Embracing and Challenging the Gospel Truth: My Understanding of Bruce Lee and Jeet Kun Do
I started martial arts when I was living in the city of Rochester, but at that time it never stuck. It wasn’t until I went to college that I picked it back up and it became a passion. Of course, no passionate martial artist cannot have heard of Bruce Lee. As a child I had seen replays of his film, Enter the Dragon and I remember being swept up in the intensity of the fight scenes.
Among many in the martial arts community, his name is legend and it’s well deserved. It’s no exaggeration to say that he is one of the few points that traditional and mixed martial artists agree on. But as I studied him in college I found that there was a lot to him than just screaming and kicking, and that there was in fact some baggage around who he was and the art he created.
Coming to Jesus
I like to study a variety of subjects and come at them from multiple points of view. This aptitude applied to my martial arts studies as well. I was never content with knowing just one style, and I remember often the fights I saw when one fighter would fight another to prove his/her individual style was better than the other’s.
So one of the styles I set out to learn was Jeet Kun Do. I mean, if you’re going to learn to fight, might well learn from the best right? In those early years I was caught up in technique. The attack/defense postures, feet movements and so on. It is what Bruce is known for after all: being a phenomenal fighter. And I saw people take this a step further, often believing that the man to be the perfect martial artist and could do no wrong.
His style was perfect. His form was perfect. His body was perfect. You might as well have called him God of the martial arts world and be done with it. Yet as I learned more about him and studied other styles as well, I found that those things, impressive as they were, were merely surface features of not only Jeet Kun Do but of Bruce lee himself.
To understand both JKD and Lee, you have to look to his philosophy. Everything about him and his accomplishments was motivated by it and his philosophy was adaptation in all things. He believed strongly in presenting a reason for the fighting as well as the fighting itself. In the few movies he did, his personal philosophy is written all over the sequences.
JKD in and of itself is not even a fighting style, or at least it wasn’t supposed to be. Bruce thought deeply about how people fought and how that physically expressed itself. By the time of its development, Bruce Lee had given up any loyalty to specific forms. It was a way of thinking about learning different techniques and methods and making them your own: what worked for you and what didn’t.
While certain concepts were laid down, there was no formalized kata or system. Just an idea presented, a tool given to be used as the user saw fit. A boxer was just as capable of using JKD as a wrestler was because it was about adapting to the situation. Yet often, many will see a side kick or a finger jab and identify it as JKD. Many other techniques had the same idea before hand. Nor was the concept of blending different styles together new to the world.
From Youtuber BMFezkiel: Bruce Lee's interview from The Pierre Berton Show, gives a window into the man's philosophy
The Gospel According to Bruce Lee
Another thing I noticed was the sainthood that was often bestowed upon the man by many martial artists. Like I said before, everyone thought that everything Bruce Lee did was an act of god, and pretty soon it seemed to me like he was their Jesus Christ. Yet mention stories of his notorious temper, or that he is believed by some to have cheated on his wife early on in their marriage, or his ego, or that he hated being hit in the face, and those supporters get defensive.
One of the things I had to learn in order to break free of my own mental restraints was that Bruce Lee may have been a phenomenon, but he was also just a man. He made mistakes along the way, he would have had to in order to develop his techniques and improve them and himself. What happened to Bruce Lee though happens to all ground breaking philosophers and make no mistake Lee was a philosopher. They encourage their students to learn for themselves by given them ideas and not strictly adhere to everything the leader says, but eventually that philosopher’s ways become gospel unto themselves.
"...be inspired by him but do not imitate him."
One of the Few
Don’t misunderstand me though. I am not saying that people who practice JKD or who are admirers of Bruce Lee are all sheep and yes men. Nor am I saying that he was not deserving of his reputation. As many urban methods as there are surrounding Bruce Lee that is probably exaggerations, many of them are not and there is documented footage and pictures to prove it. He was a genius in the same way Muhammad Ali was in boxing or Michael Jordan in basketball. Some one who thought outside the box and could create with it using unusually intense focus. That kind of gift cannot be taught, only imitated or better yet, inspiring others to succeed as well. To get the most out of Bruce Lee and Jeet Kun Do, Take a lesson early on that Chinese cinema learned the hard way: be inspired by him but do not imitate him.
Or to put it another way from Enter the Dragon:
“Don’t focus on the finger or you will all that heavenly glory. Do you understand?”