Bruce Lee is a name that will undoubtedly need no introduction to any of my readers: best known for the four “canon” films he starred in during the early 1970s, Lee remains a famous and, it should be said, divisive figure for reasons that are often pretty inane: He still has a massive following from people who can be politely called “deluded morons”, who attribute god-like powers and nigh-mythical exploits to him (and similarly attribute his death to shadowy conspiracies involving film studios, Triad gangs, martial arts associations, and occasionally the demon samurai thing from Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story). Also, occasionally SJWs will praise him for subverting “muh white male patriarchy in movies”.
Conversely, there are people who go out of their way to disparage the man, claiming that he was a “lol 130 pound all hype Chinese manlet I could kick his ass lolololol”
As you could probably assume by my mockery of these two extreme viewpoints, I’m somewhere in the middle of these, but, I admit, I was not particularly well versed in the life and times of Mr. Lee beyond his films. This led to me getting my hands on a copy of The Tao of Jeet Kune Do, in an attempt to understand his philosophy of martial arts. And having read it, I’m glad I did, because the book works through some clunky writing and obtuse concepts to create a philosophy of practical fighting that transcends style and ceremony.
I use the term “philosophy” repeatedly because that’s essentially what the book refers to itself as: “This book is a source of ideas for martial artists to use and develop further for themselves. Beware of people who teach ‘jeet kune do’-if their instructors missed the last line of the book, they failed to understand the book” (Page 3)
The book attempts to convey its lessons to you so thoroughly that you will no longer need the book once you’ve understood it-“there is nothing new conveyed in this book, it’s just condensed, like a musical composition: nothing is new about the elements, just how they’re used” (Page 10). Indeed, a quote that I thought of often while reading was the famous “Don’t think, feel” from Enter the Dragon, probably because the book explicitly states “To be skilled in martial arts is to understand techniques fully, to do them without thinking” (page 10)-which shows that Enter the Dragon was perhaps an early attempt from Lee to create the didactic/educational martial arts movie that Game of Death was supposed to be.
And what are these elements he refers to? Each chapter of the book deals with a broad concept, and is further subdivided into more specific concepts.
The first chapter deals with “Emptying the Mind”, as Bruce conveys some basic philosophical concepts that will gird the entire book: “Don’t think, feel”, “martial arts can either be flashy and cool or actually useful”, “learning and mastery are different things”, etc. Indeed, the concept of “emptiness” is a recurring one-this book is titled The TAO of Jeet Kune Do, after all, and Taoist concepts are commonly used: “To obtain mastery in martial arts, make extinct everything that obscures the true knowledge”-and what is ‘true knowledge’ if not “the way”, i.e., “tao”?.
While having knowledge of the Taoist religion/philosophy is certainly helpful, it’s not essential. If you have any grasp of it at all, and you should if only via pop cultural osmosis, then that will be enough for understanding this book.
More accurately, his philosophy is the sort of syncretic, neo-Taoist views that are, more than anything else, what the average person thinks of when they think of “Eastern Philosophy”: “The way to transcend karma lies in the proper use of the mind and the will. The oneness of all life is a truth that can be fully realized only when false notions of a separate self, whose destiny can be considered apart from the whole, are forever annihilated.” (page 35).
Leaving the numerous koans of the first chapter behind, the next few chapters are still philosophical, but explain how to apply your newfound emptiness for martial arts. And here, sadly, is where problems start to arise: namely, Bruce Lee isn’t a particularly great writer-the thesis of the book (that formal styles should be thrown away and reduced to the “live”, “unlimited” core of combat, and that JKD is a syncretic art that has no style so it has all styles) is a solid one, but is sadly obscured by strange verbiage and writing that is, at times, a bit obtuse:
For example, pages 22-25 essentially consist of Lee giving a series of koans that can all boil down to “formal styles are restrictive and create a load of useless knowledge instead of cutting down to the essentials”.
Also observe his repeated and contradictory use of the word “Crisp”: In his tenets of Jeet Kune Do, he says that you should seek to be “un-crispy” (ie: not flowery and showy). Later on he uses crispy in the “precision” meaning one would expect. While not a huge issue, it was noticeable and mildly irritating to me as I read.
The book picks up after this, as the author gets into the “meat and potatoes” of JKD, the 16 tenets of his martial art:
1)Be economical in attack and defense (he advocates leading with the power hand ala fencing, and sticky hands for defense)
2)Versatility and be artless while artful, encompass all weapons (ie: punching, kicking, trapping, throwing)
3)Broken rhythm, count half beats, one and a half beat, or three and a half beats in attacking
4) All around fitness: Weights, cardio, good diet, etc.
5) Direct movement in attack and counter, doing any attack from where you are without repositioning
6) Shifty body and light footwork
7) “Uncrispy” (meaning simplicity, crispy stuff is fancy)
8) Strong infighting: hooks and elbows, throws, grapples, locks, traps
9) Full contact sparring and training
10)Tools are continuously sharpened
11) Each individual finds their own way
12) Total structure
13) The training of continuity of expressive self, beyond the physical (mental training)
14) Mental pliability (the ability to improvise), “loose power” suddenly hardening and thrusting. Be loose but not lax.
15) Constant movement (footwork forward and back and to the side, bob and weave, head movement, hand movement)
The majority of the book from here consists of explanations of each tenet and how to apply it.
Most of the advice remains worthwhile in 2016, whether it be his advocacy of training mental awareness (“daily practice in quick seeing” sounds a lot like the old “Kim’s Game” that spies use to train situational awareness), explaining fighting speed as “economical movement”, or practical training like weightlifting and sparring. Indeed, this is standard stuff that any fighting trainer would teach regardless of style.
More unusual are some quirks that seem specific to Bruce Lee such as the advocacy of sticky hands/trapping, leading with the power hand and using a right-leg-forward fencing stance, clearly showing the Wing Chun roots of his personal style and, perhaps, belying his own advocacy of “emptying the mind and relearning what is useful”.
And this mild bit of hypocrisy on his part, I suppose, underlies my opinion of the book and the man who wrote it: Innovative and correct in many ways, the book is merely good rather than great due to bad writing and construction. Similarly, Bruce Lee was a great martial artist and an innovative thinker in this field, but was clearly not any sort of superhuman-for a superhuman would surely be able to write better.
So, was Bruce Lee a god amongst men and the “father of mixed martial arts”? Probably not, and he’s also probably not worthy of the overblown adoration he gets from the more credulous members of society. With that being said, it’s clear from reading his book that he did have some experience with fighting, and many of his ideas are being used by actual professional fighters today (some more than others), so I feel he deserves more respect than he gets in some quarters.
“If people say Jeet Kune Do is different from “this” or from “that,” then let the name ofJeet Kune Do be wiped out, for that is what it is, just a name. Please don’t fuss over it-it’s a philosophy of the individual, and not something that has ironclad forms and techniques and rules. It is a journey, not a desstination.”
You can buy the Tao of Jeet Kune Do right here