For the average casual fan of Bruce Lee, he is known as an actor, martial arts movie star and a trend setter. For the purists and martial arts enthusiasts he is a revolutionary figure that broke the norms and traditional thinking of martial arts training and philosophy. Many people know about his art of Jeet Kune Do (translated into “way of the intercepting fist”) but for some reason it has not gained the same level of popularity as traditional Karate or Krav Maga despite having such a huge iconic founder in Bruce Lee.
It could be because of the confusion about what it is exactly or the infighting within its ranks and separate camps and fractions that have carried on since Bruce Lee’s death in 1973. When people talk about JKD, most don’t fully understand what it is and because Lee is not here to clarify anything for us, we are left with his notes/writings, interviews and personal first hand accounts and conversations with friends, family and students.
The topic of Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do is the subject of so much controversy over the years among the different groups of JKD practitioners that believe in different theories. Bruce had many different students during his time in the United States. While he attended the University of Washington in 1959 he taught a small group of students a form of Chinese Kung Fu called Wing Chun. Bruce only had 4 years of training with the renowned teacher Ip Man but Bruce was such a dedicated and diligent student he wanted to be the best. What he lacked in knowledge and experience, he more than made for in creativity. Bruce wanted to create a Chinese super system to beat all other styles of martial arts and he was hell bent on learning the other arts to find strengths and weaknesses in order to beat them.
Between the years of 1959 and 1964 he had created a system or Art called Jun Fan Gung Fu (Jun Fan is Bruce Lee’s Chinese name). The art had curriculum, techniques and was an established set system. It was less traditional than other traditional or classical arts at that time but was primarily Wing Chun based. From 1959-1964 he was continuing to expand his knowledge and understanding of combat so he kept researching other systems to find links and common threads. In 1964 Bruce was challenged to a fight at his school in Oakland by another martial artist who took offense to some of Bruce’s put downs of other styles and systems calling them BS. The fight was to have rules for safety but Bruce took it a step further and said “if you’re coming here to my school to challenge me then there are no rules”. The fight lasted three minutes and Bruce completely overwhelmed the man but shortly after the fight he was very upset and disgusted with his performance. Bruce felt that he should’ve put the guy away much sooner and he was amazed at how exhausted he was at the end. He also felt that his art and techniques were very limited and was not good enough for that kind of fight.
Bruce began to question his beliefs and understanding of the martial arts and wanted to start over from scratch. He began to revamp his training to be more like a boxer running, skipping rope, heavy back training, focus mitt training and sparring. He began to experiment with different diets and was lifting weights regularly to build strength and endurance. It was around this time that he was starting to privately train certain celebrities such as James Coburn, Steve McQeen, hairdresser Jay Sebring and more. He was teaching them his new method of fighting called Jeet Kune Do (way of the intercepting fist) which had a foundation in Wing Chun, Fencing and Boxing but also pulled from other sources as well.
In 1970 Bruce injured his back while performing a back exercise without properly warming up and was laid up in a bed for 6 months. For a person who was always on the move and hyper, this was very challenging for him. During this time he began to read a lot of self help books and philosophy. He really enjoyed reading about Jiddu Krishnamurti who at one time was chosen to be a world teacher but rejected the title and position. He walked away from it all. Krishnamurti was against the organization of religion arguing that religious doctrines and organizations stood in the way of real truth. “I maintain that truth is a pathless land and you cannot approach it by any religion. A belief is purely an individual matter and you cannot and must not organize it, if you do it becomes dead, crystallized, it becomes a creed a sect a religion to be imposed on others.” This had an enormous impact on Bruce. Was he not doing the same thing with his art of JKD? Did he create a crystallized product for his students and followers by having something that had a “way”?
So yet again he evolved and he began to speak about having the freedom to express yourself and to use what is unique and effective. To have no style so that you can fit in and adapt with any style, to be formless and shapeless like water (as he would say). He began to regret giving his art a name because the students could mistaken the curriculum to be the agenda or truth. He once said to one of his students Daniel Lee “when there is a way, there lies the limitation.
So to have a set way of doing things and to have a predetermined way, he believed that was very limited thinking and not free. He encouraged his students to find their truth which was outside of all fixed patterns and that the individual was more important than any established style or system. The idea was to research and train yourself to be versatile and able to fight in any position or any range. The art was also meant to be progressive meaning it was subject to change with the times and the person. The principals are what is important which are simplicity, directness and non-classical otherwise techniques would not be able to adapt.
So what is the conclusion? Since Bruce is not here with us it is difficult to say for sure but given what we know about Bruce and who he was and how he was in a constant state of change. It would be silly to think that JKD is supposed to stay the same and never grow. To me JKD is your own personal expression of the martial arts and that is going to be different for each person and that is the way it should be. JKD to me is just a name that I no longer carry with me because once I understood that it’s just a name and it should be discarded like a boat to cross the river, there is no need to carry the boat on your back once you hit the shore. I wish everyone well in their journey and hope that you have the courage to think freely and to question everything so that you can find your truth.
Nick is a certified Jun Fan/ Jeet Kune Do and Filipino martial arts instructor under Guro Dan Inosanto. He also teaches French Boxing, Muay Thai, western boxing and Wing Chun along with weaponry. He owns Allied martial arts academy in Detroit Michigan.