By: Bruce Lee
Tao of Jeet Kune Do
By Bruce Lee
(Ohara Publications, 1975, 208 pages)
Review by Christopher Dow
Probably no other martial artist anywhere or anytime has gained the reputation of Bruce Lee. His movies are watched by millions, his movements analyzed and dissected along with his personality and persona. But what about his own analysis and dissection of the fighting arts? What exactly did he have to say about them other than, “Boards don’t hit back”?
Lee’s bibliography is even sparser than his filmography if you don’t count the books published posthumously under his name. In fact, there was only one published while he was alive: Chinese Gung-Fu: The Philosophical Art of Self Defense (1963) As for the posthumously published works, Tao of Jeet Kune Do (1973) is the first, supervised by his wife, Linda Lee. It was followed by Bruce Lee’s Fighting Method (1978). Since then, a set of eight additional books published as entries in the Bruce Lee Library and edited by John R. Little, compiles more material from Lee, though I am not clear how much of the contents of these books originally appeared in Tao of Jeet Kune Do. At least one of those books consists of transcripts of interviews he did.
Unable to practice martial arts while recuperating from a back injury sustained either in a duel or during a workout—take your pick—Lee began taking notes regarding the development of his syncretic “style” of kung fu, Jeet Kune Do, which means Way of the Intercepting Fist. I put “style” in parentheses because Jeet Kune Do isn’t really a style of kung fu, but is instead a philosophy of fighting. That doesn’t mean that people who practice the more classical styles of kung fu—especially soft-style practitioners or any other martial artists, for that matter—won’t find ideas of interest that might help elevate their personal practice and skills. But it does mean that you’ll have to forego some of your own ideas even while you see Lee agree with and support others. In short, this book is very much about the theory and practice of fighting, not the art or other aspects of the martial arts, though these are touched on.
I’m not going to go into Lee’s biography. That can be found, with wildly varying degrees of accuracy and veracity, in about zillion places and formats, from magazines and books to TV and film to numerous online sites. In short, he was born in China, apparently always loving to fight and act. He moved to the U.S., where he learned to love fighting and acting even more. He made a substantial impact in both fields before dying at age 32. Although young at his death, he left an indelible mark on the martial arts, especially kung fu, by making them excitingly well-known the world over. His personal practice of incorporating into his repertoire things that worked in actual combat, which engendered the philosophy of Jeet Kune Do, frequently is cited as paving the way for the mixed martial arts. And in a cultural sense, he helped improve the portrayal of Asians in Western cinema and introduced Eastern cinema to a worldwide audience that has only grown exponentially in the decades since.
Tao of Jeet Kune Do isn’t really a book, though it appears to be one. Instead, it is a notebook filled with philosophical and practical ideas that are usually briefly stated. These ideas fall into basic categories, but they are not thoroughly organized and melded together into a coherent work. Really, the notes in this book seem more for Bruce Lee than for outside readers. His intention was to funnel them into a real book that was not meant to instruct readers in how to do martial arts but was to serve as a guidebook for martial study. Warrior that he was, however, he didn’t have a chance. I was often struck that these notes were penned by a brilliant, creative, and thoughtful man, but also a young one who, unfortunately, never had the chance to season through age. either as a warrior or as a philosopher.
To be honest, there is no real focus here, or a sustained narrative, only isolated maxims and statements that occasionally work together to sail through momentary and limited stretches of focus. Thus, the reading often is haphazard and monotonous. To make matters worse, there is a lot of repetition of ideas. For example, the maxim, “The map is not the territory,” is often repeated in various guises.
“Above all, do not lay down restricting rules,” is one of Lee’s most-repeated maxims, sometimes at greater length:
How can there be methods and systems to arrive at something that is living? To that which is static, fixed, dead, there can be a way, a definite path, but to to that which is living. Do not reduce reality to a static thing and then invent methods to reach it.
Had Lee had a chance to refine this work, though, he might have noticed that almost all of these maxims are, in their own ways, the very sort of “restricting rules” that he speaks against.
Then there is this statement: “If any style teaches you a method of fighting, then you might be able to fight according to the limit of that method, but that is not actually fighting.”
Well, what can I say to that? I’d consider a bar brawl a fight, and every drunken sot taking swings as a fighter. In essence, what Lee says here is that only someone who totally embodies fighting, such as he did, can actually engage in fighting. Okay. Everybody get to consider themselves the be-all and end-all of reality, but that doesn’t make it so. Even if you have the credentials to elevate yourself to the top of your field, that doesn’t make other practitioners total washouts unable to do anything but pretend. Lee isn’t the only high-level martial artist with this attitude, which is arrogance at its worst. I consider myself a martial artist because I’ve been practicing and studying a martial art for more than four decades, not because I use it to fight. In fact, I’m not be much of a fighter in the grand scheme of things, but I certainly am more of one now than I was before I took up martial arts. Besides, I get a lot more out of practicing my discipline than the idea that I can, to some degree or other, defend myself from attack. My studies of the martial arts has led me far afield from fighting others to fighting my own worst inclinations and discovering more about how reality functions.
But balancing out Lee’s relatively unprovable comments about fighting, a lot of valid if obvious truisms are mixed in, such as:
Speed of perception is somewhat affected by the distribution of the observer’s attention—fewer separate choices, faster action. When the cue to be recognized is likely to be one o f several, each of which requires a different response, the time is lengthened. Choice reaction takes longer than simple reaction. This is the basis for training the tools in terms of neurophysiological adjustment toward instinctive economy. Instinctive movement, being the simplest, is the quickest and most accurate. [Lee’s emphasis.]
Anyone who knows anything about Bruce Lee knows that, for him, practicality is the key to success—direct, powerful, and focused action and reaction, and when you read quotes like this, it’s obvious that his often thought-provoking ideas can pertain not just to the martial arts but to other aspects of life, particularly athletics, but also business, education, interpersonal interactions, and others. I can see businesspeople valuing this book like they value Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. Among his important points is that one should be dynamic at all times during combat—not to just try to plan attacks and defenses but simply to flow with the dynamics of the encounter in a way that leaves you in the most advantageous position. This is good advice for the art of life, too.
Reading this book it’s easy to see how Lee’s take on martial arts and fighting—incorporating elements from various martial and fighting arts that actually work, then paring everything down to direct and powerful action—was the cultural genesis of the mixed martial arts. Certainly, mixing already was taking place. Sun Lutang’s combining Xingyi, Bagua, and Tai Chi is a well-known example. Students often learn from more than one teacher or master, and no doubt their ultimate fighting “style” or capabilities reflect that in actual combat.
But Lee took that idea a few steps farther by incorporating into his fighting repertoire elements of Western boxing and fencing, as well as any other martial art he came across. I remember reading several decades ago an interview with a famous martial artist who said that Lee asked him to show him his form, and after seeing it only one time, repeated it faultlessly. Lee wasn’t into form, per se, though, only in elements that would improve his fighting skills, and his penchant of scorning classical styles gave many of his critics a handle to try to demean him. Some say he couldn’t really fight, but you don’t hear that from his famous martial arts contemporaries who knew, practiced, and fought with him. The simple fact is that most of his critics put him down from behind the safety of the wall of time. It’s easy to put someone down who can’t defend themselves.
So, as you might imagine, the practical martial arts advice is very sound, no matter what your martial arts practice entails. Lest Tai Chi folks think that because Lee was such a hard stylist that there might not be anything for them here, let me correct that idea. There is much here for practitioners of any style, and many Tai Chi-like principles are discussed.
Philosophically, Lee’s ideas are a mixture of Zen, Buddhism, and Taoism: Live in the Now. It’s no surprise in that Lee was looking for what was useful, not what was generally accepted in any one system. That’s not a bad thing, but I often had the sense that Lee was simply parroting the ideas of past masters and sages. Are these things he learned from books, or did he learn them through experience? Probably some of both. Many of Lee’s statements are derived from his own studies of various schools of philosophy and the martial arts, but in fact, a large number of them are copied directly from other sources. Ohara Publications has acknowledged Edwin Haislet, Hugo and James Castello, Roger Crosnier, and Julio Castello as several of the original sources for many of the quotes. After the book’s initial publication, additional passages were discovered to have been sourced from the works of D. T. Suzuki, Eric Hoffer, and other authors, sometimes in paraphrases. However, we have to realize that Lee did not intend these notes to be published, and they were expressions by others that he wrote down in his own words for his personal instruction. (1)
I found that many points Lee makes are arguable in one way or another, though these tended not to be the ideas that contained strictly martial material. As Linda Lee points out in her introduction, even Bruce wasn’t necessarily invested in some of these ideas, and they shouldn’t be taken as gospel. Had Lee lived to full maturity, maybe the statements that seem weak or like simple parroting might have matured into something deeper.
It is ironic that Lee’s dictum not to become the pattern one practices but rather a living, experiencing, aware being, is now overshadowed by the fact that this book is Lee’s philosophy fixed and set, with all its flaws, no less than his persona, which has become so iconic that it has been reduced to a cluster of photographic images.
I also must say that the disjointed and repetitive nature of the text frequently caused me to lose concentration after a few pages. I think this book is best taken in small doses rather than in long sessions. But to be fair, this is, after all, a collection of notes, not a finished work. However, don’t let that dissuade you from picking it up and perusing its pages. It is a worthwhile read by any martial artist, not just because of the author’s fame, but because it contains many truisms and gems of wisdom. There is a lot of good advice in this book, and while it might be profitably read by any martial artist, it probably is most useful to martial artists who engage in combat.
(1) “Tao of Jeet Kune Do.” Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/Tao_of_Jeet_Kune_Do)