bruce Lee: The Art Of Expressing The Human Body. North Clarendon: Tuttle Publishing.

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6 thoughts on “Bruce Lee’s Application Of Taoist Philosophy In Jeet Kune Do

  1. Pingback: Lao Tze, the first Libertarian | chhay lin lim

  2. Pingback: Lao Tze, The First Libertarian | Notes On Liberty

  3. Thank you for the article, it was very helpful to my understanding of Bruce Lee’s philosophy and application.

  4. Pingback: JAPAN MUST REFLECT ON ITS HISTORY IF IT IS TO REVISE ARTICLE 9 | The Norwich Radical

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