Bruce Lee’s Art of War
– By MATT NUMRICH, Black Belt Magazine
Sun Tzu talked so much about the environments combat takes place in. This article is a great tool to dive deeper into lessons combat experts to war time veterans have studied for a very long time. In this video, see how you can use environment in your training to increase your combat IQ.
Constantly growing and improving as a martial arts practitioner forces one to find new sources for learning. This may come through instructors in other arts, reviewing the newest training video, or finding a new and challenging training partner. Many others find growth through writings, whether they are in magazines or the plethora that awaits us through the Internet. However, books still represent the good old-fashioned method. Although there has been an increase in web pages created, books still offer one a unique learning experience. There still seems to be something about a book that separates it from what is seen on a TV screen or computer monitor. Although there is certainly nothing wrong with technology based resources, as they present efficient sources of knowledge, books in a library or local bookstore should not be overlooked.
One certain book that caught my attention was the book written by a man named Sun Tzu, almost 2500 years ago. The book’s name is The Art of War. In short, the book was originally written as a text for victory out on the battlefield. Today, numerous scholars have written about this timeless work, translating it, interpreting it, and theorizing about its true meaning. Many have also related its concepts to everyday life and personal growth. Many aspiring managers have it as required text through their undergraduate and graduate course work. Even Oliver Stone’s award-winning film Wall Street, cites The Art of War, by relating it to success in the business world.
As I am an owner of a personal growth company, which conducts Personal Coaching and Skills Seminars, I find myself very curious about this book’s “success” content. Although it does offer many success concepts and insights, its content pulled more at my other profession: an instructor in Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do. I found it very enlightening that a manuscript written around 500 BC could relate not only to today’s military occurrences, but how those principles related to plain old street fighting. Not just street fighting, but street fighting through Bruce Lee’s ideas and concepts.
The book is divided up into 13 short chapters. Depending on what version you’re reading, as many editors have added stories or other historical insights interwoven in the text. The version that I suggest is James Clavell’s edition (Delta Business). It is short, and to the point (just as Lee’s view of a fight). Although other authors have given much more lengthy and in-depth insight, I suggest Clavell’s because it mostly just offers the raw text, giving the reader the responsibility to ponder over Tzu’s views. After this more simplistic version, then I suggest to then review other more in depth interpretations.
In the following, I will offer some insight relating to Lee’s theories, and the Jeet Kune Do philosophy. Once again, let me remind you, they are my JKD associations with Sun Tzu’s writings. The reader may discard these interpretations, or find them useful in their training and conditioning. For example, the first chapter is titled “Laying Plans”. The idea of a plan from Bruce’s standpoint is an extreme necessity, in every range (area) of combat. Bruce simply inflicted pain, entered in, and followed up in trapping (close) range. “Laying plans”, also relates to training, conditioning, and preparing one mentally and emotionally. Sun Tzu states in the first sentence, “The art of war is of vital importance to the state. It is a matter of life and death—Hence under no circumstances can it be neglected”. Therefore, use the idea of both a game plan and preparation (training), as a “vital importance to the state” (or self). Knowing all of the self-defense techniques in the world will not do you any good, if you do not lay the plans.
The second chapter is named, “Waging War”. In other words, pick your altercations wisely. Not only should you “fight” for the right (ethical) reasons, but also if in an altercation, one should take advantage of timing. Tzu states, “The value of time — that is, being a little ahead of your opponent – had counted for more than either numerical superiority or the nicest calculations with regard to commissariat.” Lee realized that it is either 100% or nothing. He suggested that when one is in the heat of battle, there is no turning back, you’re in it so go for it 100%. Although this does not encourage “uncontrolled killer instincts”, it does focus on using aggressiveness before your opponents are ready. Tzu reminds us, “Cleverness has never been seen associated with long delays”. Or, in that respect, long fights.
The Art of War’s third chapter, “The Sheathed Sword”, offers a psychological focus. Sun Tzu writes, “to fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting”. If one can end an altercation without violence, what better end could there be? I always teach my students, if an opponent wants to call you names, he can do it from ten plus feet away. If he wants to fight, let him take one aggressive step in. How many fights have you seen over stupid situations, words, and more importantly, misunderstandings? Take these all in stride. “Break the enemy’s resistance without fighting.” Is him calling you a name, worth him spending two nights in the hospital, and legalities on your end? Although this chapter cites battle techniques, it ends, “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles— If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle”. Even the philosopher Diogenes Laertius, who lived around 200 A.D., agreed with Bruce by simply advising one to “Know thyself”.
Chapter four titled “Tactics”, related to “knowledge”. This short chapter states, “One may know how to conquer without being able to do it”. As Bruce used to say, “Knowing is not enough”. A JKD practitioner shows excellence in “to plan secretly, to move surreptitiously, to foil the enemy’s intentions and balk at his schemes”. How do we get to “know”? Using Bruce Lee as a model, we know by doing. We gain knowledge by sparring, drilling, and just experiencing. This is true knowledge, the stuff that makes the great ones great, and the poor practitioners poor by their lack of experiencing. Therefore, it is not good enough to know tactics, but to do, practice, and sharpen tactics. As Sifu Paul Vunak, a student under Guru Dan Inosanto, states, “You have to put in the flight time”.
“Energy”, the fifth chapter, might bring to a JKD man’s mind hubud, chi sao, or sumbrada, which are common energy drills. Although there can be some associations made with these energy drills, I see it more having to do with “momentum” in a fight. The combination of this momentum (energy) and combination of lines of attack, describes one of the most important principles of fighting: faking. In the concept of “faking”, any practitioner finds out quickly, that there are different lines of attacking. These Progressive Indirect Attacks (P.I.A.’s), as Bruce used to call them, shows how one can use the harmonious combination of faking to open up even the most skilled fighter. Even Tzu states, “In all fighting, the direct method may be used for joining battle, but indirect methods will be needed in order to secure victory”. Using this, and other ways of “momentum”, can truly aid any martial artist. It is this energy that develops good fighters, “as the momentum of a round stone rolled down a mountain thousands of feet in height”.
The next chapter, “Weak Points and Strong”, illustrates the importance of adapting in street fighting. Adapting to a ground fight, mass attack, weapons match, or from long range to close quarters, is one of a JKD man’s greatest assets. Bruce simply stated, “Be flexible, so you can change with change”. As Tzu writes concluding the chapter, “He who can modify his tactics in relations to his opponent, and thereby succeed in winning, may be called a heaven-born captain”. This is not only modifying physically, but also modifying emotionally. If one keeps the same physical and emotional dispositions in trapping (close) range as in ground fighting, one will get beat thoroughly. One must change, to meet the combative challenge of the moment. Would one use the same mind set in a mass attack, as they would use in a one-on-one altercation? Simply put, if you can modify (adapt), you have a major strong point. If not, you then have a weak point.
“Maneuvering”, is the seventh chapter. Maneuvering in any kind of altercation greatly dictates the practitioner’s success. It might be maneuvering on the ground, in kick boxing range, or in a mass attack situation. The ability to zone, evade, and adapt are all ways of maneuvering. As many of my students have come from traditional martial arts backgrounds, one of the points they like most about JKD is the footwork involved. It is even said that Bruce Lee used to watch hours of film footage of boxing “greats” like Mohammed Ali. He focused on how he moved – maneuvered. Therefore, practitioners might take Tzu’s advice on maneuverability as he explains: “Let your rapidity be that of the wind, your compactness that of the forest. In raiding and plundering be like fire, in immovability like a mountain”. Tzu also gives some advice to maneuvering, as to “leave an outlet free”, not just in the defensive sense, but also in the offensive sense. For example, in ground fighting, an intelligent grappler will make it seem to their opponents that they have an outlet, but in reality he is only setting him up for a finishing move. One also needs to pay attention to the “when” of maneuvering, in addition to the “how”. Much can be said about this topic, therefore much should be learned about the “how and when’s” of strategy in a street fight.
Through chapter eight, “Variation of Tactics”, Sun Tzu shows how one must choose targets intelligently. Not only that of our opponents (i.e. what target is the most vulnerable to strike), but also by paying attention to our own targets. As he writes, “The art of war teaches us to rely not on the likelihood of the enemy’s not coming, but on our own readiness to receive him”. Variation also lies in confusing our opponent’s defense. Although in the beginning of a student’s path in JKD, I advise him or her to really “master” a few key moves, I also encourage variation as they mature. For example, if a student perfects using the eye jab to intercept an attacker, that is excellent. However, they should also have other tools in their arsenal such as groin kicks, thigh kicks, oblique kicks, low line punches, toe jabs, jeet tecs, and other tools for intercepting. This in turn does two things. First, it gives them tools with which to deal with different attackers: tall, short, fast, slow, and skilled. Bruce, upon arrival in America realized his 5’6″, 125 lbs. frame was actually below average in comparison to most American men. Hence, variation was a necessity, not a luxury. Secondly, variation helps one keep their opponents always guessing. Many skilled fighters, only after a 90 second sparring session will be able to pick out your strong and weak points, if you only have a limited amount of tools. A variation will keep him or her honest, always guessing which tool is coming at them next.
Tzu’s ninth chapter should be closer to the beginning, in my opinion. It is titled “The Army on the March”. Trying to relate this chapter to JKD concepts, at first, seemed like a difficult task. However, upon further exploration, one can see that this chapter has to do with the preface of a fight. Lee identified the first stage of a fight as an assessment of your opponent(s), many times referred to as the probing stage. What is their general style, natural attributes, weak point, etc? Although we observe a lot of physical dispositions, practitioners must also use their intuition about their opponents’ emotional dispositions and other mental elements. I could literally examine every line out of this chapter and make some abstract generalization about “reading your opponent”. However, I believe that the point is to assess all dispositions of the opponent, to create the most efficient line of attack, or the best way to settle the dispute. If the opponent seems anxious, timid, or humble, what may this mean? How can these emotions that he is expressing help me achieve my desired outcome? Although I have a Master’s Degree in Psychology, pure education does not paint the total picture of what to do in every situation. However, experience in sparring with many people will help anyone to read people more effectively, and exercise their own intuition.
“The natural formation of the county is the soldier’s best ally; but a power of estimating the adversary, of controlling the forces of victory, and of shrewdly calculating difficulties, dangers, and distance, constitutes the test of a great general”. Tzu exclaims. “He who knows these things, and in fighting puts his knowledge into practice, will win his battles.” I believe these are the most important lines from the next chapter, “Terrain”. Even Webster’s Dictionary states that terrain has mostly to do with the ground. Tzu’s use of this word actually is broader though. From this chapter a self-defense student or instructor not only gets a sense of the variable of the physical environment, but also the environment they create from their decisions. The physical environment is self-explanatory. In street fighting, one has to train in and on everything. Small environments, large ones, others filled with obstacles, wet ones, on a beach, in a parking lot, or outside in a Chicago winter. Tzu also hints on the environments one creates by their decisions. Once again, this is such a broad area. Just realize that how, when, where, and who you fight will create a certain environment. Flight time will give one experience in this area, just expose yourself to lots of it!
The eleventh chapter is titled, “The Nine Situations”. This chapter, being the longest chapter, explains the nine types of “ground”. Tzu explains that there is everything from facile ground, to open ground, to ground of intersecting highways. The talk of all this ground could keep a Brazilian Jui-Jitsu man busy for days. In all seriousness the descriptions of “ground” could represent the different places a street fight could happen. However, I also pulled two major lines from this chapter. The first is, “Rapidity is the essence of war. Take advantage of the enemy’s lack of preparation, make your way by unexpected routes, and attack unguarded spots”. Later he also states, “By altering his arrangements and changing his plans, the skillful general keeps the enemy without definite knowledge”. Both of these passages relate directly to adapting, one word that Bruce definitely thought was important. Lee realized that a true practitioner must be able to adapt to any range, use of any weapon, or other situation (i.e. mass attack). Do these in a rapid way, and alter your plans through smooth transitions, and one will be a superior fighter.
“Attack by Fire”, chapter 12, explains how the use of fire in warfare is almost a “secret weapon”. The talk of flames depicts an almost “killer instinct” mindset or approach to warfare. Although the chapter tells of positioning and other “fire use” details, I can make some strong correlations to the JKD man’s use of his mind in an altercation. Although the “being savvy attitude” of say, “killer instincts” (extreme focused intensity) may be used in only 10% of a fight, they should definitely be at one’s disposal. Tzu writes, “In order to carry out an attack with fire, we must have means available”. The same holds true with “killer instincts”. Practitioners must have them always nearby, and be able to turn them on, like switching on a light, as Bruce would explain. Killer instincts and a savvy attitude are the edge– the fire.
The book concludes with a chapter on “The Use of Spies”. Funny enough, this was the actual origin of JKD. No, Lee was not a spy, per se. However, this chapter does shed light on not only the ironic beginning of JKD, but also the continued evolution. Tzu explains, “What enables the wise sovereign and the good general to strike and conquer, and achieve things beyond the reach of ordinary men, is foreknowledge.” Therefore, we do not necessarily see that Bruce Lee spied on other philosophies or even arts. More so, he learned from them. Similar to Webster’s Dictionary, which partly defines “spies” as “keeping a close watch”. Many of today’s leading instructors of JKD have continued to evolve JKD, something Bruce saw as a necessity. Now a days, by encompassing the arts as Kali, Brazilian Jui-Jitsu, and Kina Mutai (biting, eye gouging, etc.), JKD has continued to stay on the cutting edge. Where are JKD or “non-JKD” practitioners who do not continue to evolve? The exact place Lee did not want a person to be: behind the times, not evolved, not searching for the truth. Our spies, as Tzu might say, are the use of our minds. They give us the capability to dissect, assess, learn, and finally adapt. This is how one achieves great results, and this is what has created JKD into the great philosophy it is today. That is the ultimate asset: adapting to even future methods of fighting.
The Art of War, shows itself to not only be timeless, but also very useful in many facets of a person’s life. This writing shows how the essentials over 2500 years ago, are still the essentials today, as practitioners have entered a new millennium. That is possibly one of the most beautiful things about this book, the timelessness of the essentials. Therefore, use this reading to add a new perspective to training, make some new distinctions, or just refresh one’s memory on some important concepts. Fighting is truly an art to the intelligent person who uses their mind. For those who neglect the art of war, will find themselves bogged with defeats and confused by their ignorance. All martial artists have so much more to learn, if they simply learn to evolve, and keep growing. The art of war is a process not a product, much like Bruce Lee’s JKD philosophy. As I glance through the ideas in this book, I cannot help but to think that Bruce Lee and Sun Tzu would definitely have some interesting conversations with each other.