Bruce Lee was a brash teenager when he first moved to America. Having studied gung-fu in Hong Kong, he opened a school in Oakland to teach whoever wanted to come.

That didn’t sit well with the gung-fu community, who thought that Chinese martial arts should only be taught to Chinese.

(To put this into perspective, it was 1964. The United States had just enacted the Civil Rights Act, which outlawed discrimination based on race, sex, and religion. Before the Act, segregation was still legal, with separate facilities for white and black races.)

The gung-fu community told Lee to stop teaching non-Chinese or fight a challenge. If Lee lost, he would close his school. If Lee won, he could teach anybody he wanted. Lee chose to fight.

On the day of the challenge, Lee tore into his opponent, who conceded defeat after three minutes1. Although he’d won, Lee was perturbed over how a match that should have been won in a minute had taken three.

Lee realized that his training methods had limited his performance. To improve, he would have to rethink everything.

It was time to start over.

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.

Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.

This is how Shunryu Suzuki opens his book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. The beginner’s mind, or shoshin in Japanese, helps us to keep learning, even after years of familiarity.

Bruce Lee explored possibilities. At a time when martial arts were delineated between styles, Lee took from all of them: he blended fencing, gung-fu, and boxing, and started weightlifting.

The Jeet Kune Do symbol, which reads ‘having no way as way, having no limitation as limitation’.

He called his new philosophy Jeet Kune Do, from the Cantonese ‘way of the intercepting fist’, which he saw as a process of continual exploration:

So styles tend to separate man — because they have their own doctrines and the doctrine became the Gospel Truth that you cannot change! But, if you do not have styles, if you just say “here I am as a human being. How can I express myself totally and completely?” — now that way, you won’t create a style because style is a crystallization. That way is a process of continuing growth.

Bruce Lee

Lee later illustrated Jeet Kune Do in the climactic showdown of the film Way of the Dragon, in which he fights a martial artist played by Chuck Norris. 

At first, Norris has the upper hand. But after taking a beating, Lee adapts and changes his fighting tactics. Norris is unable to break out of his conditioned movements, and loses to Lee’s fluidity.

Nine years after winning the right to teach freely, Lee passed away at 32. Jeet Kune Do endures, with practitioners all over the world. Lee is remembered as a master martial artist today, but he was one unafraid to be a beginner again.

Footnotes

  1. Lee, Linda, and Tom Bleecker. The Bruce Lee Story. Burbank, CA: Ohara Publications, 1989. Print.