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Liberate yourself


This is a point-counterpoint discussion.

Here is one of Bruce Lee’s classic articles about Jeet Kune Do. My counterpoints to the article point out the defects in the author’s logic.


The article: Liberate Yourself From Classical Karate by Bruce Lee. First published in the September 1971 issue of Black Belt magazine.



  • The author's original points are shown in bold text.
  • TKDTutor's counterpoints are shown in [normal text with brackets]


I am the first to admit that any attempt to crystallize Jeet Kune Do into a written article is no easy task. Perhaps to avoid making a 'thing' out of a 'process'. I have not until now personally written an article on JKD. Indeed, it is difficult to explain what Jeet Kune Do is, although it may be easier to explain what it is not.

Let me begin with a Zen story. The story might be familiar to some, but I repeat it for its appropriateness. Look upon this story as a means of limbering up one's senses, one's attitude, and one's mind to make them pliable and receptive. You need that to understand this article; otherwise, you might as well forget reading any further.
A learned man once went to a Zen teacher to inquire about Zen. As the Zen teacher explained, the learned man would frequently interrupt him with remarks like, "Oh, yes, we have that too...." and so on.
Finally, the Zen teacher stopped talking and began to serve tea to the learned man. He poured the cup full, and then kept pouring until the cup overflowed. "Enough!" the learned man once more interrupted. "No more can go into the cup!"
"Indeed, I see," answered the Zen teacher. "If you do not first empty the cup, how can you taste my cup of tea?"
[As stated here, this parable makes no sense. The teacher is actually saying, “To taste my tea, you must pour out what I have already poured into your cup so I may pour more into your cup.” In other words, to learn from me, you must forget all I have previously taught you.

This version of the Empty Cup story makes more sense:
Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.
Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor's cup full, and then kept on pouring.
The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. "It is overfull. No more will go in!"
"Like this cup," Nan-in said, "you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?"
I hope my comrades in the martial arts will read the following paragraphs with open-mindedness leaving all the burdens of preconceived opinions and conclusions behind. [Does this mean we must empty our minds of all we know as true, so we may accept Lee’s reasoning without considering its truthfulness?]

This act, by the way, has in itself liberating power. After all, the usefulness of the cup is in its emptiness. [Bull! The usefulness of a teacup is in its ability to hold and transport tea to the mouth so one may drink the tea; one cannot drink from an empty cup and one does not need to empty the cup of any remaining tea before refilling the cup. One can learn and evaluate new things without emptying one's brain; also, the brain never fills and overflows with too much knowledge. Lee and his ilk stress that you must forget all you have learned before you may accept their way of doing things; the reason being, if you do not, you will see the illogic in their reasoning and will not accept what they say as the truth. In their view, if you do not accept their reasoning, it is your fault.]

Make this article relate to yourself, because though it is on JKD, it is primarily concerned with the blossoming of a martial artist---not a "Chinese" martial artist, a "Japanese" martial artist, etc. A martial artist is a human being first. Just as nationalities have nothing to do with one's humanity, so they have nothing to do with martial arts. Leave your protective shell of isolation and relate 'directly' to what is being said. Return to your senses by ceasing all the intervening intellectual mumbo jumbo. Remember that life is a constant process of relating. Remember too, that I seek neither your approval nor to influence you towards my way of thinking. I will be more than satisfied if, as a result of this article, you begin to investigate everything for yourself and cease to uncritically accept prescribed formulas that dictate "this is this" and "that is that." [Like the pseudo-intellectual mumbo jumbo being put forth in this article.]

Suppose several persons who are trained in different styles of combative arts witness an all out street fight. I am sure that we would hear different versions from each of these stylists. This is quite understandable for one cannot see a fight [or anything else] "as is" as long as he is blinded by his chosen point of view, i.e. style, and he will view the fight through the lens of his particular conditioning. Fighting, "as is," is simple and total. It is not limited to your perspective conditioning as a Chinese martial artist. True observation begins when one sheds set patterns and true freedom of expression occurs when one is beyond systems. [Witnesses to a crime always disagree on what happened. Each sees the action from their location, their perspective, their culture, their mores, etc. This is human nature. But of course, if Lee’s witnessed a crime, he in his empty mind would only see what actually happened.]

Before we examine Jeet Kune Do, let us consider exactly what a "classical" martial art style really is. To begin with, we must recognize the incontrovertible fact that regardless of their many colorful origins (by a wise, mysterious monk, by a special messenger in a dream, in a holy revelation, etc.) styles are created by men. [What a revelation! I'm sure no one has ever thought of this before.] Everything that is not created by nature has been created by humans. A style should never be considered gospel truth, the laws and principles of which can never be violated. [True.] Man, the living, creating individual, is always more important than any established style. [What the hell does this mean?]

It is conceivable that a long time ago a certain martial artist discovered some partial truth. During his lifetime, the man resisted the temptation to organize this partial truth, although this is a common tendency in a man's search for security and certainty in life. After his death, his students took "his" hypotheses, "his" postulates, "his" method and turned them into law. Impressive creeds were then invented, solemn reinforcing ceremonies prescribed, rigid philosophy and patterns formulated, and so on, until finally an institution was erected. So, what originated as one man's intuition of some sort of personal fluidity has been transformed into solidified, fixed knowledge, complete with organized classified responses presented in a logical order. In so doing, the well-meaning, loyal followers have not only made this knowledge a holy shrine, but also a tomb in which they have buried the founder's wisdom. [Perhaps Lee was also a prophet since this is what has happened to Jeet Kune Do. Lee’s students have made him the holy see of Jeet Kune Do.]

But distortion does not necessarily end here. In reaction to "the other truth," another martial artist, or possible a dissatisfied disciple, organizes an opposite approach--such as the "soft" style versus the "hard" style, the "internal" school versus the "external" school, and all these separate nonsense's. Soon this opposite faction also becomes a large organization, with its own laws and patterns. A rivalry begins, with each style claiming to possess the "truth" to the exclusions of all others. [I agree. In addition, some styles claim to be a compilation of all other styles.]

At best, styles are merely parts dissected from a unitary whole. [Say what!] All styles require adjustment, partiality, denials, condemnation, and a lot of self-justification. [All styles? What a gross assumption! Lee is assuming all styles are bad, except for his. Wait. I forgot that his style is not  really a style.]

The solutions they purport to provide are the very cause of the problem, because they limit and interfere with our natural growth and obstruct the way to genuine understanding. [They do?]

Divisive by nature, styles keep men 'apart' from each other rather than 'unite' them. [Unite them in what? It appears Lee thought that there should only be one martial art, Jeet Kune Do.]


One cannot express himself fully when imprisoned by a confining style. [Maybe.] One can never express himself fully as long as one lives within a society. [Where else is he going to live? In a cave on top of a mountain?] There are always societal forces affecting ones thinking and behavior. If a style fits ones beliefs, personality, etc., then one may express himself fully in the style. Combat "as is" is total, and it includes all the "is" as well as "is not," without favorite lines or angles. Lacking boundaries, combat is always fresh, alive and constantly changing. Your particular style, your personal inclinations, and your physical makeup are all 'parts' of combat, but they do not constitute the 'whole' of combat. Should your responses become dependent upon any single part, you will react in terms of what "should be" rather than to the reality of the ever changing "what is." Remember that while the whole is evidenced in all its parts, an isolated part, efficient or not, does not constitute the whole. [While this may be true to some extent, one must train in parts, one cannot train in the whole. To train in a whole, one trains to perfect each of its parts. For example, a golfer practices driving, putting, clipping, etc.  Since we cannot train to be proficient at responding to every possible attack (each part of the whole), we train to respond to the most common attacks (parts). If you have no response to common attacks, then you will lose.]

Prolonged repetitious drillings will certainly yield mechanical precision and security of that kind comes from any routine. However, it is exactly this kind of "selective" security or "crutch" which limits or blocks the total growth of a martial artist. In fact, quite a few practitioners develop such a liking for and dependence on their "crutch" that they can no longer walk without it. Thus, any one special technique, however cleverly designed is actually a hindrance. [Hindrance to what? Jeet Kune Do has its own techniques, why are they not also hindrances. If individual techniques are bad for other styles, then they should also be bad for JKD. If you do not know how to perform an effective side kick, how will you be able to perform the kick when an opening that is best attacked with a side kick presents itself.]

Let it be understood once and for all that I have NOT invented a new style, composite, or modification. I have in no way set Jeet Kune Do within a distinct form governed by laws that distinguish it from "this" style or "that" method. On the contrary, I hope to free my comrades from bondage to styles, patterns, and doctrines. [If one says he has no religious beliefs, the statement itself is a religious belief. The person is saying that his religious belief is that he does not believe in religion. Lee says JKD is not a style, but then he teaches it in a particular way according to his philosophy, which makes it style. Just saying that JKD is not a style does not make it true.”]

What, then, is Jeet Kune Do? Literally, "jeet" means to intercept or to stop; "kune" is the fist; and "do" is the way, the ultimate reality---the way of the intercepting fist. Do remember, however, that "Jeet Kune Do" is merely a convenient name. I am not interested with the term itself; I am interested in its effect of liberation when JKD is used as a mirror for self-examination. [More pseudo-intellectual mumbo jumbo.]

Unlike a "classical" martial art, there is no series of rules or classification of technique that constitutes a distinct "Jeet Kune Do" method of fighting. [This must make it easy to learn JKD. Since it does not have rules or special techniques, anything you do must be okay; that is unless what you do is from one those evil “styles.”]  JKD is not a form of special conditioning with its own rigid philosophy. It looks at combat not from a single angle, but from all possible angles. [All possible angles? Does anyone have the time to train in responding to everything? While JKD utilizes all the ways and means to serve its end (after all, efficiency is anything that scores) [Is Lee saying that an effective technique is one that scores a point in sparring competition. A competition with all those rules on what is and is not allowed.], it is bound by none and is therefore free. In other words, JKD possesses everything, but is in itself possessed by nothing. [Pseudo -philosophical BS!]

Therefore, to try and define JKD in terms of a distinct style be it gung-fu, karate, street fighting, Bruce Lee's martial art, etc. is to completely miss its meaning. [It seems that Lee’s heirs missed this point. In 2004, the Bruce Lee Foundation changed the name of Jeet Kune Do to Jun Fan Jeet Kune Do. "Jun Fan" was Lee's Chinese given name, so the literal translation is "Bruce Lee's Way of the Intercepting Fist."]

Its teaching simply cannot be confined with a system. [Why not?] Since JKD is at once "this" and "not this,” it neither opposes nor adheres to any style. To understand this fully, one must transcend from the duality of "for" and "against" into one organic unity, which is without distinctions. Understanding of JKD is direct intuition of this unity. [According to Lee, JKD is everything and nothing. The only way to understand it is to accept Lee’s philosophical BS!]

There are no prearranged sets or "kata" in the teaching of JKD, nor are they necessary. It is okay not to use kata. Katas serve many specific purposes; if you do not think these purposes are worthwhile, then it is okay not to use them. Consider the subtle difference between "having no form" and having "no form"; the first is ignorance, the second is transcendence. [What the hell does this mean?]

Through instinctive body feeling, each of us 'knows' our own most efficient and dynamic manner of achieving effective leverage, balance in motion, economical use of energy, etc. [If this is true, why do sports do scientific research to find the best way to perform the sports and why do all elite athletes have coaches to point out their mistakes and correct them. Why do not they just rely on their instincts?]

Patterns, techniques, or forms touch only the fringe of genuine understanding. The core of understanding lies in the individual mind, and until that is touched, everything is uncertain and superficial. [More pseudo-philosophical BS!]

Truth cannot be perceived until we come to fully understand ours. [You can have all the self-knowledge and self-understanding possible, and it will not help you in a fight unless you know how to effectively defend yourself and perform effective attacks. This article was written in a time when Transcendental Meditation was the “in” thing to believe.]

At this point, you may ask, "How do I gain this knowledge?" That you will have to find out all by yourself. You must accept the fact that there is no help but self-help. For the same reason I cannot tell you how to "gain" freedom, since freedom exists within you. I cannot tell you what 'not' to do, I cannot tell you what you 'should' do, since that would be confining you to a particular approach. Formulas can only inhibit freedom; externally dictated prescriptions only squelch creativity and assure mediocrity. Bear in mind that the freedom that accrues from self-knowledge cannot be acquired through strict adherence to a formula; we do not suddenly "become" free, we simply "are" free. [Apparently, Lee sees no purpose in experience or history. I would much rather have someone tell me that I will burn myself if I touch a hot stove than for me to learn for myself. We need people with previous experience to advise us what we should do or not do to avoid problems. Whether we follow the advice or not is an individual choice. As Will Rodgers supposedly said, "There are three kinds of men: those that learn by reading, the few who learn by observation, and the ones that have to pee on the electric fence and find out for themselves."]

Learning is definitely not mere imitation, nor is it the ability to accumulate and regurgitate fixed knowledge. [It's not? Apparently, all schools and colleges must have it wrong. How did get through college without regurgitating fixed knowledge?] Learning is a constant process of discovery, a process without end. [True.]

In JKD, we begin not by accumulation but by discovering the cause of our ignorance, a discovery that involves a shedding process. [Apparently, if you do not agree with JKD, it is because of your ignorance and your previous knowledge and experience. To learn JKD, you must reject all you have learned and then believe in Lee’s philosophy as the only way to the truth.]

Unfortunately, most students in the martial arts are conformists. Instead of learning to depend on themselves for expression, they blindly follow their instructors, no longer feeling alone, and finding security in mass imitation. [Bull! Martial arts students come to a martial art class to learn a martial art from a supposed expert in the martial art. Then like any other class, they must filter what is being told them through what they already know to determine if what they have been told is reasonable, logical, or true.]

The product of this imitation is a dependent mind. Independent inquiry, which is essential to genuine understanding, is sacrificed. [Is it?] Look around the martial arts and witness the assortment of routine performers, trick artists, desensitized robots, glorifiers of the past and so on all followers or exponents of organized despair. [What about JKD students? Are they not imitating what they are being taught? How long will a JKD student last in class if he does not imitate what is taught or if he constantly questions the instructor’s methods. After all, is not Lee’s definition of being an “independent” student to question everything and reject that which does not agree with your philosophy of life?]

How often are we told by different "sensei" of "masters" that the martial arts are life itself? But how many of them truly understand what they are saying? [I have no idea. Just as I do not know if Lee understood what he was saying.]

Life is a constant movement, rhythmic as well as random; life is a constant change and not stagnation. Instead of choicelessly flowing with this process of change, many of these "masters", past and present, have built an illusion of fixed forms, rigidly subscribing to traditional concepts and techniques of the art, solidifying the ever-flowing, dissecting the totality. [If a fight is constantly changing and is random, then no one may learn to deal with every possibility. One learns to deal with the probable and the most common, and then does the best one can when something out of the ordinary occurs.]

The most pitiful sight is to see sincere students earnestly repeating those imitative drills, listening to their own screams and spiritual yells. In most cases, the means these "sensei" offer their students are so elaborate that the student must give tremendous attention to them, until gradually he loses sight of the end. The students end up performing their methodical routines as a mere conditioned response, rather than 'responding to' "what is." They no longer "listen" to circumstances; they "recite" their circumstances. These poor souls have unwittingly become trapped in the miasma of classical martial arts training. [While this is true of all beginning martial art students, as well as beginners at anything. As they gain more experience, they learn to go with the flow of a fight. When beginners fight, they are constantly picking specific techniques to use. Experienced fighters instinctively chose the technique that bests suits the situation at that moment. Students first learn to perfect the movements required to defend or attack. Over time, they learn to apply the techniques as required in specific situations. When a sudden attack occurs, if you have too many choices of techniques to choose from, the time wasted in choosing one will mean whichever one you choose will come too late to stop the attack. It is better to have one highly trained response that may be adapted to a particular situation as required.]

A teacher, a really good sensei, is never a 'giver' of "truth"; he is a guide, a 'pointer' to the truth that the student must discover for himself. [So, does mean that instead of showing the student how to perform a perfect kick, the teacher should just let the student figure it out for himself and then point out to the student what is wrong with the kick. This is a poor method of teaching.]

A good teacher, therefore, studies each student individually and encourages the student to explore himself, both internally and externally, until, ultimately, the student is integrated with his being. For example, a skillful teacher might spur his student's growth by confronting him with certain frustrations. A good teacher is a catalyst. Besides possessing a deep understanding, he must also have a responsive mind with great flexibility and sensitivity. [True, this is why all good martial art teachers do this.]

There is no standard in total combat, and expression must be free. This liberating truth is a reality only in so far as it is 'experienced and lived' by the individual himself; it is a truth that transcends styles or disciplines. Remember, too, that Jeet Kune Do is merely a term, a label to be used as a boat to get one across; once across, it is to be discarded and not carried on one's back.[Again, remember this one written at the time when Transcendental Meditation was the latest fad. Just as Lee said, do not be a sheep that follows some guru’s philosophical BS. Think for yourself and use knowledge, reasoning, and logic to separate the BS from the truth. Lee seems to think he is right because his way is different from his view of the traditional way. Many people want to be different from the norm, not necessarily right, simply different.]

These few paragraphs are, at best, a "finger pointing to the moon." Please do not take the finger to be the moon or fix your gaze so intently on the finger as to miss all the beautiful sights of heaven. After all, the usefulness of the finger is in pointing away from itself to the light, which illumines finger and all. [In other words, do not let yourself be so distracted by the middle-finger of Lee’s BS that you cannot see the truth.]


More counterpoints

After eating a bull, a mountain lion felt so good he started roaring until a hunter heard him and shot him. The moral: When you are full of bull, keep your mouth shut.

I realize that Lee probably had a limit on the number of words he could use in the article. However, I don't think any more words would have made what he was saying any clearer.

An expert at anything is particularly good at that thing. However, this does necessarily make the thing good. A person may be a master counterfeiter, but counterfeiting is a crime and the counterfeiter is a criminal. Bruce Lee was a superb athlete, a successful actor, and a master of his martial art, but that does necessarily make the martial art itself great and it does not mean that Lee’s philosophy was anything special. With his genetic makeup and his hard work ethic, he would have been great at any physical endeavor.

As I have said before, hand-to-hand fighting is simple; it has been around for hundreds of thousands of years—ever since two Homo sapiens decided they did not like each other. This is not quantum physics; it is just two humans fighting. No one is going to discover suddenly a new way for two humans to fight hand-to-hand that has not existed in the previous 250-thousand years.

Traditional martial arts use basic kicks and punches to fight—because they always work. Other things may work in class, in demonstrations, and under certain circumstances, but basic kicks and punches always work. MMA has become a professional sport. Many fighters earn their living as fighters. If wrist locks, fancy footwork, spectacular kicks, sticky hand techniques, or any other of the so-called unique techniques and philosophies of any of the many martial arts around the world worked, the fighters would be using them. But they do not use them.

Take Bruce Lee’s advice, empty your mind of any preconceived ideas, and ask yourself, “If the techniques of my art are as great as my master says they are, why do professional fighters not use them?” Foreign language and culture, special terminology, pseudoscience, weird philosophies, and charismatic leaders do not make martial art good. What makes a martial art good is how effective it is when used by an average person to protect themselves from attacks. You do not judge a martial art by how good its best practitioner is; you judge it by how good an average student of the art is.

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