Bruce Lee's Philosophy
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.”