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Front Page

 

THE PHILOSOPHY OF
BRUCE LEE

Philosopher

 

Bruce Lee's martial art could not have been as successful and complete without the deep philosophical base he gave it. Martial arts, by nature, are a reflective practice where the practitioner must not only examine the issues of life or death but the nature of the self.

One of the most important influences on Bruce was his exposure to Taoist philosophy. Taoist philosophy is the development of the Chinese sage Lao Tzu, who in the sixth century BC wrote the definitive work on the subject, the Tao Te Ching.

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 untied with Tao; I had become one with nature."

Bruce lay back in the boat and let it drift of its own accord. He was, at that moment, at peace with himself and his environment.

Bruce had not only discovered the state of wu-shin, or no-mindedness; he had come to see his unity with the Tao itself. The Tao would become a great influence in his later life when he developed his art of Jeet Kune Do.

"When he was in Seattle Bruce used to quote Confucius and Lao Tzu and all those people like that, and he believed it," says Taky Kimura, Bruce's senior student and best friend. "But pretty soon he made that transition himself and he became the philosopher."

In 1963 Bruce published a book titled Chinese Gung Fu: The Philosophical Art of Self-Defense. The book expressed his views on gung fu as well as his deep interest in the philosophical aspects of martial arts training.

Another big influence on Bruce Lee, philosophically, was the Brahmin philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti. Bruce found that Krishnamurti's viewpoints on life ran parallel to his own. In his book Freedom from the Know, Krishnamurti writes: "You cannot look through an ideology, through a screen of words, through hopes and fears. The man who is really serious, with the urge to find out what truth is has no concept at all. He lives only in what is." Bruce adapted this idea in forming his martial art philosophy: "You cannot express and be alive through static put-together form, through stylized movement. 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."

"A classicist or traditionalist will only do what the teacher tells him and that's it. The teacher is pedestalized and you do what he says and you don't question him," says John Little, the historian of the Bruce Lee Estate, "but Bruce was drawing from some very diverse sources, such as gestalt therapy, Krishnamurti, etc. Not that these people were necessarily creators either, but they saw a certain truth that they wrote about. Bruce saw that same truth."
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Recollections

 

Leo Fong, a Methodist minister, movie director, and former student of Bruce Lee's, remembers a conversation he had with Bruce in 1964. "Bruce asked me, 'Why are you taking all these gung fu classes?'

"I said, 'Well, I'm looking for the ultimate.'

"Bruce let out a big laugh. He said, "Man, there ain't no ultimate! The ultimate is within you!'

"It took me a while to let go of the old beliefs, the old crutches. When I got around to letting go and started to train on my own I realized what Bruce had imparted to me. It's frightening being your own teacher. The only way you can find the cause of your own ignorance, he said, is self-evaluation and total commitment to your own process toward growth."

Bruce's Los Angeles Chinatown student Bob Bremer remembers Bruce relating to him the story of the "Chinese Woodcutter". "The old Chinese woodcutter was out in the forest chopping wood," said Bruce. "He's chopping the wood and chopping the wood and pretty soon the bushes start rattling and the trees start vibrating. He looks over there, the bushes part and out steps a dragon. The Chinese woodcutter says to himself, Golly! I always thought they were just stories! This is real! If I could capture it or kill it I could be famous! I wouldn't have to cut wood anymore!

"So he took his ax and takes a step toward the dragon. The dragon turns and says, 'Oh oh oh. I know what you're thinking. If you take another step toward me I'm going to breathe fire all over you and burn you to a cinder.'

"The woodcutter thinks, He can read my mind! He knows what I'm thinking before I even do it! It's hopeless! I might as well go back to chopping wood!

"So he goes back to chopping his wood and he's chopping and chopping. In the middle of one of his swings the ax flies out of his hand and hits the dragon right between the eyes. Kills him."

"Bruce never told me what he meant by that story," says Bremer. "For months I was thinking, What was he trying to tell me? I'm going over there to learn a physical thing and he's messing with my mind! What the hell is going on?"

Bruce believed that he could not teach his students so much as point them in the direction of knowledge. "I cannot teach you, " Bruce mused to James Franciscus in the television series Longstreet, "only help you to explore yourself."

"He actually was one of the very few that applied the philosophy to the art," said student Dan Inosanto. "Everything he taught was like 'Be soft yet not yielding. Firm yet not hard.' I was thinking, what the hell does that mean?"

Inosanto was not alone when it came to being confused by Bruce's philosophical nature. "He often spoke in parables," says author Joe Hyams.

One of Bruce's favorite parables was the story of the western scholar who came to Japan to learn about Zen from an old Zen master. As the story goes, the two sat down to introductory tea, and it became evident after a few minutes that the western scholar was more interested in telling the Zen master what he knew than learning anything from him. As the Zen master poured the tea for his guest, the scholar continued to ramble on. The tea began to spill over the edges of the cup; the Zen master continued pouring. "Sir!" said the western scholar. "The cup is over-full!"

"Yes," replied the Zen master, "and like this cup you too are over-filled with your own ideas and opinions. How do you expect to learn if you are not willing to empty your cup?"

Bruce would often quote this parable to his students. He encouraged them to speak up if they had a difference of opinion in his teachings but, if pushed too long, he would say, "At least empty your cup and try." Bruce believed that you should not dismiss something out of hand without first investigating it for yourself.

Bruce also felt that, "Knowing is not enough; you must apply." It was his opinion that knowledge is useless if it is not put to good use. More importantly, one can never determine the value of knowledge if it is not tested.

Bruce embodied the Taoist concept of tzu jan, or honest self-expression. Because he refused to subordinate himself to one style of fighting, he was free to be open and critical of all fighting concepts, including his own. This part of Bruce's character caused the greatest conflict between himself and others, especially martial artists who are often trained to accept the teachings of their instructor without question. Indeed, the term master, used in many martial arts styles to denote the teacher or leader of the school, implies absolute and unquestioning authority.

Bruce's personal expression of martial arts was something that he believed was unique to him and him alone, because it was the product of his personal attributes and deficiencies. Dan Inosanto said, "The total picture Bruce Lee wanted to present to his pupil was that, above everything else, he must find his own way. It is important to remember that Bruce Lee was a 'pointer' to the truth and not the truth itself."

For Bruce all knowledge led to self-knowledge. Bruce placed a great deal of emphasis on this belief in his teachings. It was one of the most important concepts he derived from his study of Krishnamurti. As Krishnamurti said: "We must first understand ourselves in order to know anything and to understand and solve problems." Bruce felt that, for a person to grow and evolve, they must come to know themselves through whatever medium they choose: dance, music, art, or martial arts to name a few.

Perhaps in the end it will be the philosophy of Bruce Lee that has the greatest importance in a historical perspective. Bruce has influenced generations since his passing with his concepts of liberation from classical thought, bending to adversity, economy of action, and openness to learn. These are concepts that will greatly benefit people of all doctrines, disciplines, and vocations.

Bruce lee's best friend Taky Kimura sees the effect Bruce has had on people every time he goes to Seattle's Lakeview Cemetery to tend to Bruce's grave. "I go up to the cemetery all the time and I see these people up there and many of them aren't even martial artists, but they're up there. They're up there looking for something within themselves. When you look at all these people out there who claim that they aren't role models, they are role models because they are in the limelight. But Bruce is a guy that, twenty-six years later, that cemetery is so trodden that they just put new sod up there. You watch, in a few months it will be worn out again. When I go up there I usually bump into somebody and I try not to be forward but I usually introduce myself. I ask them why they are up there and they tell me these things, you know, and it's just incredible the inspiration Bruce is creating, aiding these people."
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Selected Quotes of Bruce Lee


"
When you're faced with looking at your own life with awakened eyes, you will have increased a bit in the knowledge of yourself and knowledge of anything outside of yourself is only superficial and very shallow. To put it another way, self-knowledge has a liberating quality."

"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'?"

"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?"

"To me, all types of knowledge ultimately means self-knowledge."

"Like everyone else, you want to learn the way to win, but never to accept the way to lose. To accept defeat--to learn to die--is to be liberated from it. Once you accept, you are free to flow and harmonize. Fluidity is the way to an empty mind. So when tomorrow comes, you must free your ambitious mind and learn the art of dying."
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