Bruce Lee read philosophy extensively. He read Taoism, Zen Buddhism and also Jiddu Krishnamurti. Possibly the strongest influence on Bruce’s shedding of tradition was his reading of Krishnamurti. Though you could argue that his no-style style had a strong Zen influence, it is also true that Zen sounds similar to Krishnamurti’s teachings; but Krishnamurti’s teachings were not religious doctrine of any sort. However, any time you explore various views that come very close to the truth about human consciousness you are going to be running into similar flavors of sorts.
Krishnamurti exposed the fact that the human mind is caged by tradition, by thought; that this imprisonment had the effect of stagnation, deterioration, distortion and confusion in the mind; such a mind never leads to change, is never wholly clear and, in fact, is neither whole nor healthy nor sane. It is incapable of true, direct action.
And this is what Bruce Lee was getting at. We are bound by tradition, it impedes growth and awareness.
Let’s explore what Bruce Lee gleaned from the teachings of Krishnamurti and also how his approach differed from Krishnamurti’s teachings too.
shinchi_yeu_ran-mori_nhieu, Flickr. Some rights reserved.
Ambition or Excellence
I guess it would be hard to argue that Bruce Lee wasn’t driven. He wanted to be the most famous Chinese super-star in American movies and break new ground for Chinese culture. While this was motivated by a desire to end division among people to a certain extent, it is definitely not in line with what Krishnamurti taught. First, Krishnamurti knew part of the whole problem with humanity was any kind of national identification and division; such things are a part of our illusory thinking and lead to conflict, war and oppression.
Also, Bruce Lee was very ambitious. He overworked himself, strove to be better and was, indeed, competitive. He fought, he dominated opponents and wanted to know how to keep doing it. Understand, I am merely pointing out facts, not saying Bruce was right or wrong. However, I will say that his ambition was definitely not congruent with what Krishnamurti was trying to teach people. Krishnamurti rightly pointed out that our need to have status, to dominate and so be divisive and in conflict inside and out, was what was destroying humanity and creating deplorable conditions for people. It is the search for power in us that creates it the world over, and is responsible for war and all the countless conflicts around issues of ideology and identity.
However, it should be stated that Krishnamurti did feel that a human being ought to excel. Krishnamurti had schools in Europe, India and the US. At these schools, students were encouraged to excel at what they loved to do, but not compete, not get puffed up with ego and ambition. There is a difference.
Now that we’ve explored a major discrepancy in the philosophy of Bruce Lee and the teachings Krishnamurti, let’s look at how the two approaches coincide. The big one, which I mentioned earlier, is the common view of both men that tradition is detrimental to the mind and to learning. Krishnamurti was emphatic about this: That tradition stagnated the mind, blocked direct and real perception of truth and was a major cause of conflict and violence.
Bruce Lee took this revelation and applied it to his approach to martial arts. He talked about the Mechanical Man and the Classical Mess. He said that we were used to rote and repetition, following the doctrines of styles of martial arts and were not free to do what is real and useful, direct and simple. We had become flowery and ornamental and not at all real.
And this was Krishnamurti’s view of life in general. People, in their fear and in their need for security, had become followers; we have followed clergy, politicians, political ideology and even the authority of our own experience. All of these are rooted in memory and so cannot apply to a living, breathing situation. Life, truth, is alive and not dead. You cannot apply what is dead to what is alive and expect to be clear or to have understanding.
Bruce Lee’s Way of the Intercepting Fist, or Jeet Kune Do, exemplifies how Bruce applied this understanding to martial arts. There is nothing more honest, direct and simple than a direct attack on your attacker before he even has a chance to launch his own attack. Such an action has stripped away anything unessential and has provided the most economical and effective answer to the problem. No extra moves, just offense and defense combined to stop the attacker in a single stroke.
And that was Krishnamurti’s approach to life. Shed the unessential doctrine and identification and look at everything directly, honestly, newly. It is a view that is simple but has depth. It penetrates deeply but is not analytical. It is true, whole and undivided.
This is not entirely new in martial arts. Famous samurai, and author of The Book of Five Rings, Miyamoto Mushashi had a similar approach to swordsmanship. He was a stern advocate of striking first and decisively. He was a Zen Buddhist. Zen, of course, has much to say about action without thought. Such action is complete.
Action without Thought
Krishnamurti. [Public domain
Krishnamurti spoke about action without the interference of thought; thought which comes from ego, from identification, from the fragmentary image of the “me”. He said such action cannot be complete, must be limited and is not whole but is divided. It is a distortion and leaves a residue.
Bruce Lee’s approach to fighting was very similar. In Zen they call it No-Mind. It is action without thought, without “me”. It is a clear and direct, whole, perception and action occurring at once. By at once I mean perception and action is not divided. Like jumping out of the way of a speeding train.
This scene from Enter the Dragon is a good representation of Bruce Lee’s philosophy of action without thought, without the ego, without “I”.
Of course, Krishnamurti’s action ran much deeper than the somewhat crude and superficial action of a physical fight. Krishnamurti was pointing directly to inward transformation that comes about through self-understanding; through direct perception and understanding of the workings of consciousness. Such action is a complete and transforming action, a breakdown of the barrier that keeps us from a true and complete life. Krishnamurti was talking of the transformation of consciousness itself, not just your consciousness.
Self-Knowledge is meditation. Direct observation of yourself in relationship to people, ideas and things, brings understanding, transformation. Of course, Bruce Lee took this and applied it to the practice of martial arts. Obviously you can apply self-observation to anything you do, whether it’s flower arrangement, walking the dog or practicing martial arts. Martial arts gives a person an opportunity for self observation in a particular circumstance, with a complex array of material to work with and under a certain kind of pressure.
However, to Krishnamurti, understanding yourself and human consciousness is on-going; it is constant learning.
I suppose this is where Bruce Lee was also similar. Bruce Lee meant his martial art to be about learning from anything and everything and also to have it apply to understanding yourself and what you do and can do. This was another reason for the rejection of tradition. Tradition is meant to cast everyone in the same mold. That is something that is simply unworkable with real people in real situations.
This piece is not meant as a criticism of Bruce Lee or a blown-out-of-proportion comparative analysis of Bruce Lee and Krishnamurti. Bruce Lee kind of gleaned what he could from various sources to build an art that he felt better suited humanity. Krishnamurti is the best source in our lifetime for someone who had a deep understanding of the traps of tradition and mental fetters and he had an uncompromising approach in his rejection of tradition and old, stagnant thought; he was shaking things up, breaking down the walls and giving to people a profound insight into this sort of “wrong turn” humanity has taken that has distorted our minds and led to deterioration and violence. Bruce Lee saw that, too, in his particular field, in martial arts. He too broke down and through barriers and offered us something new, something that hadn’t been done. It makes absolute sense that he found the profound reasoning and insights of Jiddu Krishnamurti to be a compliment to his Art and what he wanted to share with the world.