Bruce Lee's JKD, the "Original Mixed Martial Art" ?
by Mark Stewart
Although the Gracie family of Brazil successfully transplanted BJJ and Vale Tudo to the world via the UFC many in the greater martial arts community also credit Bruce Lee’s philosophy of “not being bound" by any particular style of martial art, as the seed of today’s Mixed Martial Arts Movement. MMA Superstars, Frank Shamrock and Randy Couture consider Bruce as the "Father" of MMA and Dana White (President of the UFC) has crowned Bruce Lee as the inspiration and original martial artist in mainstream America, who trained like an MMA fighter and taught the teachings of MMA, way before the UFC was even thought of.
In 1959 an 18 year old Bruce Lee moved from Hong Kong to the U.S. and eventually attended the University of Seattle, where he majored in philosophy. There he began the journey of creating his own personal martial art. Around 1967 he named his method Jeet Kune Do (JKD) or “way of the intercepting fist". In 1970 he returned to Hong Kong to make movies and unexpectedly passed away in 1973. Posthumously Lee became a superstar worldwide, revolutionized the world of modern martial arts and continues to inspire martial artists today.
Research and Development
While in Hong Kong Lee studied “Wing Chun", a style of Chinese Gung Fu. According to many, early on Lee’s goal was to be the best wing chun man around. However, Lee was already researching different styles of MA and was highly influenced by other Chinese Styles, Western Boxing and Western Fencing. When Lee moved to the U.S. he also began to research Judo, Jiu Jitsu and Wrestling. Lee’s research entailed both book/film research as well as hands on experience. This “hands on" experience was usually accomplished through exchanging his knowledge of Gung Fu with practitioners of a different styles willing to compare notes and experiment outside of their system.
Bruce Lee felt that a real fight was unpredictable and that most classical styles emphasized “dead patterns" instead of live and spontaneous training. Lee believed that combative sports such as boxing and judo were practiced more realistically than most classical systems. Why? They made real impact and they practiced live training and not dead patterns. Lee also came to the conclusion the MA was Universal and that “unless there is a being with more than two arms and two legs, that there is only one style of fighting, the human style." So, Lee conceptualized martial art as a whole and embarked upon a scientific course. Not one that blended styles but one that was born of the idea of non-style, geometry and physics. One as he described as “simple, direct and non-classical" (functional). In a sense Lee’s JKD is a martial art with no rules that is practiced like a combative sport with real impact (full contact) and live training. This approach was very revolutionary during the time of its creation and is still quite rare in contrast to the many classical martial arts schools of today.
At the same time that Lee was creating his martial art he was also very much into philosophy. One source of philosophy was Zen Buddhism. One of the primary tenants of Buddhism is detachment or more clearly, non-attachment. The tenant of non-attachment can be a paradox for most. However for Bruce Lee it may have been the perfect vehicle of understanding (enlightenment) that he needed to create his Jeet Kune Do. While non-attachment is a mental state, non-engagement is its physical counterpart. In the sense of fighting attachment or engagement imputes struggle. So with non-engagement through the use of physical science, our goal is non-struggle or to fight with the least amount of struggle. Actually this theory is nothing new and can be found in styles such as aikido, tai chi and jiu jitsu/judo.
JKD however is the way of the intercepting fist and seeks to end the fight as quickly as possible through striking. In JKD engagement is any touch reference other than the strike itself. So ours is a very aggressive form of non-engagement which is a paradox to most but the "true vehicle" of understanding and expressing JKD. JKD primarily emphasizes stepping and evading to strike (without prior touch) and secondarily deflecting, trapping and grappling to strike (with prior touch). For decades following Bruce Lee’s death JKD was promoted as the concept of cross training and doing your own thing. This view of JKD gave birth to the creation of many “freestyles" and “hybrids" throughout the world. Not a bad thing but not JKD. Bruce Lee clearly researched the totality of martial art, which includes striking and grappling both standing up and on the ground. But because Lee found that the “height of cultivation lead to simplicity" and that non-engagement is the height of that simplicity, JKD is a scientific vehicle of expressing simplicity in the chaos of fighting. Lee was also an actor and had the ability to use the screen to get some of his ideas across, like in the opening scene of “Enter the Dragon", with Samo Hung, Lee clearly illustrates his interest in the idea of the “complete fighter". (kicking, punching, take downs and submissions) But what does complete mean? And complete at what cost? These are important questions for each individual martial artist seeking totality.
Mixed Martial Arts
The distinction between fighting and any combative sport is that it has rules and a real fight does not. However in a civilized world, a fighter with morals needs a place to play - seriously. Mixed Martial Arts is the perfect arena for such serious play. Is MMA the evolution of combative sports that Lee envisioned through his martial art so many years ago? “Partially so". Lee directly and indirectly, during and after his life affected so many martial artists.
Has MMA evolved to Lee’s simple and pragmatic approach? As MMA has evolved as a sport so has its strategy and it’s players. In the beginning, in events such as the UFC, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Players and Wrestlers dominated the arena against classical strikers who never trained to (en) counter grappling. Today’s MMA athletes are mostly “well rounded" fighters in the realms of striking and grappling both standing up and on the ground. However the majority of athletes do not struggle as much as their founding fathers did. Controlling distance to strike and avoid take downs, seeking dominant position to strike and getting up off the ground quickly have become the strategy of the new fighters. Why is this true? Because “the height of cultivation leads to simplicity". Why struggle when you don’t have to?
Real impact and live training are the hallmarks of JKD and may be applied in the arenas of Self Defense as well as Combative Sports. Competition is a great arena to test yourself and is much safer than the street. And as you win and lose remember that you are your own best friend as well as your own worst enemy and that your most apparent strength is also your most apparent weakness. These are the tenants of yin/yang that Lee chose so well to symbolize his martial art both physically and philosophically.
MMA has come a long way and is here to stay. Whether ones “foundation" is striking or grappling, stand up or ground fighting, the plain and simple truth is that you need to be exposed to all possibilities. How you deal with them will be based upon the foundation you choose and a working knowledge of the rest.
"Martial arts and philosophy have much to teach each other"
by Jeff Tkachuk
Preparing for a street fight, which in all likelihood will never take place, is like preparing for life; the worst case scenario rarely happens, especially when we plan for it, but this does not render our preparations futile.
“My life has been full of terrible misfortunes most of which never happened.”- Michel de Montaigne
Though we must suffer much pain on account of the evils that never transpire, the trick is to make sure that these are growing pains and not futile suffering or impotent despair. If it were not for this truth, the practice of martial arts would be rather silly; an enormous expenditure of time, blood, and sweat, likely resulting in more pain and injury that would result from all of one’s actual physical altercations combined. As it happens, however, the martial arts offer a huge variety of benefits, most of which are entirely eclipsed by the obvious ones like building confidence, health, strength, and self-discipline. While these are all very important, they simply pale in comparison to the virtues that can be obtained through proper martial arts training. The street fight is a surprisingly apt metaphor for life in general and the preparation for this unlikely event can lay the groundwork for much wisdom that is otherwise difficult to come by and hard to keep.
Anyone who has witnessed a few street fights can attest to the fact that it is nothing like the romantic version seen on the silver screen, but instead looks sloppy, frantic, and downright undignified. There is rarely a clear “winner” and if there is he likely has a few broken knuckles and a hospital bill to show for his triumph. The truth about fighting is far from romantic: regardless of your physique or level of skill there is simply no guarantee of success in a street fight, there is no “perfect defense” that will render you impervious to assault, rarely is a street fight a “fair” contest, one will certainly have to “take his lumps,” and there is usually no “winner” to glorify. So it goes for life as well: there is no “winning,” as none of us are getting out alive, there are no guarantees or perfect certainty to be had, there is no “perfect strategy” that will render one impervious to the slings and arrows of time, few of us retain our dignity to the end, and life will certainly not be fair or just. Much can be gained from looking at life like this.
1) The best defense is a good offense, which must be launched with a leap of faith in the face of uncertainty:
Many of us grow up with the fantasy that securing a black belt will allow us to calmly block and parry any attack as we dance around our befuddled attackers with smug confidence in our impenetrable defense. The truth of the matter, unfortunately, is that there is no way to cover every significant target on your body at any given time and it is a huge mistake to simply give your opponent the initiative and react to his offense with nothing but defense. As William James reminds us, “Action may not bring happiness but there is no happiness without action.” Life requires engagement and it will not suffice simply to avoid dangers or dodge shame. In a fight this means that you are going to have to throw a strike or two, which requires you to cross the no-man’s land between you, to “close the distance” with a decisive movement that must be launched without a perfect assurance of success. There are of course ways to improve your odds dramatically, but ultimately every opponent still has a “punchers chance,” and paradoxically, the untrained opponent has more of one than the trained fighter due to the unpredictable nature of his technically flawed striking. And so it is with life, as William James reminds us: “It is only by risking our persons from one hour to another that we live at all. And often enough our faith beforehand in an uncertified result is the only thing that makes the result come true.” This leap of faith requires that one accept the possibility of defeat. “Neurosis is the inability to tolerate ambiguity,” Freud tells us, and here the martial arts can help by simply forcing us to face uncertainty and ambiguity with decisive action–a superb antidote that builds a healthy tolerance. Bruce Lee taught that to accept the inevitability of one’s death was to become liberated from it. Once we accept the things that are out of our control, we are free to concentrate on what is within our control without needless distraction. Only when we have honestly faced such things will we have true courage, which Plato tells us is “knowing what not to fear.”
2) The stupidity of self-reproach and the wisdom of pragmatism and humility
“Never yield to remorse, but at once tell yourself: remorse would simply mean adding to the first act of stupidity a second.” The Wanderer and his Shadow. -Nietzsche
One of the best lessons that I have learned from martial arts is that self-reproach is entirely counter-productive in the world of action. It is only appropriate after the fact, in calm reflection with the aim of self-knowledge, if it is ever any use at all. When punches are whizzing past your chin it is simply a waste of time to lament any of your mistakes. Doing so would be, as Nietzsche tells us above, adding a second mistake to the first. This is not to say that one should banish all fears from ones mind along with all knowledge of one’s mistakes. Having awareness of a fear or having knowledge of a mistake are invaluable pieces of information–it is hasty judgments based on them that prove harmful. In this regard fear and self-reproach are like hallucinations. “A hallucination is a fact, not an error; what is erroneous is a judgment based upon it,” Bertrand Russell tells us. One should remain still and refrain from grasping while his fears and mistakes float past him, begging to be indulged. Placing them entirely out of mind is simply foolhardy and reckless, but indulging them with a moment of despair or self-reproach is more reckless still. One should allow all fears and all possibilities their rightful voice, but never let them control you or try to completely control them. James tells us that wisdom is knowing what to overlook, and quite often our fears and shortfalls can easily be overlooked without causing us peril, as long as we gave them a token glance.
The upside of the fact stated above about there being no perfect defense is that conversely there is always at least one opening in your opponents guard. While one should be seeking to exploit these openings, ultimately it doesn’t always matter so much that you throw the perfect strike for the situation, as long as you are doing something! Freezing with indecision is death in a street fight. ‘Analysis paralysis’ is a slow death in the fight of our lives. One of my instructors used to always say, “when in doubt…HIT!” Quite often the “wrong” strike ends up hitting a good target by accident, as Fortune, though blind, will usually favor the person who takes the initiative. No happiness without action! “If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise,” William Blake tells us. This takes great humility to put into practice, however. Furthermore, quite often what one learns as the “right” technique for a given situation is not always the best solution, and thus one should always remain open to new information, ever ready to capitalize on unexpected opportunities, placing more emphasis on “what works” than on performing the “perfect” textbook maneuver. A scientific pragmatism should govern one’s training, with Occum’s razor chiseling away adipose technique each day to reveal the smooth stone edifice of practical skill. This requires great humility, as we all would ideally like to rest easy on a plateau of competence that we don’t have to question anymore.
3) The virtues of forgetting and self-overcoming
Thankfully, however, there are plateau’s of competence that can be programmed into muscle memory instead of kept in view at all times. As in many “performance” arts like music or tennis, self-consciousness is actually a huge hindrance to successful execution. One may recall the line about “too many mind” in the movie “The Last Samurai.” Schopenhauer articulates this point nicely:
“Life presents itself first and foremost as a task: the task of maintaining itself, de gagner sa vie. If this task is accomplished, what has been gained is a burden, and there then appears a second task: that of doing something with it so as to ward off boredom, which hovers over every secure life like a bird of prey. Thus the first task is to gain something and the second to become unconscious of what has been gained, which is otherwise a burden.”
This truth about life applies even more aptly to fighting. Paradoxically, the more “correct” techniques that one learns, the more possibilities he must sort through before making a decision, to say nothing of the added anxiety that is produced by the responsibility endemic to vaguely knowing the “correct answer” to each question or problem. Thus, the first task of learning how to fight is actually a burden until one accomplishes the second task, that of promptly forgetting what one has learned, forgetting ones self, and simply trusting his newly updated instincts. This second task requires that one stamp each technique into muscle memory such that they happen “all by themselves,” automatically, instead of requiring conscious thought. Conscious thought should not be banished entirely, but should be relegated to processing the holistic picture–the overview. This is a difficult balance to strike. As Ernest Becker tells us,
“Beyond a given point man is not helped by more ‘knowing,’ but only by living and doing in a partly self-forgetful way. As Goethe put it, we must plunge into experience and then reflect on the meaning of it. All reflection and no plunging drives us mad; all plunging and no reflection, and we are brutes.”
There is certainly another element of “faith” in this process, which is at the root of the promise that martial arts will give one self-confidence. It is not just that one has faith in the techniques he has learned, but that he also has faith in himself–in his ability to make certain demands of himself and see them well met. “I count him braver who overcomes his desires than him who overcomes his enemies,” Aristotle proclaims. One quickly learns that in fighting, one is actually fighting himself much more than he is fighting his opponent. The art is to learn how to fight yourself as little as possible; to free yourself from internal conflict, which is not always solved by mere acceptance. Self-acceptance and tolerance are not the apogee of self-love. Much of life requires us to overcome ourselves, and then having succeeded, to overcome our very success. Regarding the latter, Nietzsche reminds us that “Many are stubborn in pursuit of the path they have chosen, few in pursuit of the goal.”
Once technique has become second nature, one relies much more on his whole self instead of the self of conscious reflection–one relies on his daimon or genius, which seems to come screaming into awareness from parts unknown instead of from the predictable realms of conscious deliberation. As Rollo May tells us, “to be guided by your daimon requires a fundamental humility.” In a fight one has to “let it all hang out,” to see what he is “really made of,” and essentially, to see how talented his daimon is without trying to force creativity from it, which is a fool’s errand. The daimon comes from one’s imagination, and as David Hume tells us, “It is a certain rule that wit and passion are entirely incompatible. When the affections are moved, there is no place for the imagination.” Thus, getting pissed off during a fight is usually a pretty bad idea, as you indulge your emotions instead of partitioning that precious conscious bandwidth for holistic movements of imagination. One must be humble enough to let go of that anger so that he may hear his body, his imagination, and thus experience what James calls “‘pure experience,’” which is “the name I gave to the immediate flux of life which furnishes the material to our later reflection with its conceptual categories.” We must keep quiet if we are to see all of this valuable material in our moments of “pure experience;” moments in which we paradoxically might find something rather peaceful about combat in the oneness of our body and mind.
4) Learning ‘care’ from violence
The same humility is required in all forms of love, in which we cannot force our whole self to feel this way or that, to be moved or swept away, but can only get out of our daimons way and see what happens. One can learn quite a lot about loving oneself by training for a fight. For example, one is very likely to learn the following truth from Schopenhauer: “The greatest of follies is to sacrifice health for any other kind of happiness.” Anyone who has trained hard has known injury, and this valuable experience helps regulate any hubris or blood-lust that might result from the routine demonstration of one’s martial prowess. One will also learn about his own aggressive drives and how his own anger, pride, and ambition are not always the monsters they are made out to be, if properly handled. As James puts it, “The world is all the richer for having a devil in it, so long as we keep our foot upon his neck.” This art of measured self-acceptance is a big component to healthy self-love. However, learning to fight teaches you even more about how to properly love other people.
If the reader will please forgive a seemingly inappropriate sexual reference, he will find a key insight about love and violence in the analysis of a curious feature of human sexuality: the ‘love bite.’ The logic behind the ‘love bite’ that often accompanies frenzied sexual passion has much less to do with domination or intimidation, although the prospect of a little fear is used to heighten awareness a little, and much more to do, paradoxically, with care. It is a demonstration of tension and frustration, as well as the willingness to inflict a little pain, but this is hardly the point. The point is to demonstrate how carefully attuned you are to the other person’s body despite one’s tension or frustration, by inflicting just enough pain to elicit some fear, but not enough to actually cause harm. This proves the connection between your souls in a way that pleasurable gestures cannot. In this principle lies the source of our pleasure in play fighting, be it with humans or with animals. When you playfully rough house with the family dog, the point isn’t to “win,” but to apply violence with such measured and careful attention to the others health that no actual harm comes to either party. It is a wonderful affirmation of the bond between owner and pet when the family pit bull gently latches on to your arm, biting down just hard enough to keep the illusion of a conflict alive, but also demonstrating his love and care for you by failing to draw blood. This kind of play is invaluable both for self-knowledge and for knowledge of the other. It is a stress test of the bonds of affection. Moreover, it gives one a visceral and immediate experience of one’s moral sentiments. Accidentally hurting the family dog, or your sparring partner, or your lover, gives one an experience of moral truth that will trump many an ethics lecture. In fact, “moral reasoning” is focused on far too much in my opinion, when the problem has much more to do with a lack of real moral experiences than with failures to reason about them.
“It is not by reason alone that wars can be prevented, but by a positive life of impulses and passions antagonistic to those that lead to war. It is the life of impulse that needs to be changed, not only the life of conscious thought.” Bertrand Russell
Martial arts simply provides the best way of training one’s impulses and passions so as to be antagonistic to war. Not only does one realize where he stands in the physical pecking order and satisfy his morbid curiosities, which then lose their control over him, but he also educates his passions and realizes that he doesn’t actually enjoy hurting people. He can then enjoy the competition, the challenge, and a taste of fear without relishing the kill. Violence nearly always springs from powerlessness or impotence. This is why “arming” ones self can lead to peace. One is not armed in order to create a balance of power or “armed peace,” but instead so that he may become capable of “Rendering oneself un-armed when one has been the best armed, out of a height of feeling—that is the means to real peace, which must always rest upon a peace of mind,” as Nietzsche puts it. This cannot come about without self knowledge, which cannot come about without placing ones self in morally compromising situations. “Ignorance, the root and stem of all evil,” Plato proclaims. If only ignorance could be banished by reason alone, but unfortunately what is needed is a realistic moral education.