Bruce Lee's Philosophy

Posted Oct 19, 2002
Last Updated Oct 27, 2011

When Bruce Lee died in 1973, he did not leave this world without making an impact. Beyond his success as a martial arts actor, which was transforming enough to the movie industry in bringing the martial arts genre to life, he was a teacher. The man who played the role of Kato in The Green Hornet and starred in four and a half films was a martial arts instructor, and more—he was a philosopher. He majored in philosophy at the University of Washington. A man who devoured books on a wide range of subjects, from Eastern philosophy to gung fu to psychotherapy, he yearned for knowledge. As he put it, he wanted to express himself, and to express himself honestly. In order to express himself honestly, he had to know himself well. The idea should remind us of Socrates’ admonition, "Know thyself.”

"All knowledge ultimately means self knowledge,” said Lee in an interview. For Lee, "to be a martial artist means also to be an artist of life.”

In Lee’s pursuit of personal perfection, he walked a life of deep philosophy that urged him to seek answers and improvement. Bruce Lee was perhaps the best martial artist because he made himself that way, because he sought answers and resolutions. What set him apart from other martial artists was his understanding of the human dynamics of change. Most traditional martial artists taught a style of fighting that was set in stone—they gave a fixed set of moves and attitudes that defined their specific form of fighting. It reflects a very old form of thought given in Western philosophy in the words of Plato who believed in another realm of eternally static perfection to which we must mold ourselves. In the traditional view, change is imperfect; perfection is sought by denying change any relationship to the deeper, metaphysical reality.

Denying this paradigm, Lee took an objective look at his life, and his art, and sought to improve himself. His success owed to his philosophy in that his growth was not thwarted by the strict dictates of a fixed list of eternal facts. Other martial artists might improve themselves to the standards of a fixed style, but Lee measured himself to the standards of human potential and creation: "Style concludes. Man grows.” This attitude almost made it impossible for someone as dedicated as Lee to not become such a revolutionary master of his art.

Lee wrote, "In the long history of martial arts, the instinct to follow and imitate seems to be inherent in most martial artists, instructors and students alike.”

"Each man,” wrote Lee, "belongs to a style which claims to possess truth to the exclusion of all other styles. These styles become institutes with their explanations of the "Way,” dissecting and isolating the harmony and firmness and gentleness, establishing rhythmic forms as the particular state of their techniques.” The consequence, wrote Lee, was to bypass the purpose of martial arts and create "flowery forms” and "artificial techniques” that become "ritualistically practiced.”

Noting that "real combat is not fixed and is very much ‘alive’,” Lee stated that the "fancy mess” created by ritualizing fighting "is nothing but a blind devotion to the systematic uselessness of practicing routines or stunts that lead nowhere.”

The philosophy promoted by Lee was repugnant to many people already mired in traditional habits of thought. Angry or not, they could not deny the success of Lee. His understanding of martial arts was too profound for traditional views to keep him back.

The logic of Lee’s philosophy, which he uneasily labeled jeet kune do (he was cautious of giving his philosophy a title for fear of its crystallization into yet another style), is quite simple: "The art of Jeet Kune Do is simply to simplify.” The martial artist must ask two questions. 1) What is it that I want to accomplish? 2) What is the quickest, most efficient and effective way to reach my objective?

Lee felt that much of the "fancy mess” in martial arts wasted time and energy, and that styles restricted action. Styles, which lead to specialization, make a person incapable of handling a true master of martial arts. A kick-boxer would be unable to handle a wrestler who had the kick-boxer on the ground. A wrestler would be helpless against a boxer if the boxer kept the wrestler at arm’s reach.

Wrote Lee, "There is a great temptation to exploit favorite strokes to the neglect of most others. While this may bring initial success, it is unlikely to enable one to gain regular results in the highest-class competition. All too soon one’s opponents will find the answer to a limited game; a routine system of defense, for instance, plays into the hands of an observant opponent.”

To that end Lee pushed himself to be a master of every form of martial arts, using whatever was useful and discarding whatever was merely ritual. Only a few months before he died, Lee said, "I am improving and making new discoveries every day. If you don’t you are already crystallized and that’s it.”


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Shohin

May 26, 2013

Good. I realy like his quotes.

John Day

Sep 28, 2012

Great article. In my opinion a great synopsis of who Bruce was.

Marcel Dumoulin

Apr 19, 2012

i am a 5th degree black belt in Jeet Kune Do, of all my black belts this is the one I am most prouod of, second is Iron Fist,I am 50 years old .started to study at 4

John Smith

Jun 26, 2012

There is no "black belt" in Jeet Kune Do. Jeet Kune Do is about releasing yourself from limitation. A belt is just another artificial boundary that our ego uses to make us feel better about achievement, when what we should be doing is striving to attain enlightenment. You are proud of something that doesn't exist.

Caelan Hollands

Aug 20, 2012

it does not matter what belt you are it matter on your physical mind and how you express that to your situation you must adapt like water

Caelan Hollnds

Aug 20, 2012

no matter what belt you are does not mean you are better than your opponent the thing which seperates you from your oponent and your will to fight according to your situation

Caelan Hollands

Aug 20, 2012

therer is no one style that is better than any others you must learn all you can and create your own stuff rather than following evewryone elses styles the style of no style

John Day

Sep 28, 2012

Good for you Marcel! Keep learning! Be like water! :)

John@Jeet kune Do Training

Feb 16, 2012

Bruce Lee's philosophy can apply both in martial arts and in daily living.

grailsearcher

Oct 21, 2011

Yes, nothing is set in stone! What Bruce said about the martial arts also applies to other sports and even life itself.

For those interested in Zen (philosophy) in sports and martial arts, check out this blog piece (it has an interesting section on Bruce Lee--look for it):

http://bobbehull.wordpress.com/2011/05/14/a-touch-of-zen-in-sports/

James K

Oct 21, 2010

I really appriciate this, I used some information and cited your work in a research paper on Bruce Lee as a philospher in a World Religions class I am taking. Great article, cant thank you enough.

jacob lanferman

Nov 10, 2010

So did I! Thank You sooo much, this was extremly helpful and fasinating!

Mahfoud Benhadj-Djilali

Aug 2, 2010

wonderfull site !

The philosophy is the power of the spirit that he has brucee lee , that you have too to make this site , I thank you very much.

Personally i am using my private strong and private philosophy to image the last religion islam in the word. The surealisme of the reel,or immaginnation of real surealisme. I am artist and scientist and muslim.

"The movement does not exit without shape and the shape does not exist without space." my proverb

thanks for what you are doing

Stephen

Jun 3, 2010

There are striking similarities between the ways and methods of Buddhism (esp. Zen) and Bruce Lee's philosophy on fighting and life. It is the way of not simply stating what has been, but of observing what is; of clearing away what binds your thoughts. Words can not describe reality, and styles can not describe real fighting. Bruce Lee named his style of no-style Jeet Kune Do, but knew as well that to put anything in words is to take away from its immediacy; from what it 'is', and to in one's mind turn water into ice. To be like water is not of the body, but of the mind. I bow to Bruce Lee, and I thank you for the article Shawn.

martin monroe

Sep 16, 2010

Spontaneous fluidity! intense training, pin-point observation and accuracy. These coupled with confidence and compitency equal mastery... In any and all arenas.



Regards

Bow to Bruce and Stephen

TITO DUTTA

Jul 13, 2009

SHAWN, I HAVE RECENTLY READ YOUR WRITING. IT IS REALLY WONDERFUL. I MUST CONGRATULATE YOU. ~ TITO.

cormac wilkie

Dec 20, 2009

To be like water is divine.

Josh Delangis

May 16, 2007

did you write a book on the philosophy of Bruce Lee or know where i can get one, or the title of a book which i may find useful? I am student currently writing a philosophy essay which is focused on Bruce Lee's philosphy on life, martial arts, etc.. your help would be very much appreciated, thank you

P V

Apr 21, 2008

Though you probably don't need it anymore, I strongly advise '' Tao Of Jeet Kune Do''



He explains much in this and let's you see the basics. I find this book very inspiring when I read it. I still have to finish it though.

I'm saving up money for the gym and then I will train like he said you should do.



good luck,



(You can probably get it from Amazone)

Anand Gonsalves

Feb 26, 2009

There are some books

a) Tao of Jeet Kune Do - a book on JKD but has a lot of his philophy



b) Striking THoughts - A collection of Lee's aphorisms



c) Bruce Lee : Artist of Life - Heard of this book but down own it. i htink it carries what ur looking for



ralph green

Mar 15, 2009

whats the philosophy of "using no way as way,having no limitation as limitation"

hamdan hassan

Jul 7, 2010

Try ZEN IN MARTIAL ARTS by joe hyams
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