Bruce Lee - Martial Arts Genius; But Were All His Ideas New?

Bruce Lee was an exceptionally accomplished and talented martial artist. He was also very influential in popularising martial arts in the West, as well as making people already training in martial arts question what they were doing. I have a huge respect for Bruce, but in all honesty, I can’t go along with the almost God like reverence that some people hold him in. He is often quoted in a way that suggests his word should be the final word on all things martial arts. But there are many very senior and knowledgeable masters out there who know just as much, yet have a different approach. There is always more than one route. Also, many of the things that Bruce Lee taught was common philosophy in the East, but he was just the first Asian master to open up that philosophy to the West (or at least, the first who had a media following to reach the wider public).

One of his famous quotes,“you must be shapeless, formless, like water. When you pour water in a cup, it becomes the cup. When you pour water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. When you pour water into a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can drip and it can crash. Become like water my friend”. The idea of being like water has long since been part of Buddhist philosophy. Bruce Lee may have been one of the first to specifically talk about it with reference to martial arts, but the Buddhists had long since being saying that about ALL facets of life (including martial arts).

Bruce Lee criticised other styles as being too focused on classical form; being to rigid and stylised in their movements. In fairness a lot of the martial arts, especially at that time, had been dumbed down a lot. My own primary style of Shotokan Karate was one of the worst offenders, having deviated far from its Okinawan routes. So yes, much of what was being taught at that time (and still is today) was a bit rigid and stylised. But if you look at Gichin Funakoshi’s 20 Precepts, one states, “beginners must master low stances and posture, natural body positions are for the advanced”. Or to put it another way, we emphasise form as a beginner to learn body mechanics and structure, but we become more formless (like water) as we become advanced.

Another of Funakoshi’s precepts says “practising kata is one thing, engaging is a real fight is another”. Again, to put it another way, accuracy and form is important during solo practice of kata, but be more formless when it a real fight. However, a lot of Funakoshi’s precepts were given lip service, yet not really internalised by many Karate practitioners. This is true for many today as it was in Bruce Lee’s time.

So again with no disrespect to Bruce Lee, his philosophy of being formless was not new. But also in fairness, this was not the way it was being taught in many Japanese martial art schools; so Bruce’s observations were probably correct as to how many martial arts we being taught after being dumbed down, but not correct as to their original Okinawan way of being taught. I would imagine it was a similar situation in China. Originally (with the exception of the Shaolin temples) Kung Fu would have probably been taught is very small groups or kept secret within the family. The full system would have been taught. But as schools later become businesses teaching larger groups, only the favoured few would have been taught everything and much would have been held back, just as the Okinawans did to the Japanese!

Another popular quote from Bruce Lee is “absorb what is useful, discard what is not, and add what is uniquely your own”. Okinawan martial arts long before that had the phrase Shu-Ha-Ri.
Shu is to learn the basics and principles from your master.
Ha is to adapt it to your own your own body type and environment (somebody working as a policeman would have a different environment and needs to a young mother)!
Ri is transcend your master and move on.

The Ha and the Ri in particular are not so different from “absorb what is useful, discard what is not, and add what is uniquely your own”.

This is why I often inwardly cringe slightly when somebody starts a sentence with “Bruce Lee said . . . . . . . . . . . . “, especially when they’re trying to tell me that I’m doing something wrong!

Then we come to Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do. This is what Bruce Lee said of Jeet Kune Do:-

“I have not invented a “new style,” composite, modified or otherwise that is set within distinct form as apart from “this” method or “that” method. On the contrary, I hope to free my followers from clinging to styles, patterns, or molds. Remember that Jeet Kune Do is merely a name used, a mirror in which to see “ourselves”. . . Jeet Kune Do is not an organized institution that one can be a member of. Either you understand or you don’t, and that is that. There is no mystery about my style. My movements are simple, direct and non-classical. The extraordinary part of it lies in its simplicity. Every movement in Jeet Kune Do is being so of itself. There is nothing artificial about it. I always believe that the easy way is the right way. Jeet Kune Do is simply the direct expression of one’s feelings with the minimum of movements and energy. The closer to the true way of Kung Fu, the less wastage of expression there is. Finally, a Jeet Kune Do man who says Jeet Kune Do is exclusively Jeet Kune Do is simply not with it. He is still hung up on his self-closing resistance, in this case anchored down to reactionary pattern, and naturally is still bound by another modified pattern and can move within its limits. He has not digested the simple fact that truth exists outside all molds; pattern and awareness is never exclusive. Again let me remind you Jeet Kune Do is just a name used, a boat to get one across, and once across it is to be discarded and not to be carried on one’s back”.

Again, the idea of using Jeet Kune Do as a boat to get across then discarding it is not so different to Funakoshi’s precepts above. Beginners use low stances then “discard” them as they advance. We learn Kata (patterns/forms) very precisely then “discard” the preciseness in a real fight! As discussed in my last post on 5 Reasons Why There Is No Best Martial Art, many traditional arts start with precise techniques that teach principles of body mechanics and structures; what Bruce Lee called “classical” form. Then they learn how to apply these principles in a sensible and practical way. I’ll be the first to admit that many traditional martial art schools/associations focus on the techniques and principles of movement, but never learn to apply them is a sensible way. Form over function. That is why Bruce Lee derided them so much.

His own approach to Jeet Kune Do though was in some ways similar to the more modern Krav Maga; and that is to go straight into the practical application without studying “classical” technique first. As discussed in the last post, I believe that this is very good for making rapid progress and becoming more effective in a shorter space of time. However, I believe that traditional martial arts that do the “classical” route of learning technique and principles of movement/structure first may take longer to learn but can take the practitioner further in the long term. It should be noted that Bruce Lee (and his top guy, Dan Inosanto) studied classical martial arts for many years before evolving into the more freestyle Jeet Kune Do.

Ironically though, I have heard of a Jeet Kune Do association that is very controlling over the clubs/instructors within that association. What can and what can’t be taught is strictly controlled by the hierarchy. By tightly controlling what can/can’t be taught, they are condensing it into a new style, set and distinct from other arts; which Bruce Lee specifically said that it is not. They are not allowing people to add anything useful, or to reject what is not useful and certainly not allowing them to add what is uniquely their own! Bruce Lee’s name is still so influential in martial arts circles that just invoking his name adds a certain amount of credibility to anybody claiming to be teaching his system. However, this also means that using his name can be big business. I have met several Jeet Kune Do practitioners who have a very condescending attitude to other martial arts. Again, not saying all, just some. But surely that very attitude is in conflict with Bruce Lee’s own philosophy, as he studied any martial art that he could.

Within the Karate world, I’ve come across some single style associations that act in a similar way. They have set applications (which largely wouldn’t work) and ways of doing things and stick to them religiously. I have heard that some Taekwondo associations are the same, but that is outside of my experience. Multi style associations are different as by their very nature they cover more than one approach. That’s why I chose an association that gives me a lot of autonomy. That way, I can add what is useful, disregard what is not (and there is a lot which is not useful taught in some mainstream Karate associations) and I can add what is uniquely my own!

Bruce was definitely right about many things. But much of his philosophy was not as new and unique as it was made out to be and those that teach in his name and use his name are far from having a monopoly on his ideas. We can (and should) all apply it to our own arts!



Multiply your effectiveness with more impact for less effort and where to hit for best effect.

Bonus: Historical look at Bassai Dai, one of Karate’s most pivotal katas




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *