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Bruce Lee and Bujinkan?

April 7, 2011

Over the last 30 years, there has been a rampant misrepresentation of Bruce Lee’s art. A lot of the philosophical notes published in the Tao (of Jeet Kune Do) have been taken out of context and twisted to serve a purpose for which they were never meant. Phrases like “using no way as way,” “circle with no circumference,” “the best form is no form,” and “learning gained is learning lost” have been used as justification for haphazardly throwing any technique from any other art and mislabeling it as JKD. – Teri Tom, Jeet Kune Do – The Arsenal of Self-Expression, Tuttle Publishing, 2009

You wouldn’t have guessed from my posts on this blog, but I am actually quite an avid reader. I enjoy reading books a lot. And so when I saw in the local library Teri Tom’s book on Jeet Kune Do, I grabbed it. Immediately.

It immediately brought me back to my teenage days when my only exposure to Jeet Kune Do was the Bruce Lee Fighting Methods book series. I would pore over those books and try to translate those words into actual movement. As you can guess, it didn’t work out very well!

What I find really ironic, however, is how Jeet Kune Do is suffering from the same malaise the Bujinkan is afflicted with – teachers who:

  1. teach as Jeet Kune Do techniques that are not from Jeet Kune Do;
  2. De-emphasize or even teach against getting a technique according to the form discovered and taught by Bruce Lee.

The fact is, Bruce Lee himself gave room for all these misinterpretations when he spoke against what he saw as the classical mess (form for the sake of form and piling up hordes and hordes of techniques in a heap). And he spoke against them using concepts from Zen Buddhism, such as ‘learning gained is learning lost”. To the superficial, these words gave them permission to take liberties with Bruce Lee’s art.

And that means that people who seek to learn Jeet Kune Do these days need to be very careful with the teachers they choose to follow!

As I said earlier, the Bujinkan seems to be afflicted with the same malaise. Hatsumi Soke himself has spoken against form for form’s sake, and because he tolerates variations in form, many people have taken this to mean that form is not important in the Bujinkan.

In the midst of all this there are the various Japanese Shihan teaching the correct form, because they see the non-Japanese practitioners with many problems in their form. However, because of the anti-form culture that has developed, we end up with a pearls-before-swine situation. The Shihan are openly teaching the ‘secrets’ to effective taijutsu, and yet many do not see the answers right before their eyes. And wonder why they do not seem to improve or get results with their taijutsu.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that I have THE correct form for my taijutsu techniques. I’m sure there are important areas I am missing out, and it’s my responsibility to continue to seek improvement in my understanding and ability in the basics.

Other practitioners may have a different form from me, and I can respect that. For example, some time back I met someone who had been practicing ever since 1985. That’s a very long time, and he has the skill to prove it! He believes that the first move of the Sanshin Chi no Kata is supposed to be a block, like the rest of the Sanshin. I don’t think so, because my Shidoshi taught me to use a Shoshin no Kamae as my first move and he emphasized that it’s NOT a block.

When such things happen, I’m not going to get all huffy and say I’m correct and he is wrong. Frankly, from the big picture, the Bujinkan won’t break down and collapse because some people do Chi no Kata one way and some do it another. But when you seek to learn from a particular teacher, you can really learn fully all he or she has to teach you if you are willing to adopt this teacher’s form, at least for a while. And if this teacher is a skilled practitioner as well as a teacher, he will have reasons for adopting the form he has chosen.

Bruce Lee’s words here are especially applicable in this context.

“People often mistakenly [believe] that JKD is against form… One thing we must understand: that is, there is always a most efficient and alive many to carry out a movement (and that the basic laws of leverage, body position, balance, footwork and so forth, are not to be violated)… Aside from the above mentioned, one must also distinguish between the subtlety between ‘having no form’ and ‘having no-form’. The first is ignorance, the second transcendence.” Bruce Lee, Bruce Lee: Artist of Life, Tuttle Publishing 1999.

Bruce Lee has also said:

“The chief consideration in developing form is to make sure that no fundamental, mechanical principles are violated” – Bruce Lee, Tao of Jeet Kune Do.

And that is something I watch out for not only in my own form but also in the form I teach my students. If they ask me to teach them, then I have the responsibility to ensure their form is correct, not only according to what makes the technique effective, but also allows them to preserve their health and mobility after 10, 15 or even 20 years in the art.

Not only that, I also tend to teach the version of the forms that my Shidoshi taught me years back because they used certain principles that kept coming out over and over in other Bujinkan techniques. When that happens, it makes it easier for students to learn and retain such forms, because they have seen and used the same forms before.

But whether you learn from me or from another Bujinkan instructor, I hope that you would remember the importance of form when you are just starting out in your budo journey. Don’t get too confused about the different forms of the same techniques, but make sure you learn and learn well the details of the forms your teacher teaches you.
Most importantly, don’t let people confuse you into thinking that the details of the form are not important. They are!


Related posts:

Why Train Kamae?

Wrenching Wrists? Defending Drills

My Teaching Philosophy


From → bujinkan

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