YOU ARE NOT BRUCE LEE: The identity crises of Jeet Kune Do

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If you are a true Jeet Kune Do practitioner, you are most likely a free thinker, a cerebral person, someone who seeks truth, a passive philosopher and a person who is in constant pursuit of personal and physical growth. Well if you are that pursuer of excellence then you are also pushing boundaries. When one pushes boundaries we often put ourselves in vulnerable positions to truly experience the bottom of the empty cup, so to speak. At least that’s what everyone keeps telling themselves. But do Jeet Kune Do practitioners put those philosophical precepts to work, or are they just imitating ideas and idols from a past time?

The first issue surrounding the identity crises of JKD, is the perception of it’s founder. The problem is that people have made a deity of Bruce Lee. JKD people continually speak on Bruce as if he were Jesus Christ himself. Not in terms of being the savior of the world of course, but rather, what Bruce said or did is considered “gospel”. And, just as the religious deity figures of the world; there are people who spend time dissecting and analyzing context and content in a argumentative and philosophical frenzy, when it comes to Bruce Lee.

The first generation Bruce Lee students were the curators and everyone else is building the museum, filling it with quotes and analyzing whether the lead foot should only have 30% body weight placed on it during stance or not. Bruce Lee expressly wrote about not doing any of this. It wasn’t about him or the name, according to him. Yet here we are looking at the messenger as if he himself was the message.

I often ask my “museum” JKD friends, “what was or when do you think Bruce Lee had his greatest epiphany/discovery?”. Much like kids who are excited to know more than the smaller kids, they immediately say with confidence, “The famous fight against Won Jak man!“. This is where the true insight to move Jun Fan to JKD came from, so they tell me. Now this is where it gets fun. Bruce was able to look into his training and that actual fight and analyze where he went wrong, make corrective actions, then train it. Sounds like the free thinker who pursues excellence we talked about earlier. And we know this because he left us his notes. Now, many people choose to view those notes and writings as instructions or commandments that were written in stone, however, I prefer to view them as reflections. (Re:The reflections of Marcus Aurelius)

  1. Research your own experiences

  2. Absorb what is useful

  3. Reject what is useless

  4. Add what is specifically your own

Perfect! So that’s what Bruce did after this fight, and subsequently after serious training. And out of this 1-4 process, (because that’s what it is, a process, not a product) he was able to construct a system by which he found worked on and through a progression of processes and principles, for him.

  • He categorically prescribed 5 methods of attacking someone.(What)

  • He then determined that hitting them during their preparation to hit him was the very best time to hit them. (When)

  • He then created a curriculum around these principles; consisting of tool development, attribute development and conditioning. (How)

No big secret here. If your reading this as a JKD person you may think that perhaps I have over simplified it or somehow I have not have spoken highly enough about Bruce Lee. But nothing could be further from the truth. I am merely showing you what you don’t know inside what you already do know and now only have one question. Where is your Jeet Kune Do?

So JKD is what Bruce came up with for himself. By his own words he said “research your experience”. Yet, what I have seen for so many years is everyone cheating. Copying off of Bruce’s homework, so to speak. Instead of everyone doing their own research, they are going off of what Bruce said about his experience. Your not adding what is yours.Your only doing what he did and not what he said. No doubt the writings of Bruce are elegant and prophetic in nature, but all of his writings were meant to be the finger pointing the way and not the destination itself.

A guy by the name of Dan Inosanto understood this and used “his” own research for “his” JKD. This is why you see elements and arts of Kali, Muay Tai, Silat and Jujitsu. So, now, just as with Bruce, there are many people doing JKD under Dan Inosanto who are copying his homework and stuffing their JKD bag with another’s research.

This gives rise to the second problem, context. Up to this point you are basing your fighting system or style off of someone else’s experience. And that experience was from 50 years ago. Oh, and that person only had one actual well known fight from which he pulled his research and data from. (Linda Lee claims he was in several altercations but we don’t see any great enlightenment from those.) Everyone seems to use Bruce Lee movie scenes and recreations of what he did in those movies to assess their own JKD. So, if you look like or move like Bruce did, then that somehow meant you were good at Jeet Kune Do. Some people still walk around in clothes from China circa early 1900’s. But the reality is, even for Bruce, the context was two martial art guys fighting in the 1960’s on technical differences surrounding fighting and ego’s. Today demands that we look at the context of self-defense in today’s world to find our own JKD.

What would my life have to look like that I found myself in a stick fight with someone else with the same type of weapon? Am I at home? Do I carry double sticks around with me? Context is important. It is the exact variable that drives today’s relevance to self-defense and martial arts. What violence means to a single mother is different than a 20 year old male at college. And what violence means to father of two working the weekends as a bouncer looks different than it does to any other person walking through your door for life saving lessons. All of these people, in today’s world, would need to be taught different tools, in different situations and should look nothing like Bruce or his movies. That is if they are doing their JKD correct.

“Jeet Kune Do can be taught, but you would be losing it when you start to standardize it, because everyone is individual. what Bruce Lee did, nobody, can do.” Dan Inosanto.

Now truth be told, this is how most of us learn. We are passed down generational information and experience. It’s the experiences of my predecessors that give me a better understanding of reference/context for my own journey. So yes we all use the experiences of others when we learn. But we should never stay there. Bruce wrote extensively about the freedom of the individual and the human expressions. But wait. “How do I move forward with my own experience?”, you ask. Simple, you just need an enemy.

The biggest issue concerning this identity crisis for JKD comes from having no “other”. The enemy is your other. It is your accountability, your purpose, your compass. And it can’t be another martial artist attempting to use Bruces JKD against yours. You can’t train to beat someone doing your style! That will only cancel you out and pull you further from the classification of “reality based”. Without an enemy you are not a warrior. Martial arts is about problem solving and another martial artists isn’t going to be your problem. You must find your other. For me and my company, we use violence as our other. I have participated in and studied violence from every possible aspect/angle, and then some. And just as any mma fighter or sports team, I continually research video and strategies of my opponent/enemy. Without an “other”, you will not be able to confirm that a move works or validate your own ability. The enemy should always pull you back into the changing and challenging world of reality. Without it, you will become just another comic book martial artist, who’s comfort zone is with other artists just like you stuck in Live Action Role Playing and not reality.

I feel that many think because they haven’t gone out and gotten into bar fights or had a life of crime that they have no experience to research. Paul Vunak had once told a group of us that the Navy Seals didn’t need to go to war to know whether or not they where one of the best resources for that kind of stuff because their training methods were the closest to reality that you could get (in the context for which they were needed for). You may have to go find a guy who has been locked up. You may have to go to a criminal or mentally unstable person. And of course the regular stable of boxers and sport folks.

You have to know your enemy to portray your enemy. Have your tribe be able to simulate the same energy, tools, strategies and tactics of that of your enemy. Now you have the other. Now, you must train that same material with aliveness, adaptability and emotional content! At this point you can go back and research your experience. Maybe because you didn’t tell that person to block, (and violence never gives you a parry/block) you became unable to trap? Maybe that person didn’t pull you into his/her guard, but choose to kick you in the head. Perhaps that person didn’t have a right lead. Whatever your conclusions are and whatever your adjustments may be, they are yours! You are now doing your JKD.

You must always be able to validate, confirm and affirm that what you do will actually work! This is just good training and it is accomplished through the absence of compliance, but at the same time, is not necessarily force on force. Either way, whether or not you use wing chun or introduce firearms into your JKD training shouldn’t be because of what Bruce said, but rather your own experience. If what Bruce Lee said led you to better understand and seek out your own experiences, then i’m sure, to such a legacy any man or woman would be honored.

Letting go is hard because being vulnerable is hard because uncertainty is hard. But in order to fortify your own skill you have to stand in front of someone without any foreknowledge of their actions, skill or intent. Train for life.

In my humble opinion, if we are to honor the contributions of Bruce Lee, who was iconic in every way possible, we aught to expand on his principles and explore them to their fullest. He believed that we would be smarter for learning on our own. That we would become a more developed individual and therefore a more conscious society if we had better knowledge of the processes that make us great and undertake them, with courage and in spite of fear. It is always easy to copy someone else and most of the times its needed as a reference. But only do it until it frees you! Golden chains are chains none the less. Your relationship with the other represents your relationship with your own limitations. Now, strive to express yourself and not be a copy.


Michael VanBeek