The Concepts Myth
November 16, 2016
Of all the myths connected to Bruce Lee’s JKD, perhaps the most vexing is this business that it is just some sort of nebulous “concept” and not an actual thing. I say that this is arguably the most damaging of all JKD myths because it originates from within the ranks and acts as a destroyer much like a spy within debilitates an army.
Some of confusion is well understood because it was Bruce Lee himself that spoke of things like, “have no way as way” and so on. But there was no evidence in Lee’s lifetime that he meant such utterings as a denunciation of scientific combat based on true, non-contradictory principles. In fact, almost 20 years ago, John Little wrote an article titled “Is JKD a Science?” where he quite admirably put forth evidence that Lee saw his fighting method as a fighting science and not as some mystical abstraction, or some Zen-like riddle with punches and kicks. To be sure, Lee spoke in philosophical ways and this could be confusing to those not used to it. This isn’t to say that others were stupid, just that there’s different types of intelligence. For example, being a writer, I have a decided affinity for words but suffer greatly from a condition known as “ignoramus mechanicitis.” Once when I was driving my “check engine” light appeared. I promptly pulled over, struggled to find the latch to lift the hood and then, having accomplished that, checked to see if the engine was still there. It was. I closed the hood. My car broke down a week later. I read a book while a mechanic fixed it for me.
Watching Bruce Lee give an interview on the famous “Lost Interview” is great evidence of how incredibly diversified he was. He spoke, often in the same answer, of fighting, art, physiology, and philosophy. It was all so breathtaking and it’s also why he could be misunderstood. That being the case, though, isn’t evidence that he ever, ever thought that JKD wasn’t a combat science that had to be understood and practiced. His demonstration and explanation on the Longstreet episode as well as the Long Beach demos show the same things we see in his Fighting Method series, which are corroborated in the Tao of Jeet Kune Do. But there’s more: compare the footage of Lee teaching James Coburn with Ted Wong and other back yard footage of Lee training and you see an undeniable link. Even the late kickboxing great, Joe Lewis, whom Lee trained privately, received instruction in the same aforementioned methodology.
The notion that JKD is just a concept, therefore, does not stand up against the overwhelming evidence arrayed against it. Even the chief proponent of the concept approach, Dan Inosanto, published a book, JKD, The Art & Philosophy of Bruce Lee, several years after Lee’s death, where the students were seen practicing Wing Chun and boxing dominated drills. There’s even a chapter entitled, Wing Chun: The Nucleus. And the drills you see in that book were quite in line with everything else just mentioned. Ted Wong and Joe Lewis would have fit right in there. No so today.
Well, in my humble opinion, the answer lies in the philosophical confusion stemming from some of Lee’s comments. Again, it’s not that concepts proponents are stupid or evil (it’s not like they’re people who are going to vote for the candidate you hate), it’s just that they’ve taken good derivative concepts like change and adaptability and turned them into ultimate or fundamental concepts. These are likely folks that believe in things like “there’s no such thing as an absolute” and yet miss the fact that they just declared one. I know…I know…it’s easy to get confused with stuff like this. But, in short, the thing to understand as far as fighting goes is that having no way as way is a tactical concept rather than one of principle and/or technique. This makes sense as to how both JKD and Wing Chun can be both simple and conceptually unlimited at the same time. To turn this on its head and say that to be adaptable means one must give up economy of motion, directness, etc., is pure nihilism.
But the concepts crowd speaks an alluring language that can trap many people. And what does it trap them into? Practicing other methods while calling it JKD. To carry on with the contradiction they succeed in never, ever defining exactly what the big concept is. Is it studying other things? Then when Toyota studies Ford it’s doing JKD. Is it always changing and never being “bound” by one method? Then why are concepts schools always practicing the same mix of methods? Is it cross-training? Then MMA is JKD. What’s the unifying concept? You see, that can’t be answered because there isn’t one. And if JKD is everything then it’s nothing. Follow all that? I hope so.
Sifu David Peterson told me a while back that his Sifu, the great Wong Shun Leung, had told him that if Lee had stayed in Hong Kong and finished his Wing Chun training he would have ended up in a particular place of excellence. But Lee didn’t do that. Instead, he left for America and took his own route, which WSL considered a more winding and scenic road, to that same place of excellence. He didn’t imply that Lee had come up empty on his fistic journey. No, he suggested that Lee had taken the core principles of Wing Chun and made them work in a new and dynamic way. JKD wasn’t, therefore, some motley amalgamation of disparate methods. It was and is Bruce Lee Wing Chun just as we talk of Ip Man Wing Chun or Wong Shun Leung Wing Chun. It is an art of concepts but those concepts are Wing Chun concepts that Lee ingeniously extrapolated upon and developed. This, I believe, is the proper context to understand JKD concepts and in doing so we avoid destroying the system from within.
To properly study Jeet Kune Do, therefore, one must study the proper concepts. This is to say that one must learn, practice and understand the core principles, tactics, and training drills of JKD. This is simply not possible if we teach and train other systems and call them JKD under the banner of “change” or some such nonsense. Logically understood, JKD is a unique blend of Driscoll style old-school boxing and Wing Chun. Yes, JKD is a conceptual method – but a rigorously scientific one that requires that students learn the basics and repeat them over and over just like in any valid physical science. This is the true JKD concepts approach – not doing systems that are diametrically opposed to basic JKD principles and calling it JKD anyway.