November 27, 2009
In 1963, BRUCE LEE (1940-73), an immigrant from Hong Kong who’d been studying philosophy at the University of Washington in Seattle, dropped out in order to teach the Chinese art of kung fu. Impatient with the confines of traditional martial arts styles, Lee borrowed freely from various forms of combat, including fencing, boxing, and wrestling, as well as from Zen and Taoist philosophy, not to mention Baruch Spinoza, and developed a philosophy and fighting method appropriate to the postmodern era. Forget his subsequent career as a TV actor (The Green Hornet, 1966-67) and movie star (three films made at Hong Kong’s Golden Harvest studio; 1973’s Enter the Dragon, which was supposed to herald his return to Hollywood; and the posthumously released Game of Death). Lee’s major accomplishment was Jeet Kune Do, “The Method of the Intercepting Fist” — so named because the JKD practitioner strikes back before her opponent has finished throwing a punch. (How? According to one of his celebrity clients, James Coburn, Lee taught “bridging the gap,” a mode in which “you and your opponent are one — not divided.”) JKD is always also a “work of enlightenment,” according to Lee, who sounds like a hilobrow (in The Tao of Jeet Kune Do) when he criticizes other Eastern and Western philosophies and fighting techniques: “The physically bound go for puffing and straining and miss the delicate way; the intellectually bound go for idealism and exotics and lack efficiency and actually seeing realities.” Though he did recruit disciples from rival martial arts schools (by beating them in fights; he even baptized a few converts by kicking them into swimming pools), Lee wasn’t interested in being a guru. “Truth,” according to the precepts of JKD, is “relationship with the opponent; constantly moving, living, never static.” Rigid belief systems/combat styles are therefore to be eschewed — because “styles require adjustment, partiality, denials, condensation, and a lot of self-justification.” The “way” of Jeet Kune Do, Lee insisted, is “no way.”
A longer version of this essay originally appeared in Hermenaut #10.
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