Wednesday, May 25, 2011

No Way and Empty Hand

I was reading a blog entry just now on Bruce Lee and the writer was being very verbose, and I think what they were trying to say was that studying Bruce was difficult because there is a separation of the man into separate and dissimilar fields of discourse: Bruce the actor, Bruce the philosopher and Bruce the fighter. The writer poses the interesting question:

In short, a question rarely posed by those who would discuss Bruce Lee’s ‘philosophy’ is that of whether it was a ‘philosophy’ or an ‘ideology’: a retroactive justification.

To me, this is a question that I've thought of many times. How many people actually come to a clear and internally consistent worldview? Did Bruce really have it down pat or was he just muddling through like the rest of us? Did the cohesiveness of what he thought exist when he was alive and dealing with real problems in the real world, or did it come afterwards when people looked at what he was and tried to make sense of it?

Then, if we are to consider philosophy as liberation and ideology as subjugation, the former as encouraging thought and the latter as demanding obedience, doesn't a philosophy too define itself by means of exclusion? That is, what makes a philosophy special, even though it deals in the realm of thought, is what it gets right that others get wrong? Doesn't philosophy also become too restrictive a word for a living breathing person forced to adapt to an unforgiving and unpredictable world?

To my mind, to know the philosophy of Bruce Lee, someone would have to know what he'd say to any question that was ever posed him. You'd have to know his mind perfectly to say that there was a philosophy of the man. Who'll ever know me that well? Hell, I don't even know me that well! I wouldn't imagine that I'd answer a question the same way now that I would ten years from now, or ten years ago for that matter.

The best and longest and most helpful compilations of wisdom ever written, from every discipline and every culture, are united in one quality: their capacity for self-contradiction. The Bible, the Hagakure, the Art of War - each of them at one point say one thing and then later say the exact opposite. Men are no different. We contradict ourselves all the time to roll with life's punches. To try and find some unifying cohesion afterwards can quickly lead to folly. We seek to simplify and distill, to improve our understanding, but we'd do well to remember that great saying from Einstein that things must be made as simple as possible but not simpler. Simplifying things too much - Relativity, violence, Karate, Bruce Lee - robs that thing's essence entirely, leaving you feeling like you know when you profoundly don't.

Some simplifications are helpful and some aren't. Equivocation, yes. False, no. Sign of an open mind...perhaps? One particularly unhelpful simplification with regards to Bruce, at least as far as I've read of the man, is this idea that a good martial artist dabbles. A good martial artist tastes different meals and then takes the best ingredient from each and puts it on their plate. Use what is useful and discard what is useless and make something uniquely your own.

It's a compelling argument. But even Bruce himself addressed it's main flaw. How does someone judge what is useful? How do you gain the insight and critical eye necessary to deem something worth discarding? Someone jumping from Tai Chi to Muay Thai to Judo to Brazilian Jujitsu to Kali to Karate to Wing Chun and imagining themselves becoming comprehensive in the fighting disciplines may well gain a great many insights into the methods of fighting. But how are they to judge which methods to take and which to lose?

This task is accomplished not through experience with many fighting disciplines per se, but through Experience, period. It is not acquired from a martial art or many martial arts but rather, by a martial artist. That is to say, all the techniques of many styles or one style for that matter won't give it to you. You have to get it for yourself. You teach yourself what is useful by usage. But you don't have to go to 20 different dojos to learn. So long as you leave no stone unturned and keep your mind open, a true martial artist can be made from one style or many. You just need to be honest in your preparations.

In this I feel that what Bruce was trying to say has become a simplistic appeal to superficial dabbling into different arts. "Using no way as way" has been taken to mean, "Don't stay!" Don't stay in a discipline, don't examine it, don't seek to become part of that heritage. When really what he means is, "You study Karate and know all the reasons why you shouldn't grab someone's legs...but his legs are where he's most vulnerable...Grab his legs!" Don't confuse what is right in a style with what is right in a fight. The style should reinforce your freedom to act, not restrict it.