Bruce Lee’s Art Of War
Recently there was a new documentary on ESPN on Bruce Lee called “Be Water”. It is a great show on the life of quite possibly the most influential martial artist of the last 100 years. Everyone from movie action starts to MMA Champions credit Lee’s teachings of his art of Jeet Kune Do and philosophical writings to their success.
The following gives proof that the common sense, yet unique skills of combat, did not originate with Bruce Lee (although he did better equate them to self-defense), as great combat skills have been around for a long time. In the following paragraphs, one will see that Bruce’s self-defense applications run directly in line with one of the originators of ground breaking combat strategy: Sun Tzu. Many readers find this apparent upon comparing Tzu’s most popular writings: The Art of War to modern day combat legend Bruce Lee and his style or “art of war” of Jeet Kune Do. Realize the evidence of the information written in this book, which was alive over two and a half centuries ago.
One book that certainly catches the attention of many self-defense practitioners is 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. It is 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.
The book is divided up into 13 short chapters. Depending on what version one is reading, 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 Bruce Lee’s view of a fight). Although other authors have given much more lengthy and in-depth insight, I suggest Clavell’s because it offers the raw text, giving the reader the responsibility to ponder over Tzu’s views. After this more simplistic version, then one can review other more in depth interpretations.
The following will offer some insight from a follower of Bruce Lee’s viewpoint, as to the similarities between this book and his art of JKD. I’ll even compare Sun Tzu’s lessons to that of a “JKD Man”, which is a person who studies and uses Bruce Lee’s teachings. Once again, 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. Therefore, the following will compare the two philosophies, and can help you increase your combative and defensive mindset, tactics and training.
For example, the first chapter is titled “Laying Plans”. The idea of a plan to a “JKD man” (once again, person who follows Bruce Lee’s teachings), is an extreme necessity in every range (Area) of combat. The game plan once again is to inflict pain, enter in, and follow up in trapping (Close Quarter) 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). All of the techniques in the world will not do one any good, if one does not lay the plans.
The second chapter is named, “Waging War”. In other words, pick your altercations wisely. Not only should one “fight” for the right (ethical) reasons, but 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.” The JKD man must realize that it is either 100% or nothing. Even Bruce 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? If an opponent wants to call another names, he can do it from a farther, safer distance. 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 one person calling another a name, worth him spending two nights in the hospital, and legalities on a JKD Man’s 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”, relates 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 man 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”? As JKD practitioner, one knows by doing. 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 always states, “You have to put in the flight time”.
“Energy”, the fifth chapter, might bring to a JKD Man’s mind certain “energy drills” where the practitioner reacts based off of the energy, response or attack of their opponent. Although there can be some associations made with these energy drills, it is seen 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”, a JKD practitioner finds out quickly, that there are different lines of attacking. The use of these Progressive Indirect Attacks (P.I.A.’s), 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 a JKD fighter. It is this energy that develops good fighters, “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 adaptation 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. Tzu concludes the chapter by writing, “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 modifying emotionally. If one keeps the same physical and emotional dispositions in trapping range as in ground fighting one will get beat thoroughly. One must change, to meet the combative challenge of the moment. Even ask those who are closed minded to JKD if they would use the same tools in grappling as they would in weapons fighting. Or would they use the same mind set in a mass attack, as they would use in a ground fight. Simply put, if one can modify (adapt), one has a major strong point. If not, then one has 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 JKD 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, always teach students that the easiest way not to get hit is to simply not be where your opponent is punching, kicking, or attacking. This truly takes the ability to maneuver quickly and intelligently. Therefore, JKD 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 give 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.
Through chapter eight, “Variation of Tactics”, Sun Tzu shows how one must choose targets intelligently. Not only that of one’s opponents (i.e. what target is the most vulnerable to strike), but also by paying attention to one’s 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 the opponent’s defense. Although in the beginning of a student’s path in JKD, most instructors advise him or her to really “master” a few key moves, most also encourage variation as they mature. For example, if a student perfects using the eye jab to intercept, 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, and other tools for interceptions. This in turn does two things. First, it gives them tools to deal with different attackers: tall, short, fast, slow, and skilled. I being 5’8”, may find that eye jabbing one of his students who is 6’8” difficult. As a result a low line interception may work more effectively. Secondly, variation helps one keep their opponents always guessing. Many skilled fighters, only after a 30 second sparring session will be able to pick out your strong points, if one only has 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, according to the author. It is titled “The Army on the March”. Trying to relate this chapter to JKD concepts at first seems like a difficult task. However, upon further exploration, one can see that this chapter has to do with the preface of a fight. The first stage of a fight is usually an assessment of one’s opponent(s), many times referred to as the probing stage. What is their general style, natural attributes, weak points, etc? Although one observes a lot of physical dispositions, JKD practitioners must also use their intuition about their opponents’ emotional dispositions and other mental elements. A psychologist could literally examine every line out of this chapter and make some abstract generalization about “reading our opponent”. However, 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 one achieve my desired outcome? The most important thing is to read past the obvious expressions. As one of my instructors always would say, “most people have a shotgun mouth, and a BB gun ass…” Therefore, pay attention to it all.
“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.” These sound like the most important lines from the next chapter, “Terrain”. Webster’s Dictionary states that “terrain” has mostly to do with the ground. Tzu’s use of this word actually is broader. From this chapter, a self-defense student or instructor not only gets a sense of another important 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 hits on environments one creates by their decisions. Once again, this is such a broad area. Just realize that how, when, where, and who one fight will create a certain environment. Flight time will give one experience in this area, just get a lot 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 Jiu Jitsu man busy for decades. In all seriousness, this could relate to the environment, as to the different places a street fight could happen. However, two major lines from this chapter also stick out. The first is, “Rapidity is the essence of war. Take advantage of the enemy’s unreadiness, make 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 adaptation, one word that Bruce definitely thought was important. A JKD Man must be able to adapt to any range, use of any weapon, or any other situation (i.e. mass attack). Do these in a rapid way, and alter one’s plans through smooth transitions, and one will be a superior fighter.
“Attack by Fire”, chapter twelve, explains how the use of fire in warfare is almost a “secret weapon”. The talk of flames depicts an almost “killer instinct” tool or approach to warfare. Although the chapter tells of positioning and other “fire use” details, one 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” 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…”. This is also true with “killer instincts”. One must have them always nearby, and be able to turn them on, like switching on a light. As the fighter releases the “fire” (animalistic fighting), there is little that an opponent can do to stop it. The same holds true when a JKD Man is determined to win, succeed, and survive. 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, JKD practitioners do not necessarily see that we have or do spy on other philosophies or even arts. More so, we learn from them. Webster’s Dictionary, partly defines “spies” as “keeping a close watch”. Imagine if JKD never learned anything from Kali, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, or Kino Mutai. (Unfortunately, some JKD practitioners still have not learned). Where would JKD practitioners be? They would be in the exact place that Lee did not want them to be: behind the times, not evolved, not searching for the truth. Spies, as Tzu might say, are someone who uses their minds. They give one 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 life. This writing shows how the essentials over 2500 years ago, are still the essentials today, as JKD practitioners continue through the new millennium. That is possibly one of the most beautiful things about The Art of War, 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, they may find themselves bogged with defeats and confused by their ignorance. Everyone still has so much more to learn, for the art of war is a process not a product. As the author glances through the ideas in this book, he cannot help but to think that Bruce Lee and Sun Tzu would definitely have some interesting conversations with each other.