#122 On Zen


Bruce Lee’s The Tao of Jeet Kune Do was published posthumously in 1975 and the very first section is titled “On Zen.” While the Tao of Jeet Kune Do is an instructional book, it is not structured that way as it begins and ends with sections on philosophy.

This chapter “On Zen” was made the first section of the Tao because it is supposed to orient the practitioner to this mindset and also to infuse the practitioner with the importance of the philosophical approach to the art and not just the physical. This chapter orients the reader into having the right intention going into this practice. Like how the Be Water quote begins with “Empty your mind,” the chapter “On Zen” orients the reader in a similar way.

Zen has become slang for feeling peaceful and relaxed, or anything with an Asian aesthetic. In modern culture, zen has developed an insubstantial meaning. However, zen is a very substantial practice. For the Japanese Buddhist monks who practice zazen, which is the practice of sitting meditation, zen is a very deep and meaningful practice.

From ZenStudies.org:

“Zen is both something we are—our true nature expressing itself moment by moment—and something we do—a disciplined practice through which we can realize the joy of being.”

Bruce Lee wrote a lot about the Tao, which is the source energy. Zen is embodiment of source energy from moment to moment and a practice to connect to that source energy.

From ZenStudies.org:

“So, what is Zen? Stop trying to get an intellectual lock on something that is vast and boundless, far more than the rational mind can grasp. Just breathe in with full awareness.”

This concept aligns with Bruce Lee’s concept of the non-grasping mind, where we have to be in the experience instead of trying to hold onto the experience.

In Bruce Lee’s art, it was very important to him that the individual preparing to engage in it to have the preparation, the stance and the orientation. Not just the physical techniques, but also the mind had to be correctly situated for the experience. A lot of what Bruce Lee talks about in gaining proficiency and fluidity in martial art is about having a fluid mental state, to be able to express oneself moment to moment and never getting stopped up mentally. It is when your mind get stuck or knocked off its axis in a fight that panic and chaos sets in. It was important to Bruce Lee, in terms of the proficiency of the individual, to practice not only physical techniques but also this mental state of hyper-presence. In this way you could be a fighter and not get knocked off your mental axis.

It is unusual that a Chinese martial artist like Bruce Lee would include a Japanese concept like zen in his martial arts approach, but it speaks to Bruce Lee’s unifying nature that he did so. He would pick philosophies that worked for him from many different types of cultures, Eastern and Western. Bruce Lee’s approach to life and his art speaks to people globally and this is in part due to his willingness to draw on many kinds of philosophies. Zen contributes to a unifying energy that Bruce cultivated. Bruce wanted to take the ideas and philosophies that helped him and share them with everyone.

“The oneness of all life is a truth that can be fully realized only when false notions of a separate self, whose destiny can be considered apart from the whole, are forever annihilated.” – Bruce Lee

Even in combat, it is not one versus the other, it is together we have the oneness of interrelating, expansion, contraction. The idea of zen was very important Bruce Lee who was able in his art to achieve this oneness state of being in his martial practice which is what made him exceptional as a martial artist. One of the reasons Bruce Lee was so good at martial arts, that he was so fast, that he was able to predict his opponent’s attacks, is because of this orientation of being in the present moment. Bruce was so in tune with the oneness of the moment, not just his individual experience, he could respond immediately without his movements getting caught by too much thinking.

Bruce Lee was striving to achieve this mindset in life, but likely found it difficult to embody it all of the time due to his newfound fame and the passions of his worldly pursuits. It was definitely a goal of Bruce Lee’s to get to a place of harmony and peacefulness.

“To obtain enlightenment (in martial art) means the extinction of everything which obscures the “true knowledge”, the “real life”. At the same time, it implies boundless expansion and, indeed, emphasis should fall not on the cultivation of the particular department which merges into the totality, but rather on the totality that enters and unites that particular department.” – Bruce Lee

This is Bruce Lee bringing the totality of the Tao into the practice of martial arts instead of sprinkling philosophy over the cultivation of martial arts. Bruce practiced his art diligently and was able to bring the Tao into his practice.

“An assertion is zen only when it is itself an act and does not refer to anything that is asserted in it.” – Bruce Lee

An assertion is only zen only when we are not actually trying to assert or control it, but just being present in the doing of it.

“The great mistake is to anticipate the outcome.” - Bruce Lee

Many times we get stuck because we are so attached to the outcome. This attachment can freeze us into inaction because we are too focused on a desired outcome. This inhibits our flow.

“Give up thinking as though not giving it up. Observe techniques as though not observing.” – Bruce Lee

“Do not run away, let go. Do not seek for it will come when least expected.” – Bruce Lee

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