Bruce Lee's Greatest Gift
to the Martial Arts -
How to Search for the Truth
by Raymond O'Dell
When you study the works of Bruce Lee, it becomes evident that you do not have to practice Jeet Kune Do to utilize his teachings. Lee taught us to "seek the truth in combat." While this is a major part of Jeet Kune Do, it is not a concept that is exclusive to it. It can be applied without regard to style or system. This concept and related lessons on how to search for the truth are probably Lee's greatest gift to the martial arts world. They have opened the door for countless traditional and eclectic martial artists to experience personal freedom and self-expression.
To martial artists, the phrase "seek the truth" can be a pretty abstract statement. I recently had a phone conversation with an old friend who is a second degree black belt in a traditional art. The topic of our conversation eventually came around to facing reality in combat. I asked my friend if he had ever read Bruce Lee's Tao of Jeet Kune Do (Ohara Publications Inc.). He stated that he had bought the book a long time ago but hadn't read it. Hearing this really hit home for me. I bought my first copy of the Tao in 1986 and tried to absorb it. I was also a second degree black belt in a traditional art. At the time, I did not understand all of what Lee was trying to get across, but I did understand enough of it to encourage me to dig deeper and seek out explanations for what I couldn't comprehend. What I came to realize was that the theme of the book revolves around one statement: Seek the truth in combat
Reality is the truth." With this in mind, your mission becomes one of seeking reality in combat. To make things easier to understand, you can substitute the word "reality" whenever you see the word "truth." Reality is a perception. What you perceive to be reality may not be exactly what your neighbour perceives to be reality. Lee took this into account when he said that your truth is not my truth and my truth is not your truth. We are all unique in how we perceive the world around us, and this includes combat or self-defense. Bruce Lee said that one person's reality in combat may not be another person's reality. For example, wing chun kung fu, which Lee learned from Yip Man, was an expression of what worked for the art's founder. The style might not work as well for all students, however.
"To see a thing [the truth] uncolored by one's own personal preferences and desires is to see it in its own pristine simplicity," Lee wrote. This means that you cannot look for reality in combat with preconceived notions or through the eyes of a martial artist or a boxer or a wrestler. To truly see what is taking place, you must look for what is real with an unfettered or unbiased mind. If you look with the eyes of a karate practitioner or a kung fu practitioner, you will see things only in terms of a karate practitioner or a kung fu practitioner. You will not see an unbiased picture.
Reality in combat is a broad topic whose meaning will change depending on the situation. In other words, more than one truth makes up combat. Each of these truths accounts for another term that Lee was fond of using: partial truth.
What is a partial truth? Many martial artists search for the truth (or reality) in a particular style or system. But, as Lee said, "You will not find the truth with blind devotion to a style or system, politics or obsession with tournament competition." If you try to search for the truth solely in one system or art, you will end up making yourself believe that the truth is there; or not seeing the truth, you will abandon the search altogether. Since you know that the truth will be different for each martial artist, what you will undoubtedly find is that each martial art contains things that have value to you or have a realistic function in terms of self-defense. What you have discovered is a partial truth within that style. When looking for reality in combat with an unbiased point of view, it is rare that you will find the whole truth in any one traditional martial art. That art, however, will almost always hold a partial truth. When you study a traditional or classical art, you are studying someone else's truth. You are studying what the founder of that art perceived to be his or her personal truth at the time the art was founded. An accumulation of these partial truths will make up the whole truth for you. You will learn, how ever, that the truth is in a constant state of change. The search never ends. Like your martial a rts training, the search is a journey and not a destination.
Bruce Lee's Path to the Truth
Tao of Jeet Kune Do, Bruce Lee's quintessential martial arts text, provides many clues that can help readers discover the truth in combat. The Tao teaches how Bruce Lee arrived at his personal truth, which he called Jeet Kune Do. The path he used is a clear and concise method that every martial artist can easily apply to his or her own search.
Seek the truth.
You have to consciously want to know the truth and look for it. Seek the reality of combat for yourself. Do not rely on what your instructor, past masters or other martial artists tell you is the truth. Do your own homework. You will not learn by copying your neighbor's homework. Take every opportunity to study what really takes place in an assault or self-defense situation, not just physically but mentally, too. What impact did fear, anxiety and anger have on the situation?
Become aware of the truth.
Know what you are looking for and do not be in denial when you discover it. Martial artists who have devoted years to training in a traditional system and have trained according to what they have been taught is the truth sometimes have difficulty accepting that they might have spent years studying a lie. Not only might they have studied a lie, but they might have spent years training according to that lie. Every martial art contains "partial truths" that are useful for the student of self-defense, but no one art contains them all, Bruce Lee said. It is the student's responsibility to discover which techniques and strategies work best for him.
One step in the method Bruce Lee described for finding your personal truth in combat involves "experiencing the truth." That translates into testing a technique you believe to be of value in a realistic full-contact environment.
The important thing is to not dwell on the lie. Be thankful that you have become aware of it and adjust your training to what you now know is real.
Perceive the truth.
Perception is everything in life and in the martial arts. Make your perceptions as total in nature as you can. Gather as many facts as possible on the subject or situation before forming a perception.
Experience the truth.
When you discover what you perceive to be a truth, put that truth to the test. In most cases, that means putting on the protective gear and going full contact in as realistic a scenario as you can come up with. This is an extremely important part of discovering the truth, one that many people fail to utilize. Lee was fond of saying that you cannot learn to swim without getting in the water. Likewise, you cannot learn to fight without fighting. How can you ever have any real confidence in your newfound truth if you haven't tested it in a full-contact situation? A word of caution about determining whether the truth you are experimenting with has any value: If that truth involves using a new technique with which you are not familiar, do not be too hasty to discount it if it fails. We all know that it takes time to master a new technique. The failure of the technique could be due to poor execution.
Master the truth.
Once you have perceived a truth, experienced it and found it to be true, master that truth. This involves drills and repetitive execution. As you should have done while experiencing that truth, practice it from all angles against many different attackers in as many scenarios as possible. Add the practice of this truth to your normal martial arts training regimen.
Forget the truth and the carrier of the truth.
What in the world did Lee mean by this? If the truth you learned was trapping skills, the carrier of that truth may have been the Chinese art of wing chun kung fu. Once you have developed your trapping skills, there is no longer a need to associate trapping with wing chun. Wing chun was merely a vehicle you used to get where you wanted to go. As mentioned earlier, wing chun as a whole is a truth that belonged to the founder of that system. One person's truth may be another person's limitation. By not being bound by this system, you avoid those limitations. You have effectively absorbed what is useful and rejected what is useless.
Repose in the nothing.
You cannot rest in the satisfaction of the truth that you have discovered because that truth will change with time. Long ago, empty-hand defense against a sword might have been a truth, but today it is highly unlikely that you will be attacked by someone wielding such a weapon. But a knife or baseball bat attack is quite conceivable. The truth of a sword attack has changed, or perhaps "evolved" is a more appropriate term. The fact is, the truth you discover today may be that the truth you learned yesterday is no longer true. "One man's truth in combat may not be valid for another person or another generation," said Bruce Lee.
Roadblocks to the Truth
You will be able to see the truth only after you have discovered the cause or causes of your own ignorance. This personal shortcoming sets up roadblocks that will keep you from finding the truth. The following is a list of some of the more common roadblocks that can keep you from seeing what is real. (If you sit down and think about it, you will probably be able to add many more.)
Loyalty to one martial art.
Lee wrote: "The man who is really serious with the urge to find out what the truth is has no style at all. He lives only in what is." Most styles claim to hold the entire truth of combat, but as I have already discussed, a style will hold the individual truth of the founder, not necessarily your truth.
Ethnocentrism, pride and ego.
The my-art-is-better-than-your-art attitude relates to loyalty to one style and will eventually hamper your ability to objectively look around you for reality. Pride is a double-edged sword. Being proud of your accomplishments is one thing, but too much pride can cloud your vision. It is also something you will have to swallow when the truth is eventually discovered. Ego is the result of too much pride. Its only purpose is to be bruised. When you are full of yourself, there is no more room for anything else.
A lackadaisical attitude.
If you are too lazy to do your own searching, you are not really serious about finding.
Prejudice toward a race, creed, national origin, or martial art will keep you from experimenting with possible paths to the truth. As Lee said in Return of the Dragon, "It doesn't matter where it comes from; if it helps you look out for yourself in a fight, use it." By using Bruce Lee's path to the truth, and by recognizing and avoiding the roadblocks, you will not only be utilizing Jeet Kune Do, but you will also be on your way to finding great success in discovering your personal truth in combat. You will experience the ultimate in freedom and self-expression.