The Art of Kung Fu by Bruce Lee Told in Only Four Words
Teacher, martial artist, father, movie star. Bruce Lee was many things to many people. And while Lee is best remembered for physical prowess and mastery of the martial arts, he was also a remarkable thinker. Bruce Lee believed that the mind and the body were intrinsically linked. For the body to be powerful the mind must be as strong. Consequently, Bruce Lee’s philosophy sits at the heart of his martial arts.
People who knew Bruce Lee were often amazed by his discipline. He was entirely committed to keeping his body in peak physical condition. Bruce Lee was equally dedicated to learning and to applying what he learnt. Throughout his life, Bruce Lee kept a small notebook. In these notebooks, Lee, would be constantly taking notes and recording observations.
The result of that dedication to learning was a philosophy that was as unique and as impressive as his martial art Jeet Kune Do or his films. Unlike many academic philosophers, Bruce Lee’s thoughts are accessible to everyone. Bruce Lee frequently expressed his philosophy in simple aphorisms, that are equally brilliant and concise.
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 in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can drip and it can crash. Become like water my friend.
Bruce Lee lived at a time which was as turbulent socially and politically as the one we live in today. To our modern eyes an Asian martial artist appearing on television and film seems normal. But Bruce Lee was a cultural innovator who had to fight for every opportunity that he had. Before Lee had never been a leading Asian action star that had won over Western audiences. In fact, Bruce Lee was responsible for the entire boom in the martial arts mania. At the same time as being an outsider in Western culture, many in the eastern traditional Kung Fu community felt that he should not be sharing their secrets with westerners.
If Bruce Lee had lived in an inflexible way, the forces of such pressure could easily have seen him break. But instead Lee taught himself to act like water. He adapted to his external surroundings and become like them. While retaining his intrinsic essence, he had the flexibility to give way when necessary.
In the West, we often look down on the idea of compromise as a type of weakness. But Bruce Lee realised that adapting the way he presented his martial arts was essential to communicate them to film audience. The flashy and stylised martial arts moves he would often use on TV and film, were quite different to the compact and minimalist approach of Jeet Kune Do. But Lee understood that audiences respond well to a more dramatic visualization of Kung Fu.
The end result of this flexibility meant Lee achieved what might have seemed like impossible goals. Remember that the flow of water may twist and turn but it’s end destination is inevitable.
Adapt what is useful, reject what is useless, and add what is specifically your own.
In 1964 Bruce Lee migrated to the United States where he established an institute teaching Wing Chun. While running the institute, he was challenged by a famous Chinese kung Fu martial artist named Wong Jack Man. While he defeated Man in just three minutes, Lee was disappointed with the results of the match. He believed that the martial art that he had learnt was too restrictive.
This led him to develop his own style of martial art. At the heart of Jeet Kune Do is the idea that you should use what works and discard what does not. Bruce Lee looked at other styles of Kung Fu and saw overly formalised martial arts. He saw elements that had been handed down from generation to generation but were no longer useful. To win efficiently in combat martial artists should use what is most effective for that particular situation. They should not be restricted by any specific style that they have learnt. This belief goes beyond the martial arts and can be applied to any practice. It is about actively questioning what we learn and taking those things which are the most effective for achieving our goals.
If you always put limits on everything you do, physical or anything else, it will spread into your work and into your life. There are no limits. There are only plateaus, and you must not stay there, you must go beyond them.
John Little, a close friend and student of Bruce Lee, went on training runs with the martial arts master. Lee was forever pushing Little to go further and harder than he thought he could. At the time John Little could run 3 miles in about 22 minutes. One day Lee challenged Little to run 5 miles at the same speed. When Little got to the fourth mile he literally thought he was about to die his heart was pounding so hard. When he told Lee he had two simple words for him “then die”. The sharpness of Lee’s words made little so angry that he completed the run.
When they were resting later after the run he asked Lee why he had said such harsh words. Lee replied that if you start to place limits on yourself it spreads to every element of your life including your work and your morality. He told Little that you must constantly be moving beyond what you think that you can do. Lee’s life embodied this philosophy. Bruce Lee constantly pushed his limits by performing physical acts that would seem impossible.
It is not a daily increase, but a daily decrease. Hack away at the inessentials.
The idea that we grow through subtraction seems counterintuitive. But for Bruce Lee removing the unnecessary was essential for success. We can see this in his martial art Jeet Kune Do. One of the core principles of Jeet Kune Do is economy of motion. Practitioners of this martial art seek to minimise their movement and to not waste time. An attack should be efficient, hitting its target with the maximal amount of force in the minimum amount of time.
When Bruce Lee looked at previous martial arts styles he was examining them for what he could cut away. He was like a surgeon looking to remove the dead parts of the martial arts which reduced their effectiveness. Good martial arts Bruce Lee believed was simple not ornamental. Again, this philosophy doesn’t apply just to the martial arts. Many of us try to do more in order to be successful and achieve our goals. Instead we might be better served to find what we can remove which is currently stopping us from becoming what we want to be.
Bruce Lee’s teachings are a gift not only to martial artists but to anyone who wants to better themselves. They come from a person who faced continuing adversity, but who through a dedication to learning and a willingness to apply those lessons, overcame these challenges and inspired millions.