What’s In A Name The Tao of Jeet Kune

One of the hardest things to understand about Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do is its simplicity. Lee’s ingenious method of self-defense was never designed to be the ultimate martial art, or the best of existing systems – some motley amalgamation of many disparate arts – as some believe. In fact, the truth is much easier to know and is hidden in plain sight; it’s “hidden” in the very name of the method.

As evidenced by the title of the article, I prefer the more Chinese rendering of the name, as Tao of Jeet Kune gives us a less clunky rendering of the way of the intercepting fist. So, when people ask me what JKD is, I bring them to the name of the art to illustrate its foundational purpose. What is that exactly? Simple: to stop an attack.

The word jeet is Cantonese in origin and refers to not just intercepting, but also to stopping, stalking and hunting too. The word kune, sometimes spelled kuen, basically means fist. Tao and the Japanese equivalent Do is way. One manner of looking at the use of the word Tao in this context is to see it as saying that this is a “study of, a path of, an expression of” the intercepting, stalking, hunting, stopping fist. This, in short, gives the student a wonderful insight into the method and goal of JKD.

In real world violence (as opposed to sport combat) the defender has nothing of value to gain from the conflict. It’s the aggressor that is seeking to achieve a value (money, pride, dominance, terror, etc.) through the use of force. The defender already has his/her safety. JKD is built on this simple and often overlooked premise. Thus, being a rational science of self-defense, JKD endeavors to stop or thwart the attack. The best defense, of course, is a good offense and the best offensive tactic is to meet an on-rushing attack with a well-timed counter attack, thus borrowing great force from the attacker. There is tremendous shock value in getting an opponent to literally run into a counter strike. More on this later.

This is exactly the point of Lee’s fighting method. It is to deal with an aggressor’s attack. Most methods have a variety of elaborate defensive moves against attacks. You see them all the time in demonstrations. In JKD, though, the primary “defensive” move is the counter-attack with the lead punch (or lead kick). This is facilitated by the use of scientific footwork designed to rapidly move the JKD fighter just out of range of the incoming attack while leaving the lead hand and foot free to counter-attack. An example of this would be that the defense against a roundhouse swing wouldn’t be to block or engage the incoming punch, but to move out of the way of it. If the punch is particularly telegraphed and the JKD fighter has the timing and speed for it, he might launch an intercepting lead punch or kick straightaway. But whether he does this or not, if the opponent’s strike does indeed launch, the JKD fighter wants to avoid the weapon by the use of footwork and/or evasion. We want to “make ‘em miss and make ‘em pay.” The use of blocking tactics may be necessary in some events but primarily only as an emergency measure since it is always better to out-move an opponent through footwork rather than try and stand still and do specific, highly refined movements while under direct fire.

There are several problems with standing still – or staying in the pocket – to counter attack.

First, as an opponent launches an attack, he might throw a right hand punch from four likely angles – straight, overhand, hooking, in a position where you have to be perfect (in regard to angle and timing) and the enemy, who launched the attack and has the initiative, merely needs to be close. The odds are in his favor.

Secondly, your opponent might be far stronger and/or faster than you presumed. Also, just as bad, he may have an incredible amount of pain tolerance so, perhaps, your counter-attack might very well score but not do enough to damage him. Think seriously about this: if your fight strategy depends upon you instantly damaging your opponent and you fail to achieve this, you’re in grave danger of being overrun.

Using evasive tactics and the strong counters from the lead hand/foot, however, allows the JKD fighter to avoid these problems. No tough guy can do the physically impossible – he can’t hit what’s not there. Bruce Lee taught that there was very little “direct” attack in JKD. What he meant was that attacking is risky – yet, so is staying on the defensive, which gives the enemy multiple opportunities to strike at you. The smart fighter, therefore, uses the counter attack as his “bridge” between offense and defense. Remember, the goal of the JKD fighter is his/her own safety and/or the safety of their family. Any time that one fires a strike of any sort, there is risk of counter-attack – of running into a rejoinder from the enemy. This risk is greatly diminished by seeking to stay behind your defensive structure (on guard position, evasive footwork, head movement and parries) and shooting out strong counters.

An opponent that literally runs into a correctly thrown stop-punch or kick has turned a fair hitter into a good one, a good one into a great one, and a great one into a man-killer. Plus, we’ve all unexpectedly bumped into something in the past; what we ran into wasn’t moving and yet there was great alarm at the sudden impact. The shock of a well-timed counter strike upon the morale of the on-rushing opponent should not be overlooked. When your enemy is fixed upon doing you harm and runs into a stern counter-lead punch, there is great violence done to both his face and his confidence.

There are, naturally, further elements to the study and mastery of Bruce Lee’s intercepting fist way – other tactical and technical considerations. But all of these revolve in orbit around this simple premise. Jeet Kune Do is at heart a study and science of self-defense and a self-defense system endeavors to minimize the risk associated with combat. The best way to do this is to neither fight offensively nor defensively, but to do so counter-offensively. All of the follow-up moves and the like, therefore, are supporting elements to the main players – the on-guard position, the footwork, the primacy of the lead hand and foot, and the attending evasive/covering details.

So, as you can see, Bruce Lee’s JKD isn’t some nebulous, incomprehensible super-system that no one but the founder could perform. It is, rather, a super-simple system based on sound reasoning and logic, performed by the morally upright individual that has trained diligently to make em miss, and make em pay.