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Front Page



Who is Bruce Lee?


He is considered by his peers to be the greatest fighter of the twentieth century, and quite possibly ever. To the world he was an action movie star. To his students and disciples he was a teacher who was gifted with an extraordinary philosophical mind that he brought to bear, not only in his martial arts training, but also in his life and how he lived it.

Bruce Lee was born in San Francisco in 1940, in the Chinese year of the dragon. His father was a Chinese actor touring with the Canton Opera. As a child growing up in Hong Kong, Bruce was exposed to Tai Chi Chuan by his father, who practiced it for his health. Though he learned very little fighting skills from his father, this was the first exposure Bruce Lee had to Taoist concepts.

By his teenage years Lee had begun to get in trouble. The streets of post-war Hong Kong were rough filled with gangs and violence. Triads were a constant threat. After several serious incidents, Lee's parents agreed to enroll him in gung fu classes.

At the age of thirteen Lee was accepted into the kwoon (training hall) of renowned Sifu Yip Man, the head of the Wing Chun school. Under Yip Man's tutelage, he began to study the Wing Chun style of fighting as well as the philosophical underpinnings, which Yip Man greatly stressed.

Wrote Lee's widow, Linda: "If there is anything that Yip Man gave to Bruce which may have crystallized Bruce's direction in life, it was to interest his student in the philosophical teachings of Buddha, Confucius, Lao Tzu, and other great thinkers and philosophers. As a result, Bruce's mind became the distillation of the wisdom of such teachers, specifically, but not exclusively, the deep teachings of the yin/yang principle."

Coming to America


At the age of eighteen, Lee's parents sent him to America to get him away from the gangs and violence of Hong Kong. Lee settled in Seattle and stayed with family friend Ruby Chow, who owned a restaurant. They often clashed, as Lee refused to show Chow the elder piety that she felt was due her under Confucian tradition. While working at her restaurant he attended Edison technical School and earned his high school diploma.

He quickly developed a reputation for his gung fu skills and soon had many people wanting to study under the gifted nineteen year-old. One of those people, Taky Kimura, a thirty-eight year-old Japanese-American, had been in the United States internment camp during World War II, and suffered difficulty in getting a decent job afterward, under the shadow of post-war anti-Japanese sentiment. Demoralized, Kimura was seeking something to give him back his self-confidence. He found that in the young Bruce Lee, who became his mentor, spiritual guide, and best friend.

Lee went on to the University of Washington at Seattle where he majored in philosophy. His grasp of Eastern concepts was so profound that he became in great demand as a lecturer on Eastern philosophy.

Lee had avoided setting up a school of gung fu in Seattle because he wanted to focus on his education. But, not liking the jobs he had to do to support himself, he finally opened one near the university in late 1963. As he had never achieved instructor rank in Wing Chun gung fu, he christened his school the Jun Fan Gung Fu Institute, after his Chinese name.

Bruce Lee was already beginning to feel discontent with "styles" of fighting. On the separation between hard and soft styles of gung fu schools he said: "It's an illusion. You see, in reality gentleness/firmness is one inseparable force of one unceasing interplay of movement. We hear a lot of teachers claiming their styles are either soft or hard; these people are clinging blindly to one partial view of the totality. I was once asked by a so-called 'kung fu master'-one of those that really looked the part with the beard and all-as to what I thought of Yin and Yang? I simply answered, 'Baloney!' Of course, he was quite shocked at my answer and could not come to the realization that 'it' is never two." Lee understood the false division that so often traps students of Taoism, the false division in recognizing Yin and Yang as opposites, and not as complements.

Lee quit the university and married Linda Emery. After the wedding, the two moved to California, where Lee opened another school. Within a short time Lee had caught the attention of San Francisco's Chinatown. They were upset by Lee's practice of teaching the arts to non-Chinese. For his part, Lee believed that all humanity was a totality, and did not make the distinction between races. "Under the sky, under the heavens, there is but one family."

One day a group of Chinatown Kung Fu men appeared at Lee's kwoon demanding that he stop teaching the "gwei-lo" or foreign devils at once or he would have to fight their top fighter, Wong Jack Man. Thinking him a paper tiger, they were startled when he accepted. When they tried to impose rules and a date for the fight Lee became angry, saying the fight would take place immediately and without rules. His opponent had no choice but to agree.

Lee and Wong Jack Man then formally bowed and began to fight. Lee fought in strict Wing Chun style and, combined with Wong Jack Man's own style, the two seemed to cancel each other out. After three minutes, Lee finally managed to put Wong Jack Man on the floor and forced him to submit.

Though Lee's victory ended his problems with the Chinatown community, he was very unhappy with how the fight went. He found that his style of fighting had held him back; a fight he should have won easily in a few seconds took three minutes and a narrow victory. He realized that he must continue to evolve. The idea of styles of fighting had come into conflict with his Taoist beliefs that the way of fighting is formless and all-encompassing, and that styles separate the fighter from the truth.

Jeet Kune Do

It was at this point that Bruce's expression of martial arts and philosophy, Jeet Kune Do, was born. Its chief principle of "having no way as way" borrowed heavily from Lao Tzu, "This is called shape without shape, form without object."

Soon Bruce began to study other styles; he adopted footwork from fencing and some hand strikes from western boxing, to name a few. His philosophy was to "absorb what is useful, discard what is useless, and add what is essentially one's own." By November 1966 Bruce had a clear idea of his new vision for fighting. In 1967 he coined the name Jeet Kune Do to represent his personal expression of the martial arts. He then designed a symbol for Jeet Kune Do that consisted of the Tai Chi symbol with two arrows around it moving in opposite directions. This implied the constant interchange between yin and yang. Within a few years he was the top martial artist in the world, attracting as students top fighters such as Chuck Norris and Joe Lewis; and such celebrity students as Steve McQueen, James Coburn, Blake Edwards and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Bruce was trying to instill in his students the natural spontaneity of combat, to reach a point where the action becomes thoughtless, where there is no separation between the fighter and the fight. Lee believed that all knowledge led to self-knowledge, and that he could not teach his students so much as point them in the direction of knowledge. "I cannot teach you, " Bruce mused to James Franciscus in the television series Longstreet, "only help you to explore yourself."

Bruce did not believe in learning by accumulation, but instead believed that the highest form of mastery was one of simplicity, of "stripping away the inessentials", much like Lao Tzu believed in the need to disband all schools of formal learning. Indeed, Bruce disbanded his own school system shortly before his death, lest his way be taken as "the Way".

Soon after Lee got his own break in Hollywood as Kato on the Green Hornet series. It earned him great popularity but folded after only one season.

An offer by Raymond Chow's Golden Harvest Studio in Hong Kong brought Lee back to Asia to make the movie the Big Boss. When the movie came out, Lee became an overnight sensation throughout Asia. Two more films followed: Fists of Fury and Way of the Dragon. In the movie Way of the Dragon, Lee demonstrates the Taoist principle of adaptability in his climactic fight scene with Chuck Norris. Having fought to a virtual standstill, Lee begins to adapt his fighting method from one of rigidity to one of pliancy, and emerges the victor.

His fourth picture was intended to further expound upon the theory of flexibility as a means of survival. Entitled Game of Death, the movie, as conceived by Bruce Lee, would have begun like this: "As the film opens we see a wide expanse of snow. Then the camera closes in on a clump of trees while the sounds of a strong gale fill the screen. There is a huge tree in the center of the screen, and it is all covered with thick snow. Suddenly there is a loud snap, and a huge branch of the tree falls to the ground. It cannot yield to the force of the snow so it breaks. Then the camera moves to a willow tree which bending with the wind. Because it adapts to the environment, the willow survives. What I want to say is that a man has to be flexible and adaptable, other wise he will be destroyed." Though the movie was begun, Lee never finished it, and the Game of Death that reached theaters bore little resemblance to Lee's original vision.

In 1972 Warner Brothers approached Lee to make a movie for American audiences. In the movie, Enter the Dragon, Lee tried to express some of his philosophy. In an early scene in the film he discusses a sparring match with an old Taoist priest. When the priest asks Lee what he thought of his opponent when he was facing him, Lee replies, "There is no opponent. Because the word 'I' does not exist." The priest is very pleased by his answer. This scene was cut out of the American version because the producers thought American audiences would be turned off by all the philosophy mumbo jumbo.

Through it all he was still teacher and guide to his friends. At the time he was filming Enter the Dragon, Bruce's friend Taky Kimura called him from the United States with a personal crisis: Kimura's marriage was falling apart and he was despondent and suicidal. "I lost two brothers a month apart and then my wife left me," said Kimura.

Bruce told him, "Taky, I haven't met your wife but I've counseled you before. You must do everything in your power to solve the thing but, at some point in time, you may just have to walk on." Bruce was saying that if nature dictated that the marriage was over, going against it would only bring further unhappiness. Bruce was expressing the Taoist philosophy of wu-wei, or following the course of nature without resisting it. "Walk on," he would tell Kimura, "walk on."

"Life is an ever-flowing process and somewhere on the path some unpleasant things will pop up-it might leave a scar-but then life is flowing on, and like running water, when it stops, it grows stale. Go bravely on, my friend, because each experience teaches us a lesson."

On July 20, 1973, Bruce Lee died of a cerebral edema, three weeks before the opening of Enter the Dragon, three weeks before he would gain worldwide fame.

Lee was buried at Lakeview Cemetery in Seattle, Washington. The casket was covered in white, red, and yellow flowers making up the yin/yang symbol. The pallbearers were Steve McQueen, James Coburn, Bruce's brother Robert, and Bruce's top student, Dan Inosanto. At the graveside James Coburn had the last words: Farewell, brother. It has been an honor to share this space with you. As a friend and a teacher, you have given to me, have brought my physical, spiritual, and psychological selves together. Thank you. May peace be with you."

On his tombstone was engraved the message: "Your inspiration continues to guide us toward our personal liberation." His gravesite has been faithfully cared for by his friend and student Taky Kimura for the past twenty-five years.