When he arrived in America as a brash, young teenager, Bruce Lee was at the top of his game. Having studied gung-fu in Hong Kong for years, he opened his own school in Oakland to teach whoever wanted to come.
That didn’t sit well with the local Chinese gung-fu community, who thought that Chinese martial arts should only be taught to Chinese.
(To put this mindset into perspective, it was 1964, the same year that the United States 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. This was the climate Lee and the Chinese community lived in.)
The gung-fu community issued Lee an ultimatum, to either stop teaching non-Chinese, or face a match with their representative. If Lee lost the challenge, he would have to close his school. If he 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. Even though he’d won, Lee felt disturbed over how out of breath he’d been, and how a match that should have been won in one took three minutes to finish.
Thinking through his performance and training, Lee realised that the classical gung-fu he’d been practicing had put limits on his performance, and that to improve, he would have to rethink every convention he’d once believed.
It was time to start over again.
“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.”
This is how Shunryu Suzuki opens his classic book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. Suzuki talks about how difficult it is to keep an open mind — a beginner’s mind — especially when we’ve been doing something for a good while, and assume we’re already an expert in it.
It is the beginner’s mind, or shoshin in Japanese, which lets us see the same thing with eyes anew, without closing our eyes by saying “I already know this.” The beginner’s mind is what allows us to keep learning, even after years of familiarity with something.
If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.Shunryu Suzuki
I don’t have a great track record at keeping weblogs. I founded my first one, Life Coaches Blog in 2005 and retired it in 2008, if I’d kept at it LCB would be in its 10th year by now, and who knows where that would have taken me. I also started another one, 21 Dragons, in 2008, but it died a slow death, with a last post in 2014 (some posts remain on alvinsoon.com).
Now, I find myself starting over again from scratch. The expert’s mind weighs heavily on me; telling me that it’s too late, I’m too old, that I’ll drop this one again like I did the earlier ones, that it’ll fail like most other blogs do. In this mind, the possibilities are few.
To start over, I need to go back to being a beginner again. That’s why I’ve named this blog after shoshin; to explore where the possibilities are still many, not few.
Bruce Lee concluded that to become free, he would have to go his own way. He did this not by trying to invent a new style — in fact, he was against the very idea of it — but by exploring possibilities.
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 called this philosophy Jeet Kune Do, translated from Cantonese as ‘the way of the intercepting fist’. At a time when martial arts were clearly delineated between ‘styles’ of fighting, Lee freely took from any style: he incorporated footwork from fencing, kicking from gung-fu, trapping from Wing Chun and punching from boxing.
Nine years after winning the right to teach freely, Lee passed away at the young age of 32. Jeet Kune Do endures to this day, with practitioners all over the world. Although he’d been already been considered by many as an expert at the time, Bruce Lee was unafraid to keep his beginner’s mind and start over again. Shoshin allowed him to transcend his old possibilities, and see new ones.